An enduring record and a botched baseball card

One of my favorite things to write about is the unusual or obscure. You might call it bizarre, or even weird, and that would be fine by me. I think about Abraham Lincoln’s statement–uttered when he was still an unknown young man on the Illinois frontier– that “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” So I will be following his advice by telling the story of a pitcher named Jim Barr.

Jim Barr is going to turn sixty-four years old next month. He’s about a year younger than my father, and both of them are on the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation. For more than half of Jim Barr’s life, he held a major league record. 99.99999% of us will never even make it to the major leagues–or even play professional baseball on any level–so we can’t appreciate what that means. I’m in that 99+% group, so I won’t pretend I have any special insights into this story. But it is as obscure as it is remarkable, and that’s what makes it perfect for this space.

When you strip baseball down to its very essence, there’s a pitcher and a batter. The pitcher is trying to retire the batter without reaching base, and the batter is trying to reach base, or at least advance another player who’s already on base. That’s it. There’s a catcher to facilitate the pitches being thrown, and an umpire to call balls and strikes, and defensive teammates to make a play if the ball is hit into play, but the game all comes down to a pitcher and a batter, and who gets the better end of their confrontation.

In 1972, Jim Barr got the better end of this confrontation forty-one times in a row. That means nearly three and a half dozen hitters–or two score and one, as Lincoln might have said–came to the plate against Jim Barr, and every one of them lost. These at-bats were spread across two games–the final 20 batters of a game at home on August 23, and the first 21 batters of a game on August 29th in St. Louis–and so they didn’t total up to a perfect game, which is something more people would be familiar with. That would be Lincoln’s “beaten path,” to extend a previous analogy.

Both games that Barr pitched were complete game shutouts, and so this record-setting performance did help his team out. But his team was languishing near the bottom of its division, in the dog days of summer, during a time when there was no ESPN to cover it, and no fantasy nation to dissect the game from every possible angle. The performance was enough to lift Jim Barr, who was then a second-year pitcher in the majors, to a 6-7 record for the season, but not enough to raise his overall profile in any meaningful way.  How do I know this? The card above tells the story for me.

Jim Barr pitched for the Giants from 1971 to 1978. At the end of the 1978 season, he became a free agent and signed with the California Angels in December of that year. And yet, the 1979 card that Topps released for Jim Barr still shows him as a member of the Giants. I guess when you have no competition (and Topps didn’t back then), you can get sloppy like that, and call Jim Barr a Giant if you want to. But it goes even deeper than that.

I scanned the back of Jim Barr’s card as well. The individual years aren’t terribly interesting, but the bottom line, with his career totals, can sometimes tell you something about a player. In this case, it indicates that Barr has a lifetime record of 102 wins and 110 losses. It makes you wonder where the retiring-41-batters-in-a-row stuff came from, but it’s impressive enough that he was able to pitch at the big-league level for as long as he did.

But some simple addition for each of the years listed reveals that his lifetime record at that point was actually 81 wins and 90 losses.  So Topps either couldn’t add the numbers up correctly, were just making his career numbers up, or got his stats confused with someone else’s. They already had his team wrong, so flubbing his stats too doesn’t seem like such a reach.

Jim Barr–a big league record-holder from 1972 until Mark Buehrle broke his record in 2009–was pretty badly dissed by the Topps company back in 1979. Would Reggie Jackson have to suffer such an indignity? No, Topps went out of their way to hide Reggie Jackson’s Baltimore Orioles card for the 1977 season, after he had signed with the Yankees instead. But Jim Barr? Not so much. It’s things like this that make baseball carding such a fun hobby for me.

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