Charlie Barnabe enjoyed a reputation as a dependable and consistent hitter in the year and a half he spent with the Chicago White Sox — unfortunately, he was on the roster as a pitcher.
The left-hander made 24 pitching appearances for manager Ray Schalk without earning a single victory, and the lone highlight of his time in the major leagues did not come on the mound but at the plate. On May 1, 1928, he became the sixth American League pitcher to hit a pinch-hit home run, joining the likes of Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson. A month later, he was released by the White Sox; his powerful bat could not overcome a career 5.48 ERA.
Barnabe experienced much greater success in the minor leagues, bouncing around baseball for 16 professional seasons. He won 175 games at various levels, mostly in the Class A Texas League and Southern Association. After retiring at age 38, he made his home in Waco, Texas.
Charles Edward Barnabe was born June 12, 1900, in Russell Gulch, Colorado, a small mining town in the Rocky Mountains, about 45 miles west of Denver. He was the son of Louis Barnabe, an Austrian immigrant who had married Margaret Kotze in her native New Jersey and moved west a few years before Charlie was born. Around 1905, the family resettled near Los Angeles, in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood just a few miles northeast of downtown, where Louis worked as a saloon keeper and later as a blacksmith.
Charlie was the youngest of the Barnabes’ three children. When he was 15, his oldest sister, Delia, married a minor-league ballplayer, Fred McMullin, who had grown up a few blocks away in Lincoln Heights and played for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. McMullin soon went on to greater fame with the Chicago White Sox — and even greater infamy, as one of the eight “Black Sox” players banished for life for throwing the 1919 World Series.
McMullin’s contacts in baseball helped his brother-in-law get his first professional job in 1920. Frank Raymond, manager of the Yakima Indians of the Pacific Coast International League, had been McMullin’s manager with Seattle in the Northwestern League in 1912. Raymond took a flier on the versatile Barnabe and stuck him in the outfield. Barnabe thrived in Washington, hitting .332 in 104 games, good for fourth in the league, and late in the season he and pitcher Ralph Valencia were purchased by the Portland club in the much stronger Pacific Coast League.
In Portland, Barnabe joined a team with future major-leaguers Heinie Manush and Syl Johnson. He did not receive much playing time in the outfield, and only managed four hits in 48 at-bats. Barnabe was also troubled by the news coming from halfway across the country, where Fred McMullin was being indicted by a Chicago grand jury for conspiracy to fix the previous year’s World Series.
That winter, as McMullin was home in Los Angeles awaiting trial, he took a carpenter’s job with the Universal film studio and accepted an invitation to play baseball for the company’s winter league team. Barnabe, who was working at Universal as a machinist, also joined the team. But playing with his brother-in-law was a bittersweet experience for Barnabe, as the disgraced McMullin was forced to resign from the team in January after his presence ruffled too many feathers.
Barnabe was set to return to the Pacific Northwest in 1921, but Portland overhauled its roster in a crisis of management and released him to Regina of the Western Canada League. Instead of joining the Regina team, which ended up folding in mid-August, Barnabe played independent ball around western Canada instead. That fall, the Edmonton Eskimos signed him, along with a half-dozen other players from the Los Angeles area (causing manager Gus Gleichmann, a California native himself, to hold spring training at Maier Field in Vernon, California.) Barnabe was a success in Edmonton, batting .304 as the regular No. 3 hitter in the lineup and turning in one of the top fielding performances among the league’s first basemen.
Barnabe moved up to the Class-B Three-I League with Evansville, Indiana, in 1923. He was brought in to help replace Dick Reichle at first base, but he also played left field and began to pitch regularly for the club, going 9-3 in 15 appearances on the mound. Manager Joe Dunn, short on left-handed pitchers, recognized that Barnabe was “a valuable man to the club” and brought him back in 1924, giving him a spot in the rotation. He responded well, winning 16 games and pitching a career-high 230 innings for Evansville. Barnabe’s hitting was still strong, batting .286 in 192 at-bats, and splitting time in the outfield and at first base.
But as his pitching improved, he spent less and less time at other positions. After spending the winter playing ball back home in Los Angeles — he was the winning pitcher the day the White King Soapsters clinched the championship in the powerhouse California Winter League in February — Barnabe had a breakout year for Evansville in 1925. His 22 wins were second only to Terre Haute’s Jumbo Elliott, who had 25, and his 289 innings pitched led the league. In September, Barnabe was sold to Shreveport (Louisiana) of the Texas League, one of the top minor leagues in the country.
The Shreveport Sports were one of the more talented teams in the Texas League, although their only championship had come in 1919; nearly a dozen of their 1926 players had major league experience or would get some in the future. Many of them, like Barnabe, would wind up in Chicago with the White Sox, who held their spring training in Shreveport in those years. White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey kept a close eye on the minor-leaguers in camp and frequently looked to sign the ones whom he felt could help his own ball club, since he held an option to purchase Shreveport’s players.
On March 13, 1926, the White Sox got their first glimpse of Charlie Barnabe. He was one of four Sports pitchers to shut out the Chicago major-leaguers 2-0 on six hits in an exhibition game in Shreveport. It was a game that would make Barnabe “very well known” to the White Sox.
With that boost of confidence, the 26-year-old Barnabe went about “setting the Texas League on fire.” His 266 innings pitched were fifth in the league, and his 18 wins were sixth. According to International News Service writer George Strickler, “his ability to win in the Texas League is accentuated by the fact that the Lone Star organization has never been restful locality for pitchers.” But in November, while the White Sox thought they were rewarding him by offering him a contract with the major league club, Barnabe turned it down — he claimed that team secretary Harry Grabiner “offered him $1,500 less than he demanded.” He went home to California, played winter league ball in Pasadena, and took his time reporting to spring training in Shreveport before finally signing his contract.
Chicago Tribune writer Westbrook Pegler detailed the “negotiations”:
“Mr. Barnabe comes from Los Angeles and he was so long on the way that Mr. Ray Schalk [the White Sox’s new manager] thought he must be riding the street cars or driving a golf ball. When he did arrive some 36 hours ago, he discovered that … any player not under contract is not allowed to sign tabs for his meals. After Barnabe had been in the hotel 24 hours, starving for a principle, they [manager Ray Schalk and treasurer Louis Barbour] called him in ostensibly to discuss terms, and began to argue about their favorite foods. … ‘For goodness sake, hand me those papers and a fountain pen,’ murmured the faltering ball player, ‘and show me to the dining room. And I hope they have left-handed forks.’ … Barnabe finally accepted the wages offered him and was assisted to the dining room in a weakened condition.”
Three days later, Barnabe made his first appearance for the White Sox, throwing four shutout innings in relief of Homer Blankenship in an exhibition game against his old Shreveport mates. Ray Schalk, a Hall of Fame catcher in his first year as manager, seemed pleased with Barnabe throughout the spring. Schalk was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “We seem about to pick up two dependable left-handers in the new crop, Bert Cole, who is no novice, and Barnabe, a youngster. … I think we have as good pitchers as any club in baseball.”
The White Sox were hoping the pair of rookies would provide them with a reliable left-handed arm, something they hadn’t enjoyed since Dickey Kerr, one of the “clean Sox” who had won two games in the ill-fated 1919 World Series, left the team a few years earlier. Kerr was now with the Texas League’s Fort Worth Cats, and Charlie allowed one run in five innings there in his next spring appearance on March 18.
Barnabe’s hitting was also attracting attention. He singled and scored a run against Fort Worth, then had two hits and scored twice in a 15-5 win at Wichita Falls on March 24. In that game, Barnabe became the first White Sox pitcher to hurl a complete game in camp. He had two more hits, including a double, at Shreveport in his final game before the team headed north.
He made his major-league debut on April 14, 1927. The White Sox had split the first two games of the season at Cleveland, a team they had had success against the last two years, and Barnabe took the mound to face Indians right-hander Benn Karr. His first start, however, would also be his best, the only one in which he lasted past the fifth inning. Barnabe himself gave the White Sox an early lead, by driving in Aaron Ward with a sacrifice fly in the second inning. But he got flustered in the third, allowing the Indians to bat around and score three runs. It was all they needed. The Sox rallied in the ninth, but Schalk sent up pitcher Ted Blankenship to pinch-hit with the tying and go-ahead runs on base. Blankenship struck out to end the game, and Barnabe was tagged with a 3-2 complete-game loss. He allowed seven hits, walked four and struck out one. The Chicago Tribune‘s Edward Burns wrote that Barnabe “would have done quite nicely in his first start if they could have deleted the third inning.”
Barnabe recorded his second loss five days later, in a relief appearance at St. Louis. Already with the worst record on the team, Barnabe did not get another start until May 1. He was yanked in the fifth inning after allowing four runs on six hits against St. Louis, and “proved himself less of a pitcher than a hitter.” But he did get his first major league hit, a two-run double in the second inning off Sam Jones, and watched his teammates win in their final at-bat — a startlingly rare occurrence when Barnabe was in the game. The left-hander seemed to be Chicago’s bad-luck charm: in his 29 career appearances for the White Sox, the team had a 2-27 record in those games.
Barnabe got another start on June 17, but was lifted after giving up four runs in four innings at Philadelphia. He fell to 0-3 with the loss. For the next month, he was relegated to mop-up duties and the White Sox fell well behind the league-leading New York Yankees. His hitting stayed sharp — he doubled and drove in a run in games on June 27 and July 15 — but his pitching was another matter.
On July 26, he escaped a jam in the 10th inning at Washington, but promptly allowed the winning run to score in the 11th to record another loss. Two days later, Schalk gave him another start, against the great Walter Johnson of the Senators. In the Tribune, Edward Burns wrote:
“Walter Johnson, reputed to have won 414 baseball games in the American League in the last 20 years, this afternoon hooked up with a left-handed fellow known as Charles Barnabe, a young man who never has tasted the sweets of victory in a major league contest. After watching them do their stuff in the first two innings, there were many observers willing to wager Mr. Johnson has a better chance to be pitching in the league in 1947 than has Mr. Barnabe to be similarly employed in 1928 and thereafter. … Five [runs] were accumulated from the eight hits made off Charles in his tenancy of one and two-thirds innings. … It was explained that Schalk staged the virtual forfeit because he wants to again get his pitching working in regular order.”
Contrary to Burns’ assessment, Barnabe did return to the White Sox in 1928 despite finishing 0-5 with a 5.31 earned run average in 61 innings pitched. His lowly record didn’t make him a total outcast in the American League: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig invited him to play when their “Bustin’ Babes and Larrupin’ Lous” barnstorming tour hit Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field that winter. Barnabe joined Lefty O’Doul, Charlie Root, Jigger Statz, and Ernie Orsatti in the November exhibition games.
In March, Barnabe returned to Shreveport for spring training — late again, and under a cloud of controversy. Wire reports suggested that he and several other players, including stars Bibb Falk and Johnny Mostil, were dissatisfied with manager Ray Schalk and their tardiness was a show of disrespect. Schalk responded by saying he “couldn’t pack their bags for them and put them on the train.” No reason was given for their displeasure, but Schalk — who had a .449 winning percentage as White Sox manager — was fired midway through the season. Barnabe had other things to worry about; namely, figuring out a way to get American League hitters out.
He never did find the answer. His first 1928 start, on April 19 at Cleveland, lasted just 2.1 innings. Schalk pulled him after he allowed five hits and four runs, and the White Sox went on to lose, 9-2. But Barnabe again showed himself to be adept with the bat, singling in his only at-bat. Since Schalk had little confidence in him on the mound, the manager found another way to use Barnabe: as a pinch-hitter.
On April 27, Barnabe delivered an RBI double off St. Louis’s Sam Gray in the ninth inning, but the White Sox lost, 14-5. The next day, Barnabe was sent up to hit for pitcher Tommy Thomas with two runners on in the eighth inning. His single off the Browns’ Alvin Crowder scored teammate Bill Cissell; two batters later, Barnabe scored on a single by Randy Moore. The White Sox scored five runs in the inning and pulled out a dramatic 9-6 victory.
Those two pinch-hits were only a prelude to his appearance on May 1, late in a lopsided loss to visiting Detroit. The Sox fell behind by 10 runs in the seventh inning, but then showed some signs of life. Bill Cissell singled and Buck Crouse walked, and Barnabe “stepped in and made a hero of himself” after being sent in to hit for pitcher Grady Adkins. Facing Tigers right-hander Hal “Josh” Billings, Barnabe “obliged by poking the ball deep into the right field stands, within a few yards of where [Detroit’s Harry] Rice had spanked one in the third inning. Cissell, Crouse and Mr. Barnabe galloped happily over the plate.” (Chicago Tribune).
Barnabe even stayed in to pitch — for the first time in two weeks — after his fence-clearing blast at Comiskey Park. He only allowed one hit and struck out one over the final two innings, a 10-5 loss to the Tigers. It was his best outing all season. Barnabe’s feat put him in exclusive company, as he joined five other American League pitchers to hit a pinch-hit home run up to that time: Ray Caldwell, Babe Ruth, George Uhle, Joe Bush, and Walter Johnson were the others. Only 15 other AL pitchers hit pinch-hit homers until the designated hitter rule was instituted nearly a half-century later.
But while Barnabe’s batting average was a cool .667 after his greatest day in baseball, his win percentage as a pitcher was still .000. He pinch-hit a few more times and made a few relief appearances in a mop-up role as the White Sox lost a season-high seven consecutive games after May 1.
Schalk gave Barnabe one more chance to make good as a pitcher, in a start at Washington on May 13. But, as esteemed Chicago Tribune writer Irving Vaughan reported, there was no indication things would get better for him on the mound: “If there is anything to the old adage about success crowning effort, Mr. Charley [sic] Barnabe … eventually will achieve his first victory in the American League. The great danger involved is that Charley may grow old and stumble over his own beard before he reaches the coveted goal.” Barnabe did not record an out in the second inning as the slugging Senators scored four runs on six hits. Washington went on to win, 10-3. It was the last time Barnabe would make an appearance for the White Sox. The left-hander sat on the bench for two more weeks as the team looked for a suitor, and he was mercifully optioned to Waco of the Texas League at the end of the month.
Barnabe finished his major-league career with a 0-7 record, one of just a handful of pitchers with that many career losses and no victories. As of 2017, Terry Felton held that inglorious “record” with an 0-16 career mark.
Barnabe only spent four months under manager Del Pratt and the Waco Cubs, but his career and his life changed immeasurably. In baseball, he regained his confidence as a pitcher — a five-hit complete game on June 8 against Fort Worth put him on the path to win 12 games in a half-season in the Texas League. Off the field, he found something more important: his future wife, Waco native Helen Geisler, the older of two daughters of German-born parents who had immigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century. Helen’s father owned a plumbing shop on Franklin Street, a couple miles away from where the Baylor University football stadium now stands. Charlie, who was purchased by the Dallas Steers in the offseason, took time off from a road trip to Waco the following May to marry Helen (who continued to live in Waco with her family while her husband was playing baseball.)
In Dallas, Barnabe resurrected his career. When he arrived, his reputation was in tatters. In an early April exhibition game against the champion New York Yankees, he allowed eight runs in one inning, including a home run to Lou Gehrig. A Texas paper wrote that “Charlie is characteristically a front runner. If the club gets off to a flying start, he may prove a sensation. If it slips into a rut, he may go with it.” But Barnabe got the 1929 Steers off to a fantastic start, tossing a seven-hitter in the season opener against Fort Worth. Dallas was powered by an offense that hit .300 as a team and won the Texas League’s first-half title, as Barnabe earned victories in 11 of his first 13 decisions. He finished with a team-best 17-9 record, good for fifth in the league in wins. The Steers beat Wichita Falls, which won the second-half title, in a best-of-five playoff series to claim the Texas League championship.
The Chicago White Sox, who still retained an option to recall Barnabe, finally decided to release him for good in November 1929. The Little Rock Travelers purchased his contract, along with outfielder Doug Taitt and shortstop Buck Redfern, and Barnabe headed off to Arkansas to join the Southern Association. There, he lived in a lodging house on Fifth Street with several teammates, including fellow pitchers Charlie Eckert and Ray Pipkin.
Barnabe struggled in his first season for Little Rock — finishing with a 9-8 record and a 5.22 ERA — but continued to contribute at the plate, frequently being used as a pinch-hitter and batting .305 in 82 at-bats. When he got more comfortable with the team, he pitched better — turning in seasons of 18 and 20 wins in 1931 and ’32, respectively. In the offseason, he split time between Waco and Los Angeles, playing winter ball with former major-leaguers such as Cedric Durst and Earl “Pinches” Kunz.
In August 1933, Barnabe was traded back to Dallas for veteran second baseman Ray Morehart, and his strong performance down the stretch (4-1, 1.67 ERA in eight games) helped the Steers earn a Texas League playoff berth. Despite nursing an injured pitching hand, Barnabe was manager Fred Brainard‘s surprise starter in Game 3 of the semifinals against Galveston on September 8. He “turned in a very steady game to scatter Galveston’s seven hits and win fairly easily.” Dallas took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series with that victory, but lost the next two days as Galveston advanced to the finals.
Barnabe re-signed with Dallas the following March and was chosen to start in the Steers’ 1934 home opener against Tulsa. The day after his 34th birthday, he beat Houston for his league-leading 10th win of the season and, in July, added another line to his baseball resume: managing. Fred Brainard had left the team due to an illness in his family and owners Bob Tarleton and Sol Dreyfuss were out of town scouting players. They left Barnabe in charge of a Steers team that had lost 18 of its last 19 games, but the veteran left-hander briefly turned their fortunes around with three straight wins over Tulsa to stop the skid. Dallas made the Texas League playoffs again, but Barnabe — an 18-game winner in the regular season — was beaten by Galveston’s Harry Gumbert 7-1 in the first game of the semifinals. The Steers failed to move on.
That winter, Barnabe, after seven years of pitching in the humidity of the South, was involved in a three-way trade that resulted in his being traded far north — to St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Saints of the American Association. He resented the transaction immediately, and refused to report to spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The Saints suspended him for nearly three weeks before he finally signed on March 28. Barnabe made just three appearances with the team in 1935 before asking for his release.
After returning home to Waco, he played semipro ball around Texas for a few years. He also recruited some of his former minor league teammates to play in a state semipro tournament each July. In 1937, his Waco Dons — named for a recently deceased St. Louis Cardinals scout named Don Curtis, who had lived there for many years — beat a Houston team sponsored by the Grand Prize brewery to win the Texas state semipro championship and qualify for the national tournament in Kansas City.
In 1938, Barnabe agreed to manage in Big Spring, Texas, which had entered professional baseball for the first time with an unaffiliated team in the Class D West Texas-New Mexico League. His down-home style endeared him to the townspeople, who referred to him as “old man Chollie.” His misfit team, the Barons, didn’t prove to be as lovable. Barnabe recruited an old pal from California, Jess Orndorff, to help him narrow down his squad. Only one recruit, 22-year-old right-hander Willie Ramsdell, was a legitimate major-league talent (he won 24 games for the Dodgers, Reds and Cubs a decade later); for many of the players, it was their only season in professional ball.
Barnabe showed patience with his inexperienced team, which finished fifth in the six-team league with a 58-71 record, but sometimes was forced to call on the team’s best player — himself — when the Barons needed a lift. After standing in at first base for a few games, the 38-year-old took the mound for one final go-round in mid-July, pitching a complete game against Lubbock in the second game of a doubleheader at Big Spring. It was his 175th win as a professional. After nearly 2,500 career innings in the minor leagues — plus a .279 average in 1,800 at-bats — Charlie hung ’em up when the season ended. Big Spring lasted four more seasons in the WTNM league, which folded in the wake of World War II, in 1943.
Barnabe returned to Waco for good, continued to manage a local semipro team in the summers, and took up bowling while working in construction, as a blaster and powderman. He was also an avid golfer and hunter. In October 1942, he enlisted as a private in the Army Air Corps, but did not see combat. After the war, Barnabe opened a successful bowling alley at James Connally Air Force Base, northeast of Waco, which he ran for two decades until he semi-retired in his mid-60s. Even then, he was still a top bowler, qualifying for the state men’s tournament in 1963 with an average higher than 200.
In July 1976, his wife, Helen, passed away at age 69. Early in the morning on August 16, 1977 — just over a year later — Charlie died at age 77 at a local hospital. He was buried at Rosemound Cemetery in Waco.
McNeil, William F. The California Winter League, McFarland, 2002.
“Pitchers as Pinch Hitters,” from Great Hitting Pitchers, ed. L. Robert Davids, 1979. Accessed online at http://sabr.org/cmsFiles/Files/Pitchers_as_Pinch_Hitters.pdf.
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