Barney McCosky: Detroit’s First Prep Standout to Star for the Tigers

Following the 1939 season The Sporting News selected their All-Rookie outfield. Two of the players selected were Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox and Charlie Keller of the New York Yankees. Both went on to stellar careers, Williams reaching the Hall of Fame, and Keller as an All-Star known for his monstrous home run blasts who won four World Series rings with the Bronx Bombers.

The third player in that dream team rookie outfield was Tiger centerfielder Barney McCosky, a standout ballplayer from the sandlots of Detroit. McCosky is far less remembered than Williams and Keller, but he still achieved a .312 career batting average in an 11-year career. Had it not been for a devastating injury, McCosky may have joined Williams in Cooperstown.

McCosky’s family moved to Detroit when Barney was just five years old in the early 1920s, his father seeking a job in the automotive industry. The youngest of nine children, Barney was a natural athlete. Though he lettered in four sports for Detroit Southwestern High (track, football, basketball, and baseball), McCosky was most successful on the diamond. In his senior season the speedy left-handed second baseman batted .727 in the top high school league in Detroit. His idol was Tiger second baseman Charlie Gehringer, and McCosky modeled his swing after the Hall of Famer.

Signed by the Tigers, once he was in the minors McCosky was switched to center field to better utilize his foot speed. He quickly advanced to the big leagues, batting .311 with 190 hits, 120 runs scored, and 20 steals as a rookie in ’39. He followed that fine showing by hitting .340 with a league-leading 200 hits and 19 triples ion his sophomore year for the Tigers. McCosky normally batted leadoff or second in the Detroit lineup, hitting right ahead of his idol Gehringer and sluggers Hank Greenberg and Rudy York. In his third season as a big leaguer, McCosky continued to establish himself as one of the game’s best young hitters, batting .324.

In the 1940 World Series, Barney batted leadoff and collected seven hits and seven walks, batting .304 and scoring five runs in the Tigers seven-game loss to the Cincinnati Reds. After the 1942 season, McCosky enlisted in the U.S. Navy, eventually missing three full years to service in World War II. When he returned he was 29 years old, but he still had his sweet left-handed stroke – batting .318 with a .407 on-base percentage.

The following season he was struggling as he recovered from a back injury when he was dealt to the Philadelphia Athletics in May for third baseman George Kell. The trade was a jolt to McCosky, who still felt he had many years left to contribute to his hometown club. Years later, after Kell became a Tiger legend and Hall of Famer, McCosky became the answer to a trivia question as the player dealt for George.

On a dismal team in Philadelphia and in relative obscurity, McCosky kept hitting, batting .354, .328, and .326 in his first three seasons for his new team. In 1947 he battled Williams for the A.L. batting title before finishing second.

On the very first day of spring training in 1949 with the A’s, McCosky bent over to pick up a ball and felt a sharp pain in his lower back. He was unable to stand up straight or move without difficulty. After seeing a specialist it was determined that he had a pinched nerve in his last vertebrae. The injury had originally occurred the previous season in a game against the Tigers, and his action in picking up the ball had re-aggravated it. McCosky underwent a spinal fusion surgery and missed the entire ’49 season. He came back to play four more seasons for three different teams starting in 1950, but he was a shell of his former self. After the surgery, McCosky batted just .242 in 210 games. Prior to the injury he had hit .320 in 960 games and earned MVP votes in six of his seven seasons.

McCosky retired after the 1953 season with a .312 career average on 1,301 hits. A speedy and patient batter, McCosky spent most of his career at the top of the lineup. He averaged 92 runs scored and 69 walks per season. His .312 average was one of the best of his era, and it still ranks 13th among all Tigers more than 60 years after his last game in a Detroit uniform.

A gifted and popular Detroit sandlot star, Barney McCosky was one of the finest hitters in Tigers history. Had it not been for a severe back injury that robbed him of his batting skills at the age of 33, he may have ranked among the greats of the game.

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