Position: Pinch hitter, first base Birthplace: Albemarle
First, Middle Names: Ogre Patterson
Date of Birth: Nov. 26, 1917 Date and Place of Death: March 15, 1993, Charlotte Burial: Sharon Memorial Park, Charlotte
High School: Albemarle High School
Bats: R Throws: R Height and Weight: 6-3, 180 Debut Year: 1946 Final Year: 1947 Years Played: 2 Team and Years: Philadelphia Athletics, 1946-47
Career Summary G AB H R RBI HR BA. OBP. SLG. WAR 14 16 4 0 3 0 .250 .250 .375 0.0
A faded black-and-white photograph in a book about the baseball teams that textile mills in North Carolina sponsored through much of the 20th century shows a group of men – mostly men, anyway – posing with bats and balls and in dirty uniforms with “Knitters” embroided on their chests. They are the Wiscasset Knitters of 1935. Wiscasset Mills Co. was one of three textile factories in Albemarle at the time.
Pat Cooper is standing in the back row. He was just 18, a senior at the local high school. He had grown up in Stanly County and was part of Elijah and Ella Cooper’s large family. The Knitters were Cooper’s first stop on an almost 20-year career in organized baseball. Most of that time would be spent in the minor leagues or on industrial teams in North Carolina’s piedmont.
After serving in the Army during World War II, Cooper played briefly in the majors, appearing sparingly over the parts two seasons for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1946 and ’47. He was used mostly as a pinch hitter.
He and his wife, Marzelle, lived in Charlotte after Cooper’s baseball day were over where he was an independent building contractor. Cooper died in 1993.
Date of Birth: May 7, 1905 Date and Place of Death: July 1, 1968, Albemarle Burial: Guilford Memorial Park, Greensboro
High School: Pomona High School, Greensboro College: Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, Ga.
Bats: R Throws: R Height and Weight: 5-11, 178 Debut Year: 1926 Final Year: 1932 Years Played: 2 Teams and Years: Philadelphia Athletics, 1926; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1932
Career Summary G AB H R RBI HR BA. OBP. SLG. WAR 116 374 92 44 60 6 .246 .290 .393 0.3
To be honest about it, Dave Barbee didn’t amount to much in the major leagues, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t much of a ballplayer. Barbee set records in the minors and absolutely terrorized the competitive industrial leagues that flourished last century amid North Carolina’s textile mills and tobacco factories.
To those blue-collar, lunchbox-toting workers struggling through the Great Depression, David Monroe Barbee was a star.
It’s hard for modern baseball fans to imagine a time when that their sports’ stars didn’t command princely contracts or exhibit their skills in palaces of flashing neon, $2,000 ground-level box seats and $10 hot dogs. They can’t imagine a Dave Barbee.
Even in his day, no one flocked to Shibe Park or Forbes Field to watch Barbee play during his two brief stints in the majors. But over on the West Coast, he was a major draw. Fans packed little Dugdale Field in Seattle and Wrigley Field in south L.A. – Gary Cooper, George Raft and William Powell among them – to watch Barbee launch towering shots into the grandstands while setting minor-league home run records.
Later, back in North Carolina, Barbee became something of a legend among factory workers from Wilson to Wilkesboro. They’d crowd into little municipal parks and fenced-off pastures to watch Barbee tear through the opposing company team.
It was a time in baseball when a man didn’t have to don a fancy uniform, play in a big city and be named Ruth, Cobb or Gehrig. He could make a living and name for himself playing a game he loved down in Class C Greensboro, over at Double A Chattanooga or as the company ringer on the Sanford Spinners or the Burlington Bees.
That’s Dave Barbee. Though he appeared in less than 200 major-league games, Barbee would until the day he died always consider himself to be a ballplayer.
He was the second of three children born to Ada and Joe Barbee. The 1910 and ’20 censuses have them living in Morehead, a township in Guilford County that now makes up most of southwestern Greensboro. Joe Barbee listed his occupation in the 1910 count as “spraying trees with a machine.” Ten years later, he reported being a railroad inspector.
His son, David, attended old Pomona High School, a historic Classical Revival style building that’s now apartments on Spring Garden Street in Greensboro. Its shining moment came in 1923 when little Pomona, led by Dave Barbee, won the state baseball championship. Barbee hit a home run and pitched a three-hit shutout in the title game.
He played two seasons in the outfield at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and, as a freshman, had a key role in the school’s conference championship in 1924.
Signing on with his hometown Greensboro Patriots in the Class C Piedmont League in 1926, Barbee became the “Gate City Crasher,” hitting .372 with a record 29 homers. Connie Mack, the manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, acquired him on July 24 and inserted him in the lineup five days later against the Cleveland Indians. Barbee belted a triple on the second pitch he saw. But it was downhill from there. He hit .190 with one homer in 19 games, and Mack released him.
Barbee returned to the minors and became one of the most fearsome hitters in the Double AA Pacific Coast League. From 1928-31, he hit .325 with 146 doubles, 26 triples and 126 home runs. He led the league in homers twice and would be inducted into its hall of fame in 2014.
The Pittsburgh Pirates bought Barbee’s contract, and he became the Bucs’ starting leftfielder in 1932, his only full season in the majors. Though he had a respectable year — .256-5-55 – Barbee found himself back in the minors where he would remain until he quit professional baseball in 1935.
Barbee and his family — wife, Annie, and their young son, David Jr. – settled in Burlington where Barbee was an inspector for Burlington Mills. One suspects, though, he was really hired as a ringer for its baseball team.
For at least the next five years, Barbee dominated the industrial leagues, his exploits reported in newspapers across the state. He even caught the attention of far-off, big-city journals. Washington’s Evening Star reported in October 1937 about a series of games pitting Barbee’s Burlington team against McEwen Hosiery Mills for the industrial-league championship. Barbee, the paper noted, went 10 for 14. Half his hits were homers. “Sportswriters down there swear the series is on the level,” the paper concluded.
Such hitting lines were the norm. At the mid-point of the 1940 season, for instance, Barbee was hitting .491 with 10 homers in just 39 at bats.
His trail then disappears, re-emerging years later in Stanly County. There, a death certificate filed with local health authorities, notes that David Monroe Barbee, 63, died on July 1, 1968 of a cerebral hemorrhage. In the form’s space for Usual Occupation, are these words: “PLAYER OUT FIELD.” In the Industry field is this: “BASE BALL.”