The Commerce Comet,  The Splendid Splinter, and The Baby Bird

When Stephen David Barber first reported to manager Earl Weaver to begin the Dublin Orioles’ first and only season, he had an idea that one day, at least in his dreams, that he would be pitching in the major leagues. After feeling that he would forever be stuck in Class D ball, Steve had no way of knowing that next spring, he would become a starting pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, much less that he would be facing the likes of Mickey Mantle and  Ted Williams

Under the tutelage of Baltimore’s manager, Paul Richards, known for his penchant for developing great pitchers, Barber’s wildness on the mound waned. As one of the first young Oriole pitchers known as “The Baby Birds,” Barber’s first start came on the night of April 21, 1960 in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium against the perennially hapless Washington Senators.  Barber swatted the butterflies away when he got the first two batters out and after Bob Allison singled, he retired future Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, who would also ground out in his second at bat.  Barber fared well, giving up one run in four innings, but wound up with a no decision in his first game.

Steve’s  second appearance came in long relief with the Orioles losing 12-1 to the New York Yankees, who would go on to win the American League pennant that year,  eight games ahead of the Orioles, who reveled in their first near the top finish in many years.  Steve’s  first relief appearance started out well, getting the first three batters out on ground balls, including the legendary Mickey Mantle, aka “The Commerce Comet,”  although he did surrender a single to the always affable Hall of Famer Yogi Berra in two at bats.    Mantle was caught looking when he struck out to end the 5th inning.

Barber and the Orioles returned home on April 28, when Barber pitched a 6-1, complete game victory over the Boston Red Sox, minus Ted Williams.   Steve, a flame throwing southpaw, pitched well in  the next four games, garnering a win in relief of teammate and future Hall of Famer, Hoyt Wilhelm. On the 24th, Barber limited the Hall of Fame White Sox keystone combo of Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox to 1 hit (Aparicio) in eight at bats.  Barber won his 5th game with only one loss before facing the Yankees on the last day of May.  Earning a save in the 9th inning, Barber walked Mantle.  Roger Maris walked also, but Barber beared down and got Yogi Berra to ground into a double play to end the game.

After his initial success in his first six weeks, the brash, perfectionist Barber made headlines across the country’s sports pages when he boldly proclaimed that the Class D batters he faced were harder to get out than the major league hitters.

During June, Barber faced Harmon Killebrew (2-4) and Aparicio (1-3,) and Nellie Fox (0-3) for a combined record against Hall of Famers of three hits in ten at bats or .300, just about what you might expect of any veteran pitcher.

It was during the 1st game of a 4th of July doubleheader in Fenway Park, that Steve Barber stared at a hitter whom he had never faced.  Ted “The Splendid Splinter,” Williams was arguably the greatest hitter in the history of the game.  A nervous Barber concentrated on the catchers mitt.  Williams swung and launched a high fly ball to center fielder Jack Brandt.  In the 3rd inning, Barber fooled Williams, who popped up to Oriole Hall of Famer,
Brooks Robinson, who grabbed it in foul territory.

The lineup of heavy hitters did not let up.  Two days later, the Orioles returned home to face the Yankees, who surprisingly were one game behind the Orioles in the win column going into the All Star Break. His mound opponent was Yankee legend Whitey Ford.  Mantle punched a triple for his first hit against Barber.  After a single by Maris, Berra flied out to end the inning.

Throughout the month of July, Barber kept an even course, with one of his best games of he season coming on July 28, when he shut out the Kansas City Athletics 5-0. He got Detroit Tiger’s Al Kaline to ground out in the only other at bat by a member of Cooperstown Royalty who he faced during the rest of July.  In the six games Barber pitched in August, he allowed a hit to Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio  in four at bats.  Back home in Baltimore on the 14th of August, Barber had to face Ted Williams once again.  He was able to get the aging, iconic mega star to line out and ground into a double play.

During the September’s late summer stretch, Barber picked it up a notch. Once again, he shut out the hapless Athletics from Kansas City, 4-0 in a 5-hit-shutout after giving up a home run and fly out to the Washington Senators’s Harmon Killebrew a week before.  Barber earned a save against the Detroit Tigers two days before he faced the New York Yankees for the last time during his rookie season.

    Steve Barber took the mound at the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium on the 16th of September.  In the first inning, Barber struck out Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle back to back, a rarity in those early years of the 1960s.  In the 3rd inning, Maris lined out and Mantle singled.  Maris homered in the bottom of the 5th.  Barber, obviously rattled by the long ball, pitched carefully to Mantle, who worked the nervous pitcher for a walk.  The Baltimore pitcher, would not be rattled for he got both of the Yankee power duo to ground out in the seventh inning.   Barber eventually lost the game to his mound opponent, Whitey Ford, against whom he got a save and a no decision in the two previous matches, not bad for a rookie. Barber lost to Boston in the next game, but posted his 3rd save against the Senators in the next.

The stage for a historic moment was set. The date was September 28, 1960.  It was cool, cloudy and dry.  It was the last game of the 1960 season.  The Orioles’s opponent were the Boston Red Sox.  The location was set in historic Fenway Park.  Barber got a ring side seat from the mound as he started his final game of the season.  Some 10,454 ticket paying souls were there to say goodbye.

All of the tumult of the moment was too much for Barber.  The wildness, which had plagued Barber in his early years reared its ugly head again.  He walked Willie Tasby and Ted Williams.  After a hit by pitch, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly, Barber found himself pulled from the mound, after giving up only one unearned run and despite the fact that he had a no hitter going.

Then came the magic moment.  Jack Fischer, who relieved Barber in the first, took the mound in the bottom of the 7th inning with the Orioles leading the Red Sox 4-2.  With one out, the crowd stood and roared.  No. 9 was up to bat for the last time.  Fischer reared back and threw. With the greatest of exclamation of his unparalleled career, Ted Williams launched a massive drive over the center field wall at  the deepest part of the iconic park for his 521st and last home run of his career.  Boston manager, Mike Higgins, let Williams take his place in left field before the Green Monster, just to take him out to allow the fans to give one more chance to show their appreciation for his 21 year career.  In his  characteristic lack of ego, Williams walked with no emotion into the Red Sox dugout for the last time.

      Steve Barber went on the pitch for the next 14 seasons with the Yankees, Cubs, Pilots, Braves, Angels, and Giants.  He pitched against many more members of the Hall of Fame including pitchers who actually batted in those days in the American League.  Barber also played as teammates with many more members of Cooperstown, including Mickey Mantle.

As the season ended, Barber felt he could do better in the future.  He did just that   Barber helped the Orioles come close to knocking off the Yankees and going to the World Series against Pittsburgh. A two-time All-Star and a member of the Orioles Hall of Fame, Barber was 121-106 with a 3.36 earned run average from 1960-74. He became a nucleus of the great Baltimore pitching staffs of the 60s. Barber’s best season was 1963, when he went 20-13 with a 2.75 E.R.A.

Steve allowed Mickey Mantle two hits in four at bats that first season.   But it was in that magical year when the rookie, who once pitched for the Dublin Orioles, could take solace in one fact.  The “Baby Bird.” who had lingered at the bottom of professional baseball only to rise to become one of the best rookie pitchers in the American League, squared off face to face with the great Ted Williams, who batted .316  in his final season.  In five plate appearances, Barber recorded four outs and one walk, not allowing a single hit against they man they called, “The Splendid Splinter.”