As featured in Springhouse Magazine
The spring of 1986 was no different for a “youngster” of 80 in Harrisburg, Illinois than it had been for the last twenty years of his life. Charles “Dee” Barrett was ready for the umpire’s call: “Play Ball!”
He would begin getting ready, as he did every year about that time, when the big leagues were swapping players and cutting deals for the next season. Although the Golden Years of a man’s life should have been filled with the three “R’s”: retirement, rest and relation, Barrett didn’t know it.
To him, it was more like B, P and W: baseball, politics, and work; plus the added attraction of extra-curricular activities – not necessarily in that order.
At this time of year, it was time to worry about pitchers, always a scarcity in Khoury League circles for the 11 and 12 year olds. Since 1965, Barrett had worked with the youngsters and felt like one of the crowd. He wasn’t much taller, if any, than most of his “boys.” He might have possibly been the oldest Khoury League manager around. To hear him tell the story, he was at one time the most feared.
Be that as it may, baseball was Barrett’s number one hobby in Spring. He thought anything initiated later than February was off to a poor start, and started talking up league meetings. By March, he was ready, but try outs were held up until April, exasperating the veteran warrior of little league. He was a hard taskmaster, critical and often heard to yell, not only at the boys, but umpires as well.
“Whaddaya mean, swinging at that one? It was way over your head. Come on, you know better than that!” he would bite. Sometimes it made the boys mad enough to begin a hitting streak.
It was no surprise when he yelled: “Hey Ump! Where’s the strike zone tonight?”
Barrett trained the boys hard and often, expecting and usually getting hard work out of them. Added to that the parents who were hardy and handy enough were called on to coach, umpire a base, or whatever was needed.
Barrett was slow to laud the good plays, but on one was prouder of the boys. He daily scanned the news for development of the lives he had touched, however briefly. He proudly pointed out any accomplishments, whatever field of endeavor they were involved in.
Twenty years of managing teams led to earlier years players sometimes presenting their sons to try out with Dee Barrett’s team. Young men and boys yelled out “Dee!” on the streets, and he turned to see if it was one of his boys.
The reputation Barrett built with at least eight championship material teams followed him. In the last years, his wins had been fewer, partially because it was more important to him then to train the boys for the future.
The stocky-built eighty-year-old admitted he always found it hard to cull the not-so-good players, sometimes keeping the limit of 15 on his team. He bemoaned the fact that there were fewer teams available now for the boys–and girls–because younger men with families were hard to recruit as managers and coaches.
If Barrett had gotten his way, every boy and girl would have played baseball or at least softball in the Summer, and he would have liked to see a city league formed to “let ‘em all play.” It was often that he bought gloves, shoes and shirts for the lesser income kids.
Barrett’s baseball hobby began–most serious to him–began in early boyhood as a sandlot pitcher and shortstop in 1918 in Southern Illinois. He was quick to remember great opposition pitchers in a neighboring town in the Thirties, and coaching Kiwanis League baseball, umpiring some.
He played in Michigan as a young married man where he worked in factories before, during and after WW II. After trying unsuccessfully to enlist–thick glasses were his bane–Barrett returned to his home town in Harrisburg, Illinois as a plasterer and lathing contractor until his first retirement.
A twenty year stint in little league managing began in 1965 at age 60. It was a passion that had not lessened prior to his death at age 84. Having come close to a championship playoff in 1983–losing out by a throw-away ball to first–disappointment wrapped him in discouragement and he decided he might be getting old; to old to help the boys any longer. He dropped out of managing for a season but kept a foot in the door as treasurer of the league plus unofficial, unappointed watchdog.
Barrett was encourage later by his second wife who had spent six hot summers at the fields to “get back in the game.” That year a downhill slide of the number of teams playing and lost managers was too much to bear. The beloved sport was losing supporters.
Barrett fired back in support in 1985 by again managing a team. One such year, the season was almost over before he discovered his shortstop was indeed a short-haired girl. He couldn’t believe her name wasn’t Steven. She was good, he had to admit to his wife.
He was unsuccessful in pushing for an increase in the number of teams, but was happier not sitting on the sidelines.
In addition to the main hobby of baseball, there was Barrett’s year-round group of the “Dee Barrett Singers.” At the drop of a hat, or more realistically, the ring of the telephone he could be convinced to engage his group of gospel singers without a negative thought.
“Sure, we’ll be there if we can get together,” he would promise, and then ordered all of the singers into action. He would sing one of his compositions–the only one set to music–with little or no coaxing. He had written poetry during his high school days.
Besides full time employment as custodian of a three-story Baptist church in his home town “since retirement at age 62” Barrett was street and alley commissioner of his beloved city; Saline County secretary-treasurer of his chosen political party, and a precinct committeeman of some 34 years.
Every upcoming March primary would find Barrett campaigning for himself for the precinct position, or a candidate for something else. Added to this he would be campaigning for everyone he promised assistance. However, baseball would remain his time-consuming project.
Few days or nights found the untiring man at home. In addition to council meetings, regular and special he attended Odd Fellows Lodge faithfully, and all church functions requiring the custodian on the scene. There were political meetings, senior citizen council, Khoury League meetings, singing practice, and some Sunday afternoon union meetings. He was the Local president of the Cement Masons and Plasterers.
If nothing else was on the agenda he might ask his 50-year-old travel-worn, just-got-home-from-work wife: “Is there a dance somewhere at the senior citizens’ center? We ought to go.” She often crumpled inside but never fainted.
Of course, relatives must be visited occasionally and there were Christmas parties, fund-raisers, picnics, a never-ending list. On their honeymoon in Italy in 1979, his young wife of forty-three gave up attempting to keep up with him and he strolled the streets alone stopping people “if anyone spoke American.” To his credit, but to his new wife’s dismay, he refused use of the elevator to their fifth-floor room.
This youngster was born Charles Deneen Barrett, named after Governor Charles Deneen of Illinois. He was born and raised in southern Illinois. Barrett graduated from Harrisburg
High in 1924 with honors in shorthand and typing accompanied by a passion for sports. He toyed with the idea of professional boxing during teen years.
“I was good at it, but Mom talked me out of it,” he often said., “but I wasn’t silly enough to keep it up.”
It seemed a big boxer twice his size scared him into leaving the ring after a few hits. He also worked sixteen hours a day for a local ice company–the days of horse-drawn ice-wagons–to help support his four sisters and parents.
Barrett retire? Rest? Relax? Not for that senior citizen. The Golden Years were but a part of his zest for life, and he expected to live to be at least 103; “killed by a jealous husband” when he danced with the man’s wife.
At age 84, paralyzing strokes following his oldest step-daughter’s death took a toll and he succumbed while believing he would someday soon step out of the dugout and manage another team. He died quietly, no pain, just murmuring “something’s awful wrong” as he grabbed his chest with the good left arm.
But–his wife could hear God softly whisper: “Let’s play ball, Dee.”