Barber, Berber, Barbour?

Jesse Barber, middle of the back row.

One of the better, but more unknown players in Negro League history was Jesse Barber. He was a fine outfielder who spent time playing, as was usual for a lot of Negro Leaguers, a lot of positions. Considering how much time I’m taking looking at various aspects of the Detroit Stars, it shouldn’t surprise you that he wandered through Detroit.

Jesse Bernard Barber was born in 1888 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Before starting this post I looked at The Baseball Bloggess blog. She has a Virginia-born project there that is worth reading over. It tracks players, both white and black, who were born in Virginia. Had she done Barber, there would have been no need for this post, but she hadn’t. It’s still worth it to go check her out.

By 1909 he was playing ball in Philadelphia. He started as a shortstop with foot speed and a decent glove for the era. He got the attention of the Chicago American Giants, who lured him away from Philly. He played a little at short, a little all over the infield, and finally settled in the outfield. As the Giants lead off hitter he set the table for such Negro League stalwarts as John Henry Lloyd (who replaced him at short) and Pete Hill. He remained with the American Giants through 1919, then moved on the Bacharach Giants (Atlantic City), Hilldale (Philadelphia), and the Stars before finally finishing up in 1925 back with the Philadelphia Giants.

The career was basically successful, but beginning in the late 19-teens he developed a “fondness for the bottle.” As one writer put it “he lost his batting eye” to drink. It plagued him throughout the latter part of his career and is partially responsible for his frequent movement in his later career. As with the post on Frank Wickware, I’ll point out that drinking was a significant problem for both Negro League and Major League players in the period.

Again, you have to ask “how good was he?” And again the answer is incomplete. Seamheads lists his triple slash line as .296/.349/.387/.735 over 549 documented games. He has 683 hits, 143 for extra bases (11 home runs), and 239 RBIs with 57 stolen bases. All that gets him 6.8 WAR (and again remember that WAR is calculated over only 549 games).

“So,” you ask, “what’s with the title to this little rambling?” Well, it has to do with the frequent disagreement with how he spelled his last name. Newspapers of the era tend to drift between “Barber” and “Barbour” seemingly at will. One census form gives it as “Berber.” Considering we have no idea how Barber/Barbour pronounced it, have no idea how literate the census taker was, how much he was paying attention, it’s not a bad garble of the name. But it still doesn’t solve the problem. But we do have his World War I draft card.

Barber’s World War I draft card from Ancestry

There it is written “Barber.” Solves the problem, right? Well, not exactly. He later signed up for the draft in World War II:

Barbour’s draft card for World War II (same source)

And whattaya know, he spells it “Barbour” here. Maybe he didn’t know which was right and started with Barber, then changed to Barbour when he kept seeing it in the papers. I don’t know, but it makes for an interesting sidelight into his life. It’s, in fact, this sort of thing that helps make the study of the Negro Leagues fascinating.

Whether it was “Barber” or “Barbour,” Jesse died in Connecticut in 1959. And for what it’s worth I couldn’t find a picture of his headstone to see how it was spelled.

As a quick aside, one of the early governors of Virginia was James Barbour of Orange County (which isn’t far from Charlottesville) and in 1974 Charles Barbour became the first black mayor of Charlottesville. Roosevelt Barbour was city assessor for Charlottesville, and there is a Barbour Street in the town. All that leads me to believe that “Barbour” was probably the original spelling. But don’t bet the farm on that.


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11 Responses to “Barber, Berber, Barbour?”

  1. rjkitch13 Says:

    In writing about the early days of baseball, I’ve noticed players are either choirboys or drunkards. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground during that era.

  2. homeplatedontmove Says:

    The bottle claimed the careers, and sometimes lives, of so many great players. For me, Wickware might be the most tragic. He could have easily had a Hall of Fame career if not for his alcoholism.

  3. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    Thanks for the shout out! You’re right, I haven’t gotten to Charlottesville yet and your Jesse Barber story is great! I just attended a lecture about amateur black baseball leagues in Virginia and it’s believed that the best teams in the state were in the Charlottesville, Orange, and Madison region, including a town called (you guessed it!) Barboursville (which celebrates the white Barbours of the area). I looked up his obituary in Connecticut papers and in his 1959 obituary in the Bridgeport paper he is listed as “Barber” so that might be correct.

  4. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    Well, the more I think about it, the more I agree that Barbour is probably correct. This is the same conundrum that we faced when researching Pete Hill to confirm his Culpeper, Virginia roots — we had to find a plantation owner named Hill where we could reasonably guess Hill’s parents had worked as slaves.

    In this case, we at least know that there was the large slave-rich Barbour family plantation in Orange County — the plantation, designed by Thomas Jefferson, that gives the little town of Barboursville, and its award-winning winery, its name. Barboursville is probably 15 miles or so from Charlottesville, so it’s entirely possible that Jesse Barbour was descended from Barbour plantation slaves.

    Fun Fact: Larry Haney — 1970s era Oriole/A/etc etc — is the most famous resident of Barboursville today.

  5. Tiffany Barbour Says:

    Hello. My name is Tiffany Barbour I recently began researching my family history and I made the discovery that Jesse Barbour is my great great uncle. My grandfather was named after him. I also discovered that Jesse and my great grandfather James Alonzo Barbour last name was changed between 1900-1910. Looking at the census record in 1900, my great grandfather James Alonzo and great-great uncle Jesse were last names were listed as Harris. I am still trying to discover how Barbour became the last name.

    • verdun2 Says:

      Thank you for informing me. I appreciate clearing that up, at least a little.
      And good luck with your further researches. Let us know what you find.

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