Thank you, Rex Barney, for the memories


February 21, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Rex Barney's new book seems a written confirmation to himself: Yes, those dreams really did occur back there, didn't they? You really were a major league pitcher a thousand years ago, and your life consists of more than a series of "Thank youuus," doesn't it?

Time being the great thief that it is -- and, among other things, it steals memory -- Barney's autobiography is a reminder to himself to stay enchanted by his own past: that overcast September afternoon at the Polo Grounds in 1948 when he no-hit the New York Giants; the sunlit summer when the world was young and he won 15 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers; that heart-stopping time he struck out the great DiMaggio in the World Series; and those friends of his whom America called Pee Wee and Jackie and Campy and Duke.

It happened so quickly, and then got snatched away so cruelly and so long ago, that Barney holds a unique place in American culture: He got to live the big dream, but not long enough to take it for granted; he had his kiss of fame, but it went away so quickly that he never lost the appreciation of it, or stopped remembering the taste of it.

You can see the delight on his face now. He's sitting here, eyes twinkly, pen in hand, autographing one book after another with inscriptions that end: "Thank youuu."

And yet the book -- titled "Rex Barney's Thank Youuuu," -- is something of a disclaimer. It says to all who know him from his public address voice at Camden Yards, or his radio talk show, that here is a man with a past worth telling.

"Baseball," he says, glancing up from signing a book the other night at a party at old friend Ted Venetoulis' house, "is a humbling sport."

He knows whereof he speaks. Once upon a time, Barney was the legendary wild man of Brooklyn baseball, faster than any pitcher of his era, but also more uncontrolled. It's now a cliche of baseball: If the strike zone were high and outside, Rex Barney would have been a Hall of Famer.

His book captures his brief ride to the top, and also the quick fade from view. Along the way are some pretty good baseball yarns.

He reaches the Dodgers as Paul "Big Poison" Waner's career is coming to its end. Waner was remarkable for his hitting, much of it despite alcohol-induced stupors. When somebody asks Waner his secret, he is succinct:

"Same as it's always been," he says. "I never drank or smoked or dissipated in any way until I was 8 years old."

Once, Barney and catcher Roy Campanella are good-naturedly ribbing each other.

"What did you hit in the Negro Leagues?" Barney asks.

"I hit .365," says Campy.

"How do you know you hit .365?"

"We all did," says Campy. "We kept our own records."

For Barney, for a little while, it was lovely: the no-hitter over the hated Giants, the embrace of celebrities at Toots Shor's famous New York saloon, the misguided notion that none of it would ever end. But he hurt his leg, and then his always-shaky control disappeared completely, and one day there was Jimmy Cannon writing of Barney in the New York Post:

"It's one of the saddest stories of sports and, if I break down and do a little moaning, give me a pass. This is one of the nicest kids I've ever met. It's a shame it happened to him, because no one ever liked what went with it more.

"This kid is a genuine big leaguer. But it looks like the big leagues are too much for him. At 26, Barney looks like he's had it. It's a hell of a time to be finished. Back in Omaha most guys at that age ain't even started."

The old newspaper clipping strikes a chord: Presented, four decades later inside Barney's memoir, it adds to the sense that he's tugging at his own sleeve, saying, "See this story? I really was something back then, and here's the proof."

He was a big leaguer, but it was a little different then. Television hadn't yet bestowed universal identity. The big money hadn't spoiled everyone. And, like a lot of guys of his era, some of the big potential was stolen by a world war.

In fact, his pages on serving in a tank unit in Europe are scary and heartfelt: "Le Havre was a shambles, flattened by constant German air raids. Debris and bodies floated in the harbor. We could not get to thedocks, and had to wade ashore in waist-high water carrying rifles and equipment over our heads.

"It was cold, dirty, and muddy, with death and destruction everywhere. I don't want to remember it, but I cannot forget it."

There's a lot here that's worth remembering.

He's not just a guy at a microphone saying, "Thank youuu." There was a time at the top, grand as any dream, and then there was Barney learning to get on with it after the fall.

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