Barnhill, David 1914–1983
David Barnhill 1914–1983
Negro League baseball player
Despite his small stature, Negro League pitcher David Barnhill took on opposing batters as if he were larger than life. And in light of allegations that he made modifications to the ball while on the mound, Barnhill used an unorthodox wind-up and pitching style to send frustrated hitters back to the dugout and off of the basepaths. His unique talent and ability earned him the respect of teammates, the fear of batters and the opportunity to play for a professional Major League baseball team when they began recruiting African-American players in the 1940s.
Born October 30, 1914 in Greenville, North Carolina, the diminutive right-hander got his first taste of professional baseball while working in a tobacco field. In his book, Black Diamonds: Life in the Negro Leagues from the Men Who Lived It, John B. Holway cited passages penned by Barnhill himself. “The Wilson Stars from Wilson, North Carolina, came to Greenville. I beat them and they wanted me with them. I was out in the tobacco field, and the owner of the stars, a black guy, sent this white guy to get me,…. The man came up and said, ‘Skinny’ everybody used to call me Skinny ‘I talked to your mother, and she said you can go to Wilson and pitch for Wilson. I gave her a dollar for your day’s wage.’”
Barnhill paid his dues playing for traveling teams that were not a part of the professional Negro League. One of those teams, the Ethiopian Clowns, was part baseball, part minstrel show. Barnhill nicknamed “Impo” by his teammates—recalled how the players would paint their faces like clowns, wear wigs and big collars. They would entertain the crowd by playing with an imaginary ball on the field prior to the game. “‘Then when we were supposed to get down to business, we pulled the clown suits off, and we had on regular baseball uniforms underneath. But we didn’t change our faces. We played with the clown paint still on our faces.’”
According to The All-Time All-Stars of Black Baseball, Barnhill’s years with Cubans displayed consistency, power and control on the pitcher’s mound. “A small, fireballing strike-out artist, New York Cuban ace Dave Barnhill was the best pitcher in the East during the early 1940s. After an 18-3 record during the 1941 campaign… the star right-hander was credited with the victory over Satchel Paige in the 1942 All-Star game, and matched arms again with Satchel as starting pitchers in the 1943 game. The starting assignment marked ‘Impo’s’ third consecutive All-Star appearance, for which he had an aggregate six strike-outs to show for his nine innings pitched.
For Barnhill, and the history of the sport, 1947 was a magical year. The Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson got all the headlines by breaking the game’s color barrier. And while that commotion was going on, Barnhill was quietly putting together one of his best seasons. According to statistical information in Holway’s book, Barnhill went 4-0 that very season, never losing a league game. He capped the year by shutting out Cleveland in the World Series. “The ensuing winter, Dave played in Cuba and led the league in strike-outs, while compiling a 2.26 ERA [earned run average].”
While he was tearing up opponents with a rarely-before-seen sliding, wavering curveball, Barnhill also began to draw criticism from opponents that he was illegally modifying to baseball to make it curve and drop, astounding batters into strikeouts. In Black Diamonds, former player Buck Leonard insisted that Barnhill was digging little cuts into the ball to alter its dynamics. “‘He was cutting the ball. The ball came up to the plate, would break just like a curve ball. You can look at the spin on a curve ball, but his ball didn’t have any spin to it because that little burr on the cover would cause to it curve. Just a little nick, cut the cover just a little bit. The wind would get in there and cause the ball to curve. Minnie Minoso was playing third base for us. He was cutting the ball for Barnhill,’” “Leonard said in the book. To his defense, former teammate Jack Harshman thwarted the allegations.” I never saw him cut the ball. If there was something happening out there, I’d be the first to find out. It was certainly a secret to me, “Holway wrote. Finally, Holway added in his book, if Barnhill was throwing with a doctored ball, the pitcher did not cut it. Former Barnhill teammate Roy Hughes said “‘Any cut got on there, Barnhill didn’t do it. It would be up to me or the other players.’”
Despite suggestions that the ball he threw was somehow altered, such criticism came during the highlight of his professional baseball career. At the age of 35, in 1949, Barnhill finally earned his shot to play in the big leagues when he received an offer from the New York Giants to report to their farm club in Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Millers were a grooming station for young players before the parent ballclub called them up to play in baseball’s highest league, the Majors. Holway wrote that in his first start, Barnhill beat Kansas City 12-1 on a two-hitter. “He beat Milwaukee, giving one run in five innings of relief. He shut out Columbus again on four hits, making a total of only two runs in 32 innings. Dave had half the team’s shutouts. Vern Kennedy, a veteran of the American League, had one.” According to information found at www.negroleague-baseball.com, Barnhill’s following season would be one of unfair contrast. “In 1950 he led the Minneapolis Millers pitching squad with an 11-3 record helping to propel the Millers to the American Association pennant. Despite his strong performance the Giants declined to elevate him to the major leagues, citing his age, 35.”
In Black Diamonds, Holway wrote that Barnhill was furious about the snub. Holway said Barnhill had been promised the chance to play in the biggest of baseball leagues but later was turned away. “’My manager told me ‘you and (Ray) Dandridge will go up at the later part of the season.’ But we got in the playoffs, and they wouldn’t call us. I’ve never been so mad in my life! I could have had a cup of coffee and a cookie in the big leagues. We won the championship. They gave us each a ring, but I was so mad, because I didn’t get to play with the Giants.’”
While he didn’t get the chance to showcase his talents in the major leagues, Barnhill pitched the best he could on the teams for which he played in the minors, as well as the Negro and Cuban leagues. His pitching stats throughout his career show a quiet dominance. While with the New York Cubans from 1941-1947, he led the team to second-best league finishes twice. He went 15-3 in 1943, leading the league in wins. When he retired in 1953, Barnhill had a 38-30 Negro League record, a 23-19 Cuban League record and a 38-27 minor league baseball record, according to Holway.
To his credit, only his gratitude and humility surpassed his prowess on the mound. In many of the writings about Barnhill, he continually expressed how grateful he was to be able to play the game. During his tenure, Barnhill played with and against the game’s greatest, both black and while. He once got New York Yankee hall-of-famer Mickey Mantle to pop out. He pitched against hall-of-famer Satchel Paige and gave up a couple of homers (as nearly every pitcher did) to the great Josh Gibson. In Minneapolis, he played alongside the legendary Willie Mays. And while the 1940s were not necessarily kind and gentle to the African-American community, Barnhill said he remembered the good times more than the negative ones.
While playing on the recently desegregated Minneapolis team with fellow African-American standout Dandridge, Barnhill said things were a little difficult in the beginning. Many of the white players sat at one of the bench, leaving Barnhill and his teammate visibly separated at the other end. Winning solved that, Holway wrote. “I went out there, and Dandridge was at second base. We did good. We did beautiful. I won, and Dandridge got a few base hits. After that, when we came off the field, instead of me and Dandridge sitting here by ourselves, the ball team just spread out all over the dugout. The whole dugout was mixed. Oh man, I had some good experiences with that ball club. They treated me and Ray like we were on the ball club. Well, we were on the ball club. It wasn’t who was black, who was white. Oh my goodness, there were some beautiful days back then. I can say that I am a very, very lucky guy.”
Holway, John B. Black Diamonds: Life in the Negro League from the Men Who Lived It, 1991.
Riley, James A. The All-Time All-Stars of Black Baseball, 1983.
"Barnhill, David 1914–1983." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/barnhill-david-1914-1983
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