On April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, Major League Baseball commemorated the achievements of the player who broke the color barrier. First, Robinson did time in the segregated Negro Leagues alongside many talented athletes who never reached his level of fame. One of them was Durham native John Quincy Adams "Bud" Barbee, who belongs to a secret history of local baseball that lurks behind the Bulls.
Bud Barbee could crush a baseball. He was a prodigious power-hitter in the Negro Leagues throughout the early 20th century. He could also fling the horsehide, befuddling batters with his array of pitches. According to legend, he outdueled the immortal Satchel Paige in a thrilling 1–0 contest in Puerto Rico.
The real facts are unclear. A 1940 article in the Baltimore Afro-American states that Barbee's team won the game, but that the Newark Eagles' owner, who had just signed Paige, didn't believe the report. The discrepancy shows how poorly documented the Negro Leagues were.
Barbee's prowess earned him slots on the rosters of some of the highest-profile Negro League teams of the 1930s and '40s, including the Negro National League's 1937 New York Black Yankees, where the youthful phenom wowed the national press on what was otherwise a mediocre, injury-riddled squad.
"Bud Barbee, the giant 21-year-old rookie from Durham, N.C., was the only ray of sunshine [for the Black Yankees]," wrote Baltimore Afro-American reporter Levi Hubert. "This chap banged out homers, held opponents scoreless, and did yeoman service as a pinch-hitter."
Few photos of Barbee exist, but he made an impression wherever he went. A valedictory 1954 article in Norfolk's New Journal and Guide—near the end of his career—noted his charisma, dubbing him "something of a hero to the Latin lassies" and adding that "any announcement that Bud Barbee is in Gotham sets may [sic] a feminine heart aflutter in lower Harlem." Though Barbee never married, federal records indicate that he had several children.
Before he was a national sensation, Barbee paid his dues with the Durham Black Sox and the Raleigh Tigers on the sandlots and fields of North Carolina. After rising through the local scene and the upper echelons of the Negro Leagues, he broke into what was called "organized" baseball during integration, competing for squads as far-flung as Quebec, North Dakota and Latin America.
The structure of the Negro Leagues was highly fluid, and they were strictly segregated from organized, i.e. all-white, baseball. The only relation was that Negro League teams sometimes rented the white teams' stadiums while they were on the road.
Organized baseball existed much as it does today, with the Majors at the top and a structured network of minor leagues feeding players into them. While the Negro Leagues were less stable, they had their versions of the majors: the Negro National League and the Negro American League. Below them were dozens, if not hundreds, of black "minor leagues." Most were regional and fleeting, and there was no formal feeder system into the NNL or NAL.
Everything changed when Robinson crossed the color line in 1947. As soon as he found success—and the Brooklyn Dodgers with him—the majors started raiding the black leagues. Soon, all levels of organized baseball were integrated. This led to the slow death of black baseball, and by the '60s, the Negro Leagues were gone.
Barbee, who died in January 2000, would have just celebrated his 100th birthday last month. He never made it to the integrated major leagues, probably because he arrived slightly too early. But he came very close, and is vividly remembered by those who watched or played alongside him. His durability and versatility led to a career arc common to many African-American players who crisscrossed an unjust country for the love of the game.
Bud Barbee was probably one of the best players around Durham and Raleigh," says Willie Bradshaw, who played for several local all-black teams. "He played baseball year-round. In the winter, he would go south to play, but he would always come back in time for the beginning of the [spring] season."
According to sports historian Bijan C. Bayne, Barbee was a three-decade mainstay of the Triangle baseball scene, which included Raleigh's Tar Heels, Grays and Tigers and Durham's Black Sox, Red Caps, Eagles and Rams.
"It was quality semipro ball for the era, because [Durham] was a large city," Bayne says. "The Tigers were probably the state's most thriving and enduring black squad, playing well into the 1960s. Durham teams were competitive from the 1930s through the end of Jim Crow, due to their major-city status and pick of the better players."
Those top-notch players, Bayne says, included Eulace Harrington, a pitcher who was compared to Paige while playing for the Raleigh Tar Heels in the '20s; Hubert "Bert" Simmons, a Tarboro native who suited up for the Raleigh Tigers, the Goshen Red Wings and the Asheville Blues in the late '40s; and future major leaguers Charlie Neal, Wes Covington and Milt Smith, all of whom first played for the Tigers.
Barbee was the region's crown jewel. He was born in Durham on March 16, 1914—a few official sources list it as 1916—to Bratcher Barbee, a laborer for the city of Durham, and the former Easter Atwater, who toiled as a domestic worker and laundress for most of her life. Both were born in Chatham County, likely the descendants of slaves there.
The Barbee family lived on Elizabeth Street in Durham for several decades; a 1939 passenger register for the S.S. Coano, on which Bud traveled from Puerto Rico to New York, has the address as 812. Bud was considerably younger than some of his siblings, including brother Lamb Barbee, a stellar ballplayer and manager who tutored Bud in the finer points of the game.
Lamb, termed a "slugging" outfielder by the black press, was a player-manager for the Raleigh Tigers in the late '40s and early '50s, moving to the Durham Rams in the mid-'50s. He had his greatest success as the skipper of the 1948 Tigers, who won the crown of the Negro American Association, one of the many regional semipro circuits that bloomed in the Mid-Atlantic states.
In his teens, Bud worked as a bootblack at a barber shop and graduated from Whitted High School. He launched his semipro baseball career in the mid-'30s, when he was about 20 years old. In September of 1935, he hurled a three-hit win for the Durham Black Sox over the Brooklyn Cuban Giants at El Toro Park in Durham.
In August 1936, he contributed mightily to the Sox's 29–0 thrashing of the visiting Philadelphia Red Caps, manning first base and slugging three singles, a triple and a home run. In that game, the Sox roster also included Lamb and a third brother, the teenage Walter Barbee.
Bud's standout play for Durham caught the eye of big-time Negro League scouts, and in 1937, the prominent Black Yankees signed him. A headline in the Baltimore Afro-American blared that the Yanks pinned their Negro National League title hopes to the "Tar Heel Rookie."
Bud, wrote reporter Levi C. Hubert, "came up from Durham, N.C., two months ago and has astounded the baseball world by rolling up a batting average of .487 in ten league games," including six home runs. By the time the right-handed batter arrived in the Big Apple, he stood well over six feet tall and weighed a strapping 180 pounds, and had already developed phenomenal versatility as a pitcher and infielder.
The Black Yanks leaned on Bud and fellow mound ace Barney Brown, but the team was still mired near the cellar of the NNL, and Barbee bolted from New York for teams in Cuba, Puerto Rico and across South America. But he returned to New York in May of 1940 (along with a fellow Durham native, outfielder Roy Debnam), with the Chicago Defender calling him "one of the leading pitchers of the Cuban and Mexican leagues the past two seasons."
During this time, Barbee apparently kept a residence on Johnson Street in his hometown, according to the 1940 U.S. Census, which also shows that he supplemented his baseball income with a day job as a construction carpenter.
Needing a second income stream was common for Negro Leagues players—and for many white Major Leaguers of the time as well. In 1941, like many poorly paid players who were constantly looking for a bigger paycheck, Barbee again played in Mexico before soon returning to the States. One newspaper report at the time called him an "erratic pitching star," hinting that his skills were starting to slide.
Following a stint with the top-notch Baltimore Elite Giants, Barbee—again like many Negro Leaguers—was called into duty during World War II. After enlisting in October of 1943, he was stationed as a private first class in Italy with the all-black 92nd Army Division, where he manned right field for the division's powerful squad. But Barbee's career in the Negro League majors was over.
After leaving the service, Barbee returned to his hometown, where he hitched on as a pitcher with the Durham Eagles, of the semipro Carolina Negro Baseball League, in May of 1946. The next year, he was invited back by the still-struggling Black Yanks. But first, he again headed south of the border to play winter ball.
Playing in the Mexican Leagues in the offseason was quite common for both black and white players. Some black players even joined Latin-American teams year-round, as they paid more and were already integrated. When Jackie Robinson broke into the majors and the Negro Leagues feeding frenzy began, some observers still pegged Barbee for the big time.
But when he returned to the Black Yanks for the 1947 NNL season, his mound mastery was slipping. "During the past season," said the New Journal and Guide in August of 1947, "leading sports writers covering the winter leagues listed Barbee as a big league prospect, but the comparatively poor showing he made during the first half of NNL play caused Major League managers to look elsewhere."
He then wintered in Panama, staying in touch with his family in Durham via ham radio, before returning yet again to New York for the 1948 season. As the '50s arrived, Bud, then well into his 30s, had to give up any hopes of cracking the majors. But he did manage to slip into the lower levels of organized baseball as an outfielder with minor-league teams in Canada, where he was able to show flashes of his old stuff, pounding homers by the dozen.
In October of 1950, those showings got him picked up by the Kansas City Colored Royals, a traveling squad centered around Paige, before Barbee joined a barnstorming black team based in Houston and a squad in the West Texas League.
The Barbee family suffered a blow in February 1951 when Easter, the family matriarch, died in Durham at age 69 from severe arthritis and hypertension. Bud forged ahead and finished his hardball career in the mid-'50s with the flourish of a dedicated 40-year-old, signing with the Portsmouth Merrimacs in Virginia. He shaved seven years off his age, with the New Journal and Guide listing him as 33.
Though now middle-aged, Barbee still had some pop left in him. By 1955, he was leading the Class D Appalachian League with a .432 average for the Merrimacs. After that season, he finally retired from the game that had taken him around the world and returned to Durham. His father passed away in January of 1965, from kidney disease, at age 93.
Bud followed on January 20, 2000, at age 85. He was given a military burial in Durham's Glennview Memorial Park, where his grave, which now lays unmarked, can still be visited. An obituary in the Herald-Sun called him "one of the finest baseball players Durham ever produced."
"As far as black baseball in Durham, Bud was a legend," Willie Bradshaw said in the obit. But in a different era, Bud Barbee might have been a baseball legend, period, and so our annual celebration of Jackie Robinson's triumph also reminds us of the injustice on which it was built.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Black diamond."