Card Corner, 1973 Topps: Steve Barberby Bruce Markusen
March 22, 2013
It is the combination of design and action photography that makes the 1973 Topps set one of my favorites. The design is very simple, with a minimal amount of border material (basically a black borderline) but a very distinguishable silhouette featuring the player’s position, which is then set against a colored circle.
That silhouette and circle are not only an iconic piece of Topps, but they became the basis for the flipping and matching games that we played at school in the spring of ‘73. Each player would begin with a deck of his own stash of ‘73 Topps with each taking turns at laying down a card face up. If you were able to match the colors of the circle behind the silhouette, you took home the pile of cards underneath.
Because of the lack of border fluff, the photographs take center stage on ‘73 Topps. The action shot of Steve Barber is one of the best in the set. Barber is well-centered, as he nears the completion of his delivery, his landing leg stiff and strong while his left arm is curled neatly toward his midsection. The card gives us a sense of the pitcher throwing downhill; having started his delivery near the top of the mound, he lands near the flatter front side of the pitching circle.
And like so many of the 1973 cards, Barber’s card gives us a bit of mystery by including another player in the background. Who is that Angels outfielder? The outfielder in question cannot be either Vada Pinson or Mickey Rivers, both of whom threw with their left arm. I’ll guess that it’s right fielder Leroy Stanton, part of the haul the Haloes captured in the Nolan Ryan heist.
That brings us to the primary subject matter of this week’s card. Steve Barber is a name that is likely unknown to the younger fan, but is well-remembered by those who recall baseball in the 1960s. His story is one of limitless talent, blazing fastballs, and unfulfilled potential done in by bouts of wildness and a series of injuries.
An athletic left-hander who threw consistently in the 90s, Barber drew the attention of the Orioles in the late 1950s. After signing him as an amateur free agent, they assigned him to Class-D ball, the lowest level of the minor leagues. At one point, Barber must have thought he would spend his entire career in D-ball as he remained there for all of three consecutive seasons, except for one brief taste of C-level ball.
Two obstacles derailed Barber in his hope to move up the Orioles’ organizational ladder. First, he struggled with a lack of control. He threw an explosive fastball, but it lacked the kind of precision needed for sustained success. The other problem involved his temper. Ever the perfectionist, he became enraged when he did not pitch well, or when his team did not play well behind him.
Barber reached rock bottom in 1958, when he lost seven of eight decisions and gave up runs at the rate of a 6.21 ERA. His control was the primary culprit; he surrendered 63 walks in 58 innings, a simply untenable mark regardless of the speed of his fastball.
With his career at the crossroads and in real danger of an unconditional release, Barber enjoyed a breakthrough in 1959. Pitching for Pensacola, Barber improved his control slightly, as he lowered his ERA to the 3.80 range. The Orioles saw enough to give him a late-season recall to Amarillo in the Texas League, where he made three appearances. But the real turnaround came in winter ball, where he worked with one of Baltimore’s coaches. “Winter ball helped a lot,” Barber told sportswriter Phil Pepe. “I played at Clearwater under Luman Harris and my control improved.”
So did Barber’s temper. “I guess I was a bit of a hothead,” he told Pepe. “I blew up when I was yanked or my team made errors behind me.”
By the spring of 1960, Barber had his temper under control. And he continued to throw an exploding fastball. Orioles manager Paul Richards was so impressed by Barber that he deemed him worthy of a spot on the big league roster, an incredible turn of events given his sorry minor league numbers from two summers ago.
As a rookie, Barber became part of Baltimore’s vaunted “Baby Birds” pitching staff, which featured fellow youngsters Milt Pappas, Jack Fisher, and Chuck Estrada. Of the four, Barber had the best pure stuff, as he pitched well enough to win 10 games, but he did so accompanied by his usual highwire act. He led the American League in wild pitches and all of the major leagues in walks (with 113), which must have made both his catchers and opposing batters uncomfortable.
Barber also cemented his reputation as one of the most intimidating pitchers of 1960. Scouts regarded Barber as one of the game’s fastest throwers, though his radar gun readings look less impressive by today’s standards. During his rookie season, Barber was clocked at 95 and a half miles per hour, which was actually the third-fastest mark on record at the time. The only two readings ahead of him were held by two pretty fair right-handers, one named Walter Johnson and the other Bob Feller.
Most hitters who faced Barber in his prime would swear that he threw much harder than a reading in the mid-90s. I think it’s probably safe to say that the 1960s devices used to clock Barber were slow, in contrast to the ballpark readings of today, some of which tend to be on the fast side.
Barber’s 1961 season showed additional promise. Harnessing his fastball, Barber threw eight shutouts, tying him for the American League lead. Though he walked 130 batters, he allowed only 194 hits in nearly 250 innings on his way to winning 18 games.
After injuries limited him to 28 starts in 1962, Barber blossomed in 1963. Cutting his walks to 92, he put up an ERA of 2.75 on the way to becoming the first Orioles pitcher to win 20 games in a season. For a franchise that became known for its pitching, Barber had emerged as one of its pioneers.
Not only did Barber throw hard, but he threw a sinking fastball that moved and darted, and was very heavy on a batter’s hands. Elrod Hendricks, who would catch him in his later years in Baltimore, said hitting Barber’s fastball was akin to swinging at a “ball of iron.”
After a poor 1964, Barber rebounded to put up a 2.69 ERA and win 15 games the following summer. Then came the spring and early summer of 1966, when Barber pitched at the peak of effectiveness and lowered his ERA into the 2.30 range. Seemingly on his way toward another 20-win season for a team that was headed to the American League pennant, he came down with pain in his elbow. The doctors determined that he was suffering from tendinitis and shut him down for the second half of 1966.
Not only did he miss the rest of the regular season, but he had to sit out the World Series, a four-game sweep for Baltimore. Barber earned a World Series ring, but it came with the caveat of personal disappointment.
The elbow tendinitis effectively rendered him a mediocrity. He did enjoy two last flirtations with greatness in 1967. In early April, he pitched no-hit ball against the Angels through eight innings, before finally surrendering a hit to Jim Fregosi in the ninth. And then came one of the wildest games of the 1960s.
On April 30, Barber no-hit the Tigers through eight-plus innings, despite walking seven batters and hitting two others with pitches. He took a 1-0 lead into the ninth, but walked the first two batters. After retiring the next two hitters, he unfurled a wild pitch, allowing the tying run to score. He then walked the next batter. With his pitch count at 144, an exhausted Barber gave way to Stu Miller. The Tigers managed to score a second run on a Mark Belanger error, saddling Barber with a 10-walk, no-hit loss.
To his credit, Barber handled the disappointment of a no-hit loss with class and a minimum of anger. He even took some good-natured ribbing from Frank Robinson after the game. “Next time, give up a hit in the first inning, will you, Steve?” shouted Robinson in the clubhouse. “You make me feel like an old 31, standing out there through that.” Continuing to answer questions from the press, Barber held his temper in check throughout the interview.
As the 1967 season progressed, Barber continued to struggle with his control. In early June, he became so frustrated with his performance that he left the team, albeit briefly before realizing his mistake and making a quick return. With his ERA rising above 4.00, the Orioles soon decided to make a move. On the Fourth of July, they sent Barber to the Yankees for first baseman Ray Barker and two players to be named later.
Barber’s departure came as bad news to many of the Orioles. They liked Barber as a teammate, remembering him as a simple, easy going guy who didn’t cause trouble and never butted heads with anyone. As Orioles center fielder Paul Blair once said, Barber was “the perfect teammate.”
The trade to the Yankees signaled the start of the journeyman phase of Barber’s career.
Remaining a starter with the Yankees, Barber’s control improved, but he no longer threw with the velocity of his Orioles hey day. After a season and a half in the Bronx, the Yankees left him exposed in the expansion draft. Looking for experienced pitching, the Seattle Pilots decided to take Barber with one of their expansion picks.
As a member of the 1969 Pilots, Barber became one of the most notable figures of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Unfortunately, Bouton portrayed Barber in a semi-villainous role, suggesting that he was hiding an injury in order to maintain his presence on the roster, thereby denying a younger pitcher of a chance at pitching.
I’ve always thought Bouton’s portrayal of Barber was unfair. Like Barber, Bouton had hurt his arm, and like Barber, was doing all he could to preserve a career in the major leagues. Barber may have spent more than his fair share of time in the trainer’s room and in the whirlpool, but at least he was trying to pitch, rather than just putting in time on the disabled list.
Understandably, Barber was upset by his portrayal in the book. He resented Bouton, never forgiving his former teammate for what he felt was an unfair betrayal.
During the spring of 1970, the Pilots relocated to Milwaukee and became the Brewers, but Barber did not make the move with them. On April 1, they released him. From there he signed with the Cubs, but pitched so badly that he was released after five appearances. He then signed with the Braves, finding a home as a reliever before being released in May of 1972.
With his career in jeopardy, he found a home with the Angels, where he pitched effectively for the rest of 1972 and all of 1973. After the ’73 season, the Angels included him in the nine-player trade with the Brewers that also sent Ken Berry and Clyde Wright to Milwaukee for Downtown Ollie Brown and Skip Lockwood.
Once again, Barber never actually appeared in a game for Milwaukee; the Brewers released him during spring training in 1974. Signing with the Giants, Barber struggled in 13 appearances, drew his release (his fifth release since 1970), pitched briefly in the Cardinals’ minor league system, and then saw his career come to an end that fall.
This was the Barber that I remembered, the journeymen reliever who bounced from team to team, adding a change-up and curve ball to his repertoire and trying to hang around as a finesse pitcher. I never saw the Barber of his prime, the Barber who could throw the ball through walls at nearly 100 miles per hour. I’ll have to let my imagination roam in trying to picture what the younger Barber was like on the mound.
After his playing days, Barber left the game completely. He moved to Las Vegas, eventually choosing a profession lacking in glamor, but one that was not lacking in nobility. He became a school bus driver, transporting children with disabilities. He did the job well, took pride in it, and successfully supported his four children and his second wife, Pat. It was a job that he continued to do until early in 2007, when he fell ill with pneumonia and had to be hospitalized.
Sadly, he never recovered. Barber died a few days after being admitted, losing his battle with pneumonia at the age of 67.
Barber’s death did not receive much publicity, which may be attributable to the injury that prevented him from pitching in the 1966 World Series, and the fact that he wasn’t around for the Orioles’ memorable championship run of the late 1960s and early '70s.
But let’s remember him as the first in a long line of great starters for the Orioles. Before there was Jim Palmer, before there was Dave McNally, and before there were Mike Cuellar and Mike Flanagan, there was a pretty good and powerful left-hander named Steve Barber.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.