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On Sports

Pitcher Bob Barr's Rochester workload was second to none

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Rochester Business Journal
August 29, 2014

I’m sure mustachioed, rubber-armed Bob Barr must be spinning in his grave about the way modern pitchers are coddled. The man scheduled to be posthumously inducted into the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame at Frontier Field Friday night never dealt with pitch counts and inning limits back in his day. In fact, in the late 19th century, when Barr plied his trade, he was expected to take the mound virtually every other afternoon and not come out of the game until it was over. Nine innings logged—sometimes more—regardless of the score. There was no relief for the weary in those days, no bullpen to “save” your arm and the victory. You went the distance each time you pitched. Amazingly, the tall righthander’s arm did not fall off.

You want to talk workhorse? Well, chew on these numbers. In three of his four seasons with the Rochester ball club (they weren’t known as the Wings until 1928), Barr logged more than 400 innings, with a peak of 493 innings in 1890. Admittedly, the pitching distance was 10 feet closer (50 feet, as opposed to today’s 60 feet, 6 inches), but still. Last season, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright led the majors with 241 innings and five complete games. That was a half-season’s work for Big Bob, who undoubtedly would have considered Wainwright and Co. a bunch of wimps and slackers.

With a 97-58 record, Barr ranks as the winningest pitcher in the nearly 130 years Rochester has been fielding professional baseball teams. According to BaseballReference.com, he won a franchise record 35 games in 1888 and 30 the following season. But his most intriguing season—and one of the most historically significant seasons in Rochester’s extraordinarily rich baseball history—occurred in 1890, when Barr went 28-24 for our town’s major-league club. That’s right, for one spring and summer, Rochester fielded a big-league team. As famed manager Casey Stengel was fond of saying, “You can look it up.”

Rochester went 63-63 that year, good for fifth in the eight-team American Association. Our foray into the bigs lasted just one year. It came about because the players union—the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players—broke off and formed its own league when the owners attempted to cap salaries at $2,500 per season, about half what the top stars of the time were paid. In rhetoric hauntingly similar to that heard in the summer of 1994, when the World Series was canceled, owners complained that escalating salaries were outlandish and threatening to ruin baseball. Incensed union leaders compared themselves to slaves, citing the reserve clause that bound a player to a team unless he was released, traded or sold.

Three franchises—Cincinnati, Baltimore and Kansas City—seceded from the American Association in 1890, prompting league officials to scramble to find replacements. They eventually decided on Rochester, Syracuse and Toledo to join Brooklyn, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Louisville and Columbus. Some large city newspapers wondered how “villages” such as Rochester could be allowed in the league, overlooking the fact that the Flower City, with 134,000 residents, was the 22nd most populous city in the country, bigger than Atlanta and Kansas City.

The Rochester ball club was owned by Gen. Henry Brinker, a bombastic, George Steinbrenner-type who had made his fortune in breweries and railroads and vowed to spare no expense to bring a major-league championship to town. Brinker planned to sell his beer at the ballpark and figured that one of his railroads would reap the benefits of transporting spectators to the Windsor Beach ballpark in Irondequoit, where the team was scheduled to play its Sunday home games. On April 28, 1890, an overflow crowd of 4,000 showed up at Rochester’s other baseball home—Culver Park—for our town’s major-league debut, a 5-1 victory vs. Brooklyn. Thanks to Barr’s pitching, Rochester fared well during the first several weeks of the season and challenged for first place.

The good times, though, wouldn’t last. Injuries to some of their pitchers meant an even greater workload for the already overburdened Barr. And problems away from the diamond began to surface. The starting shortstop was found drunk and was suspended. After returning from his finger injury, pitcher Will Calihan, a fiery, Billy Martin-type, punched out the private detective Brinker had hired to trail him and was suspended.

But what really did in Rochester’s big-league experiment was the state law prohibiting “all fishing, playing public sport, exercise and shows” on Sundays. On Monday, June 9, one day after Rochester hosted Philadelphia, an Irondequoit farmer swore out an affidavit claiming players from each team had violated the Sabbath law. The players were taken to jail and released on bail in time to play that afternoon. But the issue was far from resolved. There would be more threats, and when a state Supreme Court judge refused to throw out the indictments against the players, Brinker agreed not to play any more Sunday games, which meant Rochester lost out on its biggest drawing days. The players’ league folded after just one season, and Rochester, Syracuse and Toledo returned to the minors, where they would forge rivalries that continue to this day.

Barr wound up pitching a franchise record 52 complete games and 493 innings that season. Remarkably, despite those robust numbers, he finished second in the league in each category. Barr went 49-98 with a 3.85 earned run average in five seasons in the major leagues and was 142-77 in seven minor-league campaigns. His glory years clearly occurred in Rochester, where he holds numerous records that will never be broken.

A few years ago, the Red Wings Hall of Fame committee began looking for ways to honor players and managers who predated 1928. I doff my cap to that move because it recognizes the overlooked achievements of people like Bob Barr, who gave new meaning to the term “workhorse.”

Award-winning columnist, best-selling author and radio co-host Scott Pitoniak considers his 2013 induction into the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame one of the crowning achievements of his 42-year journalism career.

8/29/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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