Beyond Satchel: Part Six

By Tony McClean
Updated: July 23, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — At 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds, Dave Barnhill may not have looked the part of an intimidating hurler to the naked eye. However, the pitcher known as “Skinny” during his playing days was truly a athlete “phat” in talent.

During the 1940′s, the North Carolina native was the ace of the New York Cuban squads of that era. For three straight seasons (1941-43), Barnhill was the starting pitcher in the East-West All-Star Classic.

Born on October 30, 1914 in Greenville, N.C., Barnhill was a sandlot baseball standout in the Tar Heel state. Two of his boyhood teammates were future Hall of Famers Buck Leonard and Ray Dandridge.

In fact, Barnhill’s professional career began when he was discovered by the Miami Giants in 1936. A barnstorming comedy team that precluded the Indianapolis Clowns, the franchise would become the Ethiopian Clowns.

The team performed “shadow ball” during batting practice and were more of an entertaining team (similar to basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters) than pure baseball. But when they played serious baseball, the fire balling righthander was one of the team’s best players.

After performing with the Clowns for five years, Barnhill was signed by the New York Cubans in 1941. As a rookie, Barnhill quickly established himself as one of the league’s best pitchers.

He was 13-8 for the Cubans, led the league in strikeouts with 93, and was second to Baltimore’s Bill Byrd (1.97), the George Stovey Award winner in ERA (2.98).

After a struggling 4-7 mark in 1942, Barnhill bounced back strong the next season. He went 12-4 with a 3.52 ERA and was second to Homestead’s Johnny Wright in strikeouts.

While Barnhill’s career was somewhat overshadowed by the great Satchel Paige, he and the Hall of Famer had one of the greatest pitching rivalries in Negro League history.

In the 1942 All-Star Classic, Barnhill tossed three scoreless innings and was the winning pitcher in the East’s 8-3 victory. A year later, he and Paige dueled each other three times during the season including the All-Star Classic.

One of their most memorable match ups came that summer in a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. Barnhill held Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs to two hits ans struck out nine in a 2-0 complete game shutout.

The game’s only runs were scored on a two-run homer by the Cubans’ Ameal Brooks in the fourth off Paige, who also pitched a complete game, held New York to seven hits.

Over the next three seasons, Barnhill would struggle with injuries. He missed the entire 1944 season, but rebounded in 1946 to lead the Cubans in wins with a 10-3 mark.

Despite that stretch of injuries, Barnhill almost became the player to break the color barrier in the majors. However, it turned out to be nothing more than a publicity stunt.

In 1943, Pittsburgh Pirates owner William Benswanger secretly offered Barnhill a tryout. Barnhill agreed to the tryout, but eventually nothing ever became of the tryout.

Many felt that Benswanger’s “promise” of a tryout was nothing more than an attempt to appease those pressuring him to integrate Major League Baseball. In an interview with Negro League historian John Holway, Barnhill simply stated that “Benswanger chickened out”.

“Every owner was waiting for the others to make the first move”, Barnhill added. “I know in my heart that I was ready. I pitched against several major leaguers while playing in Cuba”.

In fact, Barnhill, like many other Negro Leaguers, would play and thrive as a player in Cuba. Between the winters of 1947 through 1949, Barnhill would lead the league in strikeouts and complete games. During his entire career in Cuba, Barnhill compiled a 23-19 record with a 2.81 ERA.

In 1947, Barnhill (4-0) was on a pitching staff that included Negro League greats Pat Scantlebury (10-5) and Luis Tiant, Sr., the father of the former Boston Red Sox All-Star.

Tiant, who finished 10-0 on the year and was the league’s George Stovey Award winner. The Cubans (42-16) won both halves of the Negro National League pennant and would face the Cleveland Buckeyes in the World Series.

Behind their big three of Tiant, Scantlebury, and Barnhill, the Cubans would win the series in six games. In the opener, Barnhill and Scantlebury held the Buckeyes to seven hits through six innings until the game was called due to rain tied at 5-5.

The next day, Cleveland would win 10-7 on a bases-loaded two-out single by Al Smith. But it would be the last game Buckeyes would win. Behind the bat of Minnie Minoso, the Cubans would win the next for games and the championship.

After Barney Morris tossed a five-hit shutout (6-0) to tie the series, Barnhill would get the win in Game Three (9-4) behind catcher Ray Noble’s fifth inning grand slam.

Up two games to one, the Cubans won the next two games to take the title. Minoso, who hit .294 during the regular season, hit .423 in the series and was the winner of the Rube Foster Award as the series MVP.

In 1949, Barnhill was signed by the New York Giants and was assigned to the club’s AAA franchise in Minneapolis. The next season, Barnhill went 11-3 and helped lead the Millers to the American Association championship.

Despite the success, Barnhill was never called up to the majors. In fact, he and fellow teammate Ray Dandridge would dominate the American Association over the next two seasons, but neither would get a shot at the majors.

During this period of time, the Giants had former Negro Leaguers like Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Hank Thompson on their roster. Their were many that felt that the club had a unofficial quota system in regards to how many African Americans they would keep on their roster.

Disappointed at not being able to reach the majors, Barnhill moved on to the Florida International League in 1952. Playing under former Cardinal great Pepper Martin, Barnhill went 13-8 with a 1.19 ERA.

A year later at the age of 39, Barnhill retired from baseball. He would remain in the Sunshine State where he worked for the Miami recreation department for over three decades.

Barnhill passed away on January 8, 1983 in Miami. He should be remembered as one of the game’s best pitchers. Like many Negro Leaguers, only prejudice kept many baseball fans from seeing and appreciating his true greatness on the field.

NOTE: The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, and the Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball all contributed to this story.