Dave Barnhill stood at 5’ 6” and weighed around 150lbs, but don’t let his size fool you. Barnhill was a feared pitcher who became one of the top hurlers in the Negro Leagues during the 1940s. Barnhill threw the ball so hard, he scared himself – worried he might injure a batter if he hit them.
He threw smoke.Hall of Famer and Negro Leagues star Cool Papa Bell on Barnhill
Barnhill was born October 30, 1914 in Greenville, NC. He grew up playing the typical stickball and sandlot versions of baseball and, when he was old enough, began playing semi-pro baseball in Greenville and Wilson, NC.
During his semi-pro days in North Carolina, “Skinny” Barnhill became a local legend on the mound. While playing for the Wilson Stars semi-pro team in 1936, Barnhill was recruited by the Miami Ethiopian Clowns after he beat their barnstorming team 2-1 in an exhibition game in North Carolina. The “funmakers” team from Miami toured the country playing baseball and entertaining fans with their vaudeville style antics (a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters). Barnhill pitched 3 years for the Ethiopian Clowns.
We’d come to the park with [grease] paint on our faces like a clown. Even the bat boy had his face painted too. We wore clowning wigs and the big old clown uniforms with ruffled collars. My clowning name was Impo. We’d play ‘shadow ball’…Then when we were supposed to get down to business, we pulled the clown suits off, and we had our regular baseball uniforms underneath. But we didn’t change our faces. We played with the clown paint still on our faces.Barnhill, recalling his time barnstorming with the Miami Ethiopian Clowns
In the fall of 1940, Barnhill went south to play baseball in the Puerto Rican Winter League and won 11 games for the Grises de Humacao team while leading the league with 193 strikeouts. In the spring of 1941, he signed with the New York Cubans of the Negro National League. For 8 years (1941-48), Barnhill was the ace of the Cubans pitching staff.
In his first season with the New York Cubans in 1941, Barnhill is credited with an 18-3 win-loss record when totaling league play and exhibition games. He was selected to the 1941 East-West Negro Leagues All-Star Game. In 1942, there were two East-West All-Star Games and Barnhill represented his Cubans by pitching in both for the East team.
On July 24, 1942, Barnhill received a telegram requesting a tryout with the Major League Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates owner, William Benswanger, subsequently backed out of the arrangement and the Pirates tryout never happened. If Barnhill had the tryout with the Pirates – it would have been the first tryout for a black player in the Major Leagues. The telegram request was also 3 years prior to Jackie Robinson’s signing with Brooklyn, which could have led to Barnhill becoming the first black player to sign with a Major League team. But Barnhill didn’t let the lost opportunity keep him from continuing to play baseball.
In 1943, Barnhill went 12-4 for the Cubans and earned a third consecutive trip to the East-West Game. In 1947, the New York Cubans won the Negro National League title and faced the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League in the Negro World Series. Barnhill helped secure a World Series title for the Cubans by pitching a 9-0 shutout in Game Four. During the winter of 1947-48, Barnhill pitched in the Cuban Winter League for the Tigres de Marianao winning 10 with a 2.26 ERA. On January 10, 1948, Barnhill set a Cuban League baseball record by striking out 15 in a 15-inning 0-0 tie game called on account of darkness.
In 1948, back pitching for the New York Cubans, Barnhill earned a fourth selection to the Negro Leagues East-West Game. Overall, in 5 East-West All-Star Games, Barnhill tallied 14 innings allowing just 2 runs while facing the Negro League’s best stars. He returned to Marianao in the winter of 1948 and won 13 with a 2.76 ERA. After his second season with Mariano, the Major League New York Giants offered contracts to Barnhill and fellow Negro League star and Mariano teammate, Ray Dandridge. Both Barnhill and Dandridge were assigned to the Giant’s Triple-A affiliate, the Minneapolis Millers.
Barnhill struggled in his first season in 1949 in the Minor Leagues, going 7-10 with a 5.75 ERA. The following season, Barnhill rebounded as he and Dandridge led the Millers to a 90-64 record and an American Association Championship. Barnhill went 11-3 with a 3.60 ERA in 1950, striking out 128 in 140 innings. Neither Barnhill nor Dandridge ever received a promotion to the New York Giants or Major Leagues. Both finished out their baseball careers in the Cuban League and Minor Leagues with Barnhill retiring after the 1953 season at age 40.
I had some good experiences with that ball club. They treated me and Ray like we were on the ball club. Well, we were on the ball club. It wasn’t who was black, who was white. Oh my goodness, there were some beautiful days back then. I can say that I am a very, very lucky guy.Barnhill, recalling his time with the Minneapolis Millers
Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (James Riley)
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Black Diamonds: Life in the Negro Leagues from the Men Who Lived It (John B. Holway)
SABR article (Brian Carroll)
SABR Baseball Research Journal, 1981 (James Riley)
Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History (Jorge Figueredo)