By JOHN GORALSKI
Jack Barry never did get the chance to test his arm against the fastest runner at spring training in 1952, but the Southington catcher worked his way around the four fields in Myrtle Beach, S.C., hoping for a chance to take his shot.
For a few weeks in early April, the former air force was transformed into a baseball paradise. Catchers and pitchers strained for the attention of major league coaches. Sluggers aimed for deep center field, while speedsters tried to out-run throws to second base. Fielders dove at loose balls, and every move was measured by major league personnel.
For the length of the spring training period, Barry and Hank Aaron were competing on the same stage.
“They talked about this guy that could run like a deer. I didn’t get a chance to play against him, but he was at the same camp,” Barry said more than six decades from that fateful competition. “It was a job. It wasn’t about fun stuff. You had to play. You had to work because, if you didn’t, you’d be going home.”
Southington fans still wonder what would have happened if Barry and Aaron met on the base paths. Would “Hammerin’ Hank” have met his match at home plate? For four years, Barry had proved himself against the top prospects in Connecticut—first at Lewis High School and later at Southington High. How would he have matched up against the “Hammer?”
I guess we’ll never know.
“You’re not going to hear anything out of him,” said Barry’s former high school teammate Mike Mauro. “That was the thing about him. He didn’t pat himself on the back. He just went out there and did the best he could. What he did was better than most people could do, and he was always 100 percent into the game.”
Barry was never one to toot his own horn. He would just take his place behind the plate and do his thing, but for a short time in the early 1950s, there was nobody that could touch him.
“We had winning teams. We won championships back then, and he was the leader on those teams,” said Mauro. “He was a fireball. He kept the younger players, like me, on their toes. He was a fighter, and when things were down, he was the first one to get us back up. It wasn’t his words. It was his actions and the way he played the game. He hustled all the time, and he was a really good hitter.
Barry grew up in Southington before the influx of Little Leagues and organized sports. He cut his teeth in pick-up games on Marion Avenue and perfected his throws off the brick foundation of his parents’ house. In the fall, he’d test his strength in sandlot football games at the future site of Kennedy Middle School, and in the winters he’d test his endurance in marathon hockey games on Sullivan’s Pond.
There was no specialization—players would shift from infield to outfield and pitcher. There were no age groups—younger kids would have to prove themselves against the veteran neighborhood stars. Barry never considered himself the star in any childhood game, but this was where he honed the skills that would eventually carry him into the minor leagues.
“There were no umpires. We used to just walk there from wherever you lived,” he said. “We used to have enough guys to field two teams, and we’d play sand lot baseball. The bats were all taped. The balls were all old… I think you learn the game better that way. I used to play in the infield, second base, or anywhere like that.”
Barry was never the biggest. He was never the best, but by the time he arrived at Lewis High School, he was already battle tested. He could hit lefty. He could throw righty, and when Coach Jay Fontana asked for a volunteer behind the plate, Barry jumped at the opportunity.
“I was playing the infield. One of the boys got hurt…and coach didn’t have anyone else,” said Barry. “I told him I’d catch and see what I could do. He said okay, and I got better at it. I played more, and I liked it better. You were in the game all the time. I never really realized that until I played it. I still think it was the best position on the field.”
Once he stepped behind the plate, Barry never lost the job. His teams rallied for three straight conference championships from 1949 to 1951, and Barry led the defense to an undefeated conference record (11-0) in 1950.
Barry was just as dominant at the plate as he was behind it. In his junior year, he finished second to Mauro with a .359 batting average. As a senior, he finished just behind a different teammate with a .398 average. As a senior, Barry powered the offense with a pair of home runs—both with bases loaded.
When he graduated from Southington High School in 1951, a sports writer at a local newspaper, Southington News, wrote, “His heads up style of play and his batting ability made him a feared opponent in all games. He was probably the top catcher in scholastic circles in Connecticut.”
Future Blue Knight coach John Fontana was an underclassmen on Barry’s squad, and he said that Barry was one of the best catchers in Southington history.
“He was ahead of his time as a catcher, and let me tell you, he could hit,” said the younger Fontana. “He had a hell of an arm, and he was a tough, tough competitor and a great leader.”
Of course, baseball wasn’t the only place where Barry left his mark. In the fall, Barry proved to be just as dominant on both sides of the football.
As a junior, he helped lead the defense as a linebacker during Lewis High School’s 11-0 championship run. Barry’s defense allowed just 39 points over the course of the season as they posted seven shutouts with only two teams scrambling for double digit points.
Every play, they tried to beat Barry up the middle. Every play, he’d fight them off.
“It was a lot different back then. We didn’t have the passing that they have today. Most offenses ran the single wing. The T-formation was just coming in,” he said. “It was mostly running plays with things like the Statue of Liberty where the end ran around, and things like that. There weren’t too many passing plays. It wasn’t all wide open like it is today.”
Barry proved to be a lynchpin in Southington’s iron defense.
“I just enjoyed every bit of it,” he said. “One game against Meriden in 1949, I made a tackle. The guy was running with the ball, and he just came out from behind the line of scrimmage. I hit him, and the guy went way the heck up in the air. That was the biggest thrill I ever had.”
Despite his dominance defensively, Barry shifted to offense for his senior year. As halfback, he managed to score three times on the ground with one touchdown pass before suffering a shoulder injury that plagued him throughout the rest of the school year.
Barry had battled his way onto the varsity basketball roster as a junior, but the injury sidelined him as a senior.
“That injury bothered me all the way through—even with baseball,” he said.
Still, when spring bloomed, Barry was ready to return behind the plate. Soon, scouts tried to lure him to the collegiate ranks, offering a chance to attend Springfield College. But Barry shrugged off the opportunity to test his chances at a professional career.
The next spring, Barry threw himself into a minor league journey that went from Bristol, Conn. to Bristol, Tenn.
He played a few games with the Bristol Bees and was quickly signed by the Boston Braves organization for the Hartford Chiefs. He would work out with the Hartford Chiefs when they came to town, catching batting practice and working out during practices.
That began a rollercoaster run through the minor leagues, including a tryout for Connie Mack, along with the Myrtle Beach spring training and roster spots with the Dansville Dans (Illinois) and the Welch Miners (West Virginia) until a chronic arm injury forced him to end his short career.
“When you are playing pro ball, you throw every day. It wasn’t like when you’d only play games once or twice a week in high school,” he said. “It’s hard on you. I think my arm just gave out on me.”
Even with his early exit from professional sports, Barry’s reputation as a top Southington athlete still continues to this day. With his dominance in multiple sports at the high school and his competitive efforts after graduation, it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee named Barry as a member of the Class of 2015.
“With what we have in the hall of fame, Jack definitely belongs there,” said Mauro, a 2010 inductee. “I played with Jack in ‘49 at Lewis High School. He was the catcher, and I was the little guy on the back of the bus that rode in the back of the bus to go to games. I pitched one game that year, and I always looked up to him. I still do. When I meet him in town, I don’t call him ‘Jack.’ I still call him ‘Cap.’”
On Wednesday, Nov. 11, Barry will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460.
“This is an honor, but I didn’t expect it,” Barry said. “I look back at it, and I think I was just an average player. I never thought I was above any of the players I played against. I just loved playing, and I gave 100 percent.”
Maybe that’s what made him so great.
To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.