Steve Barber, pitcher, Dublin, Orioles 1958
Dublin’s Baby Bird
He was one of Baltimore’s Baby Birds. For two brief months in the summer of 1958, he was a member of the pitching staff of the Dublin Orioles of the Georgia-Florida League. His left-winged rapidly flung fast balls often missed their target. His fiery temper nearly kept him out of the big show. A sore elbow, the dread of any hard throwing pitcher, brought him down from his ascent to the zenith of the premier pitchers of the American League.
Stephen David Barber was born in Tacoma Park, Maryland on February 22, 1939. He grew playing baseball on sandlots and listening to baseball games on the radio. The closest major league team was the hapless Washington Senators. Just as Steve was entering high school, the equally hapless St. Louis Browns moved to nearby Baltimore and became the Baltimore Orioles. Steve could only dream that one day he would pitch for the Orioles or any team for that matter.
Steve left Northwestern High School in Prince George County to play baseball for the Blair High School Blazers. In his junior year of 1955, Blair High School dominated their opponents in all sports. The football teams and basketball teams were undefeated. The baseball team only lost once. As a junior, the success of his high school career came into doubt. He only pitched two innings. In his senior year, Barber won eight games without a single loss. The Blazers won every game to capture the Washington D.C. Metro Area Championship.
Steve was signed to a minor league contract by the Orioles in the summer of 1956. After his first Spring training, Steve was assigned to Paris of the Sooner State League. He went 9-9 with a less than fair E.R.A. of 4.56. His ten strikeouts per game average was nearly eclipsed by his eight walks per game. Steve started the ‘58 season with Aberdeen of the Northern League. His E.R.A shot up to over six runs per game. His strikeouts were sliced in half. Steve was sent down to the Class D Dublin Orioles of the Georgia-Florida League. Managing the Orioles that year was a career minor league player who had played the previous year for Fitzgerald. Oriole officials believed that the hard nosed scrappy player manager by the name of Earl Weaver could turn Steve around. Steve played along side Dave Nicholson, baseball’s first bonus baby. Dave had an equally difficult time getting into a groove, striking out more than he hit the ball. Steve pitched against three future major leaguers that year: Dick McAuliffe and Don Wert of the Valdosta Tigers and Mike Shannon of the Albany Cardinals. The parent clubs would go head to head ten years later with the parent clubs in the 1968 World Series.
Steve, who became a fairly respectable hitter, couldn’t seem to get things going. He came to Dublin in the third week of June to a club which was in the middle of the pack of the league. Steve appeared in twenty two games, pitching one hundred and eight innings. He managed to win five games in ten decisions, which was about the team’s average. His strikeouts per game plummeted to less than four. He threw hard, but just couldn’t find the umpire’s strike zone. In twenty two games, Steve led the league in walks with one hundred and three and ended his season with a disappointing E.R.A. of five runs per game. He was about ready to give up the game. Steve finished the ‘59 season on a high note with Pensacola of the Ala.-Fla. League. His strikeouts were back up to ten per game. His walks were down, and his E.R.A. plummeted to 3.85. One of his teammates that year was Cal Ripken, Sr., whose son turned out to be a pretty fair ball player.
Paul Richards, Baltimore’s General Manager and a baseball genius, saw something in Barber. He invited him to spring training in 1960 and gave him a chance to make the major league team. Steve responded. In his rookie season, he pitched in thirty-six games. By June 6th, he had an amazing record of six and one with an E.R.A. hovering around 1.55. He won ten and lost seven games that season. His strikeouts and walks were virtually even, but his E.R.A. stood at a more than respectable 3.21 runs per game. His best game was a one hitter against Kansas City. During the 1960 season, Steve nearly missed one of baseball’s greatest moments. He had pitched against the greats of the game, Mantle, Killebrew, Kaline, Yastremski, and Maris. It was a foggy day on the last day of the season. The Orioles were well out of the pennant race, but the game was an important one for the opposing Boston Red Sox. Barber started but wasn’t around for the end. Jack Fisher came in the eighth to save the game for Barber. The lights were on. An aging Red Sox outfielder stepped up to the plate for the last time in his career. With the count at one and one, the old man took one last mighty swing. It was gone, the five hundred and twenty first homerun of his career. That man, of course, was the "Splendid Splinter," Ted Williams. One of the greatest elements of baseball is "what if?" What if Steve Barber had stayed in? Would Ted Williams, the greatest hitter in the history of baseball, have hit a home run in his last at bat? Or would he gotten the whiff from Barber or weakly grounded out to second base?
Steve didn’t fall victim to the sophomore jinx. He shut out eight opponents in 1961, which tied him with Camilo Pascual for the league lead. Steve fell two victories short of winning twenty games. Batters were taking notice. Steve was the fourth ranked pitcher in the Major Leagues ahead of Koufax, Drysdale, and Ford. With the Cold War heating up, Steve served his country during the 1962 season. Army officials gave him a pass to pitch on weekends. Despite only periodic mound assignments, Barber went nine and six with an E.R.A. of 3.45. Some have said that the time off gave Steve a chance to work on his mechanics during off duty hours. Steve’s best season would be in 1963. He went twenty and thirteen that year, making him the first Baltimore Oriole to win twenty games in a season.
After a lack luster ‘64 season, Steve returned to top form in 1965. He won nine of his last eleven starts to put him at the top of American League pitchers. The next year, 1966, became the first great season for the Orioles. Led by Barber and other fellow Baby Birds, Dave McNally and Jim Palmer, the Birds won the World championship. By the all-star break, Steve was ten and three with an E.R.A. of 1.90. Then it hit him. Elbow tendinitis forced him out of the All-Star Game and the World Series. " Being a part of that World Series was the biggest thrill of my professional career and also the greatest disappointment of my life. You work all of your life to get to that moment. To be there was amazing, but the frustration of not being able to pitch was overwhelming," said Barber. Steve came back strong to open the 1967 season, but the pain in his elbow was beginning to take its toll. He was traded to the fading Yankees for the 1968 season. In 1969, Steve was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft. It was the last time he started a game. From 1970 to 1974, he pitched in relief for the Cubs, Angels, Giants, and Braves (1970-1972).
Steve Barber ended his career on the all time Oriole list at eighth in wins and innings pitched, fifth in shutouts and strikeouts, and second in shutouts in a season. He won more games than he lost (121-106), struck out more than he walked (1309-950), and posted a better than average E.R.A. of 3.36.
After retiring from baseball at the age of thirty five, Steve worked in the car business. Today, he lives in Las Vegas and drives a school bus carrying special education students, the nine to five job he wanted. What if? What if Steve’s elbow had been healthy? Who knows? He might have joined his old skipper Earl Weaver in the baseball Hall of Fame. Oh well, that’s baseball!