RIP to Rich Barry, a powerful slugger in the minors who served as a pinch-hitter and outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969. He died on October 9 at the age of 81. At the time of his death, he was living in Studio City, Calif.
Richard Donovan Barry was born on September 12, 1940, in Berkeley, Calif. He attended Berkeley High School, and by the time he was nearing graduation, he had attracted the attention of every single major-league ballclub. Barry came up as a power-hitting infielder, and he was named to the second-team Alameda County Athletic League All-Star team, as a shortstop, in 1957. In his senior season, he batted .380 and slugged the Berkeley team to the conference championship. He was so devoted to baseball that, after graduation, he left his senior prom and date to see if any scouts had showed up at his parents’ house. Not only did they not show up, but he was late to the dance. It turned out that the scouts wisely decided to avoid conflicting with the prom and showed up the next day in force. The New York Yankees signed him in June of 1958 for a bonus reported to be worth around $45,000. Yankees scout Tony Robello said it was the largest bonus ever paid by the team for a West Coast prospect.
The Yankees assigned him to the Class-C Modesto Reds, and he began displaying the power that would mark his minor-league career. He doubled in his first professional at-bat on June 18 and slashed .254/.323/.457 over 80 games, with 14 doubles and 13 home runs. Playing for Modesto again in 1959, he homered a league-leading 37 times and drove in 111 runs. He struggled at the plate at first, but as he became more selective at the plate, his hitting improved greatly. By the end of the season, he had raised his batting average to .267.
Over the next six seasons, the Yankees moved Barry up and down their system, from Triple-A Richmond all the way back down to Class-A Greensboro. His power was never in question, as he routinely topped 20 home runs in a season. The problem was that he also struck out more than 100 times a year, in an era when it wasn’t as easily forgiven as it is now. His batting average could rise as high as the .270s or dip into the .230s, which was another concern. To add more stress to the young ballplayer’s life, the Yankees moved him into the outfield full-time, so he had to adapt to a new position as well. One thing that was not a problem, said his minor-league manager Dee Phillips, was a lack of hustle.
“When I managed him before and he got into slumps or had some trouble in the field, I’d come out to the ballpark early and find him there way ahead of me, getting somebody to knock out flies to him or pitch him curves,” Phillips said. “I had to remind him he still had a game or two to play every day and he’d have to slow down.”
Barry finally reached Triple-A in 1964 when he was assigned to the Richmond Virginians. He hit just .207 in 24 games before being sent down to Double-A Columbus, but he put his name in the Richmond record book while he was there. He homered twice against Buffalo on April 24, including a grand slam, and tied the team’s single-game record with 7 RBIs as part of a 16-1 rout. Barry ended the 1964 season with 27 home runs between Richmond and Columbus, but he batted a combined .235. By 1965, Barry had been moved all the way back to Class-A Greensboro. By the end of that season, he was 25 years old, had been playing in the Yankees farm system for eight seasons, and had played a total of 24 Triple-A games. He had hit 170 home runs, but he was treading water in the Yankees system, at best.
The Philadelphia Phillies came to the rescue when the team picked Barry in the minor-league draft in November of 1965. The Phillies stopped moving him up and down the organization throughout the regular season and kept him in one place all year long. In 1966, he played for the Macon Peaches of the Double-A Southern League and had his finest offensive season to date. His power numbers dropped to 16 homers, but he added 30 doubles and kept his strikeout totals under 100 (95 to be exact) while batting a fine .291. He spent all of 1967 and ’68 with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, and his good play continued.
Barry celebrated his 12th season in professional baseball by finally getting his call to the major leagues. He had gotten off to a good start in Triple-A Eugene, leading the PCL with 12 home runs and 59 RBIs at the time of his promotion while batting a career-best .307. Philadelphia was facing injuries to starting outfielders Johnny Callison and Deron Johnson, and slugger Dick Allen was suspended as part of a running feud with manager Bob Skinner. Barry was brought to the Phillies to help ease the manpower crisis.
The 28-year-old rookie made his debut as a pinch-hitter in the second game of a July 4 doubleheader. He flew out to right field against Expos reliever Gary Waslewski. He made his first start on July 10 against St. Louis as a left fielder. He was 1-for-3, getting his first major-league hit off starter Mike Torrez and reaching base after getting hit by a pitch in his next at-bat. A couple of days later, he got his only major-league extra-base hit when he doubled off Cubs starter Jim Colborn.
Barry had some success with the Phillies, recording a .188/.316/.219 slash line in 20 games. He had 6 hits, including his 1 double, and scored 4 runs. He also played a fair left field, with 1 error in 16 chances. The Phillies were on the way to losing 99 games and were on their second manager by September when Skinner resigned, due in part to his relations with Allen. The team had its share of problems, but Barry didn’t seem to be one of them — until he left the team.
Around August 29, Barry asked new Phillies manager George Myatt for a leave of absence to visit a “sick relative” in Arizona. He was given permission to leave. Nine days later, general manager John Quinn announced that Barry was in a psychiatric hospital in Tucson where he was being treated for “a severely acute emotional episode as a result of many stresses.”
The story of Rich Barry — which had never really been reported — came to light. He had what was described as a turbulent childhood, and both of his parents were dead by the time he reached the majors. He was married at a very young age, and that marriage had fallen apart. On top of that, he had to deal with his own “unrealistic feelings about his own lack of identity as a baseball player,” reported Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News. Barry needed constant play or else he would start to feel nervous, and the occasional start and pinch-hit at-bat didn’t suit him.
The sick relative that he was supposed to be visiting in Arizona was his former Eugene roommate, Bill Schlesinger, who had been beaned in a game in Tucson and was hospitalized. His injury greatly upset Barry, reported some of his Phillies teammates. An unidentified girlfriend told Myatt that as he was driving to visit his friend, Barry’s car broke down in the Arizona Desert near Casa Grande. Add that to his fatigue and everything else happening in his life, and he had a breakdown. He was hospitalized at the Pima County Hospital in Tucson before being transferred to Palo Verde Hospital.
“This young man has had a rough go of it,” said Quinn. “There has never been much stability in his life. The Phillies are interested in seeing Barry rehabilitated, and the doctors treating him assure me that he is desirous of treatment and has regained contact with reality.”
In light of everything that Barry went through during his short stint in the majors, it bears looking at his professional career again. After what sounds like a difficult childhood, Barry spent almost a full decade in a constant state of movement in the Yankees organization, going from Greenville to Binghamton to Richmond to Columbus on down again. The Yankees probably didn’t think of what the promotions and demotions were doing to Barry’s stress levels — baseball players are supposed to shake that stuff off, and minor-league ballplayers have even fewer options for seeking professional help than their major-league counterparts. When Barry finally reached the majors and spent most of his time sitting on the bench, it could have easily sent him to a dark place.
There are bright spots to the story, of course. For one, Barry was able to get help before it was too late. For another, he was able to return to professional baseball the very next season. The Phillies sold his contract to the Hawaii Islanders, and the change of scenery suited him well. Hawaii manager Chuck Tanner commended him for his hustle in spring training. “He’s the hardest worker here. You don’t see that very often in a player almost 30 years old,” Tanner said.
“It’s like getting a new lease on life,” Barry said of his start in Hawaii. He looked back at his career with a new perspective. “With the Yankees, I felt I came along at the wrong time — they had a lot of outfielders and I didn’t feel I was consistent enough even though I averaged 20 homers a season. But with the Phillies I can’t understand why I wasn’t given a chance.”
Barry spent two seasons with Hawaii. The Islanders had the best record in the PCL in 1970, and Barry hit .276 with 18 homers and 85 RBIs. He raised his average to .306 in 1971. Barry spent a final year in professional baseball in 1972 with the Richmond Braves, Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate. He batted .258 and hit the final 14 home runs of his career. In 15 years in the minor leagues, Barry had a .267/.363/.474 slash line, with 1,529 hits that included 255 doubles, 46 triples and 280 home runs. He drove in 1,055 runs.
Barry’s obituary doesn’t give details about his family or his post-baseball life. According to Ancestry records, he lived in Hawaii before moving back to California in the 2000s. About the last information available is a 1973 interview when he tried out for the Islanders after being released by Richmond. He was advocating better treatment for minor-league ballplayers, which is still an issue nearly 40 years later. “There’s no balance in baseball,” he said. “If you’re in the major leagues for four years, you get a pension. But I think something should be done for players who spend a good number of years on the Triple-A level.
“It’s not easy to quit when you’re that close to the big leagues and you keep hoping for a big break,” Barry added. “Before you know it, you’re too old. I believe minor league players deserve something for spending their lives in baseball, a pension plan that’s maybe half the amount the big leagues get.”
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2 thoughts on “Obituary: Rich Barry (1940-2021)”
What a wonderful, heartbreaking tribute to the life of this extraordinary man, Sam. You just about nail it when you say, “The Yankees probably didn’t think of what the promotions and demotions were doing to Barry’s stress levels — baseball players are supposed to shake that stuff off, and minor-league ballplayers have even fewer options for seeking professional help than their major-league counterparts. When Barry finally reached the majors and spent most of his time sitting on the bench, it could have easily sent him to a dark place.”
How prescient and generous of Rich Barry to recognize his own plight as a metaphor for something bigger than him personally: the miserable conditions under which minor league players still labor, decades after his own career stalled. Thanks for this illuminating look at Barry’s life and death, Sam.
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