Nickname: Dave, Impo, Skinny
Teams: Miami Giants (1936), Zulu Giants (1937), Ethiopian Clowns (1937-1940), New York Cubans (1941-1949), minor leagues (1949-1953)
Height: 5' 7'' Weight: 145
Born: October 30, 1914, Greenville, North Carolina
Died: January 8, 1983, Miami, Florida
A small, fireballing strikeout artist, the New York Cuban ace threw "aspirin tablets" and was one of the top pitchers in the East during the early 1940s. With sensational records of 18-3 for the 1941 campaign and 26-10 (11-3 in league play) for 1943, he was selected to start the 1943 East-West All Star game against Satchel Paige. The two star hurlers had met twice previously in the season, each time at Yankee Stadium, with Barnhill coming away with a split, losing the first encounter but spinning a shutout to even the score. Having been credited with the victory over Paige in the previous year's All Star game, this outing also marked the little right-hander's third consecutive All Star appearance, for which he had an aggregate six strikeouts to show for his nine innings pitched.
It was during these prime years that Barnhill received a telegram regarding the possibility of becoming the first black in the major leagues. Barnhill was called the "Tommy Bridges of the Negro Leagues" and rated as a "surefire" major-league prospect. A tryout had been arranged for Barnhill, Roy Campanella, and Sammy T. Hughes with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but owner Ben Benswanger reneged on his pledge, and the opportunity did not materialize.
He stayed with the Cubans and eventually helped pitch them to a Negro National championship in 1947. During this season he did not lose a game in league play, posting a 4-0 mark, and polished off the season with a shutout victory over the Cleveland Buckeyes in the World Series.
Barnhill began his baseball career on the sandlots of North Carolina, where his semi-pro opponents included Buck Leonard and Ray Dandridge. In the town of Wilson, the small, slender hurler earned both the nickname "Skinny" and the designation as ace of the staff. When playing teams from other towns, they would refuse to start a game without him. They would say, "Wait until Skinny gets here."
Barnhill was discovered by the touring Miami Giants when they were barnstorming through North Carolina in 1936, and Barnhill beat them 2-1. Later, after he had been signed, the team evolved into the Ethiopian Clowns and he acquired his Clown name, "Impo," and stayed with the team for three years as their star attraction. Buck Leonard had wanted the Homestead Grays to sign him, but the Grays favored big players and said he was too small. So "Impo" became a member of the Clowns, who were part baseball and part show-biz and who included a shadowball routine and "clowning" skits to entertain the fans. Although he spent most of his early professional career with the Clowns, he also played briefly with the rival Zulu Giants in the early spring of 1937. The Zulus donned wigs and makeup and also did comedic routines to delight the fans.
During this time, the diminutive hurler demonstrated his wizardry in Latin America, fashioning an 11-9 record and leading the league with 193 strikeouts while pitching for Humacao, Puerto Rico, in the winter of 1940-1941. The following spring he joined the New York Cubans and remained with Alejandro Pompez's club until going into organized baseball.
He quickly became a sensational performer and gate attraction with the New York Cubans. In 1943 Barnhill pitched against Satchel Paige twice at Yankee Stadium, losing the first game 6-3 but winning the second encounter by a shutout. After three super seasons with the Cubans, he suffered from an unspecified malady that kept him idle most of the 1944 season. In actuality he was stabbed by teammate Fred Wilson, but this was kept quiet. In 1945, Barnhill was fully recovered and again in top form.
The winter after the Cubans won the 1947 Negro World Series, Barnhill embarked for his first of three successive winters in Marianao, Cuba, and led the league in strikeouts, while compiling a record of 10-8 with a 2.26 ERA. The following winter, 1948-1949, his excellence on the mound continued as he led the league in victories and complete games while compiling a 13-8 record with an 2.81 ERA. He began tailing off in the last year there, losing the only three games he pitched, to end his Cuban career with a three-season total of 23-19 for a .548 winning percentage.
Meanwhile, in 1949, after his first two winter seasons, Barnhill was signed by the New York Giants along with Ray Dandridge. Assigned to the Giants' AAA franchise in Minneapolis, Barnhill compiled an 11-3 record to help the Millers to the championship in 1950. At Minneapolis he was accused of "cutting" the ball, and opposing managers watched his every move, trying to catch him. When they couldn't find any evidence to support their claim, they accused third baseman Ray Dandridge of doing it for him. Dandridge maintaned his innocence and Bamhill maintained his secret.
During his three seasons with Minneapolis in the American Association, 1949-1951, he compiled records of 7-10, 11-3, and 6-5, with corresponding ERAs of 5.75, 3.60, and 4.46. In addition to pitching, he could also help his team in other ways, by fielding, hitting, or running the bases. He was quick off the mound and was regarded as a good-fielding pitcher. He was also a good-hitting pitcher, with batting averages of .213, .226, and .204, and he was sometimes used as a pinch hitter. Despite his size, he hit three homers while at Minneapolis, with two of his round-trippers coming in 1951. He was also a fleet base runner and stole 8 bases in only 54 times at bat.
By then his age kept him from getting a shot at the majors, but he played with Miami Beach in the Florida International League, where he was 13-8 with a 1.19 ERA in 1952, while playing under Pepper Martin. Barnhill spent the next year with Fort Lauderdale in the same league, and split two decisions in only four games pitched. That was his last year in organized ball, and after leaving the baseball diamond in 1953, he lived his last thirty years in Miami, working in the city's recreation department until his retirement.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.