In an era of baseball history known for rowdy play and the coarseness of its players, the clean-living and high-minded Jimmy Barrett was widely hailed as one of the good guys.
“He’s not the kind that the fans yell at across the street or hail on the field,” said the Detroit Free Press, “but rather the type that holds the respect and friendship of the bug without permitting or drawing familiarity. In other words, Jimmy Barrett is just about as near a ‘gentleman’ as it is given men of the baseball profession to become.”
Modest, quiet, and happy-go-lucky, Barrett’s pleasant temperament stands out even more when it’s contrasted with that of the man who replaced him in the Tigers’ outfield: baseball’s original bad ass, Ty Cobb.
Born in Athol, Massachusetts, in 1875, Barrett lost both parents by the time he was six years old and was subsequently raised by his uncles. He came to Detroit in 1899, batting .331 for the Western League Tigers until being sold to the Cincinnati Redlegs that August. He played alongside “Wahoo Sam” Crawford in the Reds’ outfield for two summers. In 1901, when the American League declared itself a major league, Barrett signed a $3,000 contract with the Tigers to return to Detroit. Crawford would join him in the Bennett Park outfield in 1903.
For four seasons, 1901 through 1904, Barrett was the Tigers’ finest all-around player and a fan favorite. Short, stocky, and fleet of foot, he batted left and threw right. In an era of contact hitting, he struck out a lot. In fact, with Cincinnati he led the National League with 63 punch-outs in 1900, then repeated with an American League high 64 whiffs the following year with Detroit. At the same time, he was a patient enough hitter to lead the A.L. in walks in 1903 and 1904. A slap hitter and a fine bunter, he batted .291 across 10 major-league seasons. His best year was 1903. He batted .315, fourth best in the league, and led all batters in on-base percentage.
As a ballhawk, many observers who saw Barrett in his prime put him just a notch below Tris Speaker, widely considered the finest defensive outfielder of his era. Barrett certainly had the numbers to back up such comparisons. He led the league in putouts twice (1902, 1904) and in outfield assists three times in four seasons (1901, 1903, 1904), a testament to one of the best throwing arms around. Like Speaker, he played a shallow center field and utilized his great speed to chase down balls hit over his head.
On April 26, 1905, in a game against Cleveland at Bennett Park, Barrett stepped into a hole while chasing down a ball and twisted his right knee. It was considered a severe sprain at the time but he had probably torn ligaments. He tried to come back too soon, and re-injured it. By August he was a part-timer, prompting the club to call up 18-year-old Ty Cobb from the Augusta Tourists. When the Tigers picked up Davy Jones in the off-season, Barrett became expendable. He’d lost much of his speed on the base paths and in the field, and was now just an ordinary player.
In May 1906, he was sold conditionally to Cincinnati, for whom he went hitless in a dozen at-bats before being returned as damaged goods by the Reds to Detroit. Following that, Barrett began a seven-year odyssey through the minor and major leagues as a player and manager, finishing his career with three seasons with Milwaukee in the American Association.
Barrett announced his retirement from professional baseball in February 1913, though he continued to keep his hand in the game by playing amateur ball for the Detroit Athletic Club and helping to coach the University of Detroit nine. Barrett missed out on being a part of the Tigers’ three pennant winners in 1907-08-09, but any cries of “poor Jimmy” were misplaced. He was a frugal man who, working with his brother-in-law, made a killing in Detroit’s booming real estate market. When he died of a heart attack inside his office one autumn morning in 1921, the genial ballplayer left behind an estate worth $400,000.