March 12th, 2014
The lucrative salaries paid in Major League Baseball nowadays continue to shock me. Those huge bucks have changed the way big leaguers play the game and live their lives. Even the most marginal players today have contracts sizable enough to permit them to not have to worry about working a second career, at least during their playing days. And with decent investment counseling and a much improved MLB pension plan, when these guys retire in their thirties, many can afford to kick back and relax their way through their forties and fifties too. Good for them. I just hope they tell their children and grandchildren the story about Marvin Miller some day.
When I was a kid, guys like Ray Barker, today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant had to scrape to make a living on what they were paid to play the game. Barker, who had grown up a Yankee fan, had been originally signed by the Orioles in 1955 when he was a 19-year-old kid and given a $1,000 bonus. The son of a West Virginia stone quarry worker, that was more money than his family had ever seen.
He then spent the next ten years of his life trying to get to the big leagues and trying to take care of his growing family on the few thousand dollars he would earn playing both minor league and winter baseball. His wife and children lived in a trailer park back in West Virginia and when Barker’s dad was killed while riding his motorcycle, his Mom moved in with them.
After brief big league appearances with the Orioles and Indians, Cleveland traded this left-hand-hitting first baseman to the Yankees for infielder Pedro Gonzalez, in May of 1965. The defending AL Pennant winners were a mess that year under new skipper, Johnny Keane. In addition to rebelling at Keane’s strict disciplinarian management style, injuries began crippling the veteran Yankee lineup. Both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were out for extended periods, forcing Keane to play his starting first baseman, Joe Pepitone in the outfield. That Yankee misfortune was the piece of good luck Barker needed to finally get an extended stay on a big league roster.
His debut season in the Bronx wasn’t spectacular but it was steady and in 1965, steady was good enough for the Yankee front office. In addition to tying a big league record that season by hitting two consecutive pinch-hit home runs, Barker’s 7 total round-trippers and 31 RBIs in 98 games got him invited back for a second season. He returned to West Virginia, bought a home and moved his brood out of that trailer park.
Unfortunately, the Yankees got even worse in 1966, finishing in last place and Barker got worse too. He pretty much stopped hitting, which meant he pretty much stopped getting chances to hit. During most any other season in Yankee history, Barker’s .187 batting average would have got him banished forever but not in 1966.
Ralph Houk brought Barker back to spring training in 1967 as a Mickey Mantle insurance policy. The Yankees had become convinced that in order to extend the switch-hitting legend’s career, they needed to get him out of the outfield and start him at first base. That meant they also had to commit to playing Joe Pepitone in the outfield full-time. Houk needed somebody to serve as a late-inning defensive replacement for Mantle at first. The organization’s bonus-baby heir to that position was Mike Hegan, who was doing Army reserve duty until May of that ’67 season. That gave Barker just a small window of time to impress Houk enough to keep him on the 25-man roster and get Hegan sent back down to the minors.
Barker couldn’t get it done. In the 17 games he appeared during the first part of that ’67 season, he hit an atrocious .077. During that trying period of his career, Barker was interviewed by long-time New York Times’ sports journalist Robert Lipsyte. He explained to Lipsyte that he needed to get hot at the plate in order to stick with the Yankees but he needed more at bats to get in an offensive groove but he would only get those at bats if he could get hot. It was the age-old Catch-22 lament of big-league utility players.
During that interview, Barker said his goal was to get five seasons of service as a Major League player so that he could qualify for the pension plan. If he could make that milestone, Barker would start receiving a retirement benefit of $250 per month when he reached the age of 50. Barker didn’t make that five-year milestone but hopefully, he’s not missing that $250 check every month.
|NYY (3 yrs)||176||342||306||34||68||16||0||10||44||1||27||71||.222||.289||.373||.662|
|CLE (1 yr)||11||8||6||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||2||.000||.250||.000||.250|
|BAL (1 yr)||5||6||6||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3||.000||.000||.000||.000|