Red Barber

A photo of Red Barber.

Walter Lanier "Red" Barber (February 17, 1908 – October 22, 1992) was an American sportscaster.

Barber, nicknamed "The Ol' Redhead", was primarily identified with radio broadcasts of Major League Baseball, calling play-by-play across four decades with the Cincinnati Reds (1934–38), Brooklyn Dodgers (1939–1953), and New York Yankees (1954–1966). Like his fellow sports pioneer Mel Allen, Barber also gained a niche calling college and professional football in his primary market of New York City.


Early yearsEdit

Barber grew up in Columbus, Mississippi, and was a distant relative of poet Sidney Lanier and writer Thomas Lanier Williams. The family moved in 1918 to Sanford, Florida, and at the age of 21, he hitchhiked to Gainesville and enrolled at the University of Florida, majoring in education. During his first year, he worked at various jobs, including as a part-time janitor at the University Club. It was there that, in January 1930, Barber got his start in broadcasting.

An agriculture professor had been scheduled to appear on WRUF, the university's radio station, to read a scholarly paper on the air. When the professor's absence was discovered minutes before the scheduled broadcast, janitor Barber was called in as a substitute. The future sportscaster's first commentary was the reading of "Certain Aspects of Bovine Obstetrics" [1]. After those few moments in front of a microphone, Barber decided to switch careers. He became WRUF's director and chief announcer, and announced Florida football games that autumn. Barber promptly dropped out of school to focus on his radio work. He held his position at WRUF for the next four years, eventually landing a job broadcasting on WLW and WSAI with the Cincinnati Reds when Powel Crosley, Jr., purchased the team in 1934.

On Opening Day (April 17, 1934), Barber broadcast the his first play-by-play for a major league game (having never even attended a major league game before), as the Reds lost to the Chicago Cubs 6-0. He called games from the stands of Cincinnati's newly-named Crosley Field for the next four seasons.

Brooklyn DodgersEdit

Barber had been hired by Larry MacPhail, then president of the Reds. When MacPhail moved on to become President of the Dodgers in 1938, he took Barber with him.

In Brooklyn, Barber became an institution, widely admired for his folksy style of play-by-play. He was also well respected among people concerned about Brooklyn's reputation as a land of "dees" and "dems."

Barber was well known for his signature catchphrases, which included:

  • "They're tearin' up the pea patch" -- used for a team on a winning streak.
  • "The bases are F.O.B. (full of Brooklyns)" -- indicating the Dodgers had loaded the bases.
  • "Can of corn" -- describing a softly hit, easily caught fly ball.
  • "Rhubarb" -- any kind of heated on-field dispute or altercation.
  • "(Sittin' in) the catbird seat" -- used when a player or team was performing exceptionally well. This expression was the title of a well-known story by James Thurber. According to a character in Thurber's story, the expression came from Red Barber. But according to Barber's daughter, her father did not begin using the expression until after he had read the story.
  • "(Walkin' in) the tall cotton" -- also used to describe success.
  • "Baby puts the lotion in the basket" -used later in the movie Silence of the Lambs

To further his "Southern gentleman" image, Barber would often identify players as "Mister," "Big Fella" or "Old" (regardless of the player's age):

  • "Now, Mister Reiser steps to the plate, batting at .344."
  • "Big fella Hatten pitches, it's in there for strike one."
  • "Old number 13, Ralph Branca, coming in to pitch."

A number of play-by-play announcers, including Chris Berman, picked up on his use of "back, back, back" to describe a long fly ball with potential to be a home run. Oddly, those other announcers are describing the flight of the ball, whereas Barber was describing the outfielder, in this famous call from Game 6 of the 1947 World Series with Joe DiMaggio at bat:

  • "Here's the pitch, swung on, belted... it's a long one... back goes Gionfriddo, back, back, back, back, back, back... heeee makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! Oh, Doctor!"

The "Oh, Doctor" phrase was also picked up by some latter-day sportscasters, most notably Jerry Coleman, who was a New York Yankee infielder during the 1940s and 50s and later worked alongside Barber in the Yankees' radio and TV booths.

In Game 4 of that same 1947 Series, Barber memorably described Cookie Lavagetto's ninth-inning hit to break up Bill Bevens' no-hitter bid:

  • "Wait a minute... Stanky is being called back from the plate and Lavagetto goes up to hit... Gionfriddo walks off second... Miksis off first... They're both ready to go on anything... Two men out, last of the ninth... the pitch... swung on, there's a drive hit out toward the right field corner. Henrich is going back. He can't get it! It's off the wall for a base hit! Here comes the tying run, and here comes the winning run!...Well, I'll be a suck-egg mule!"

In 1939, Barber broadcast the first major-league game on television, on experimental NBC station W2XBS. In 1946, he added to his Brooklyn duties a job as sports director of the CBS Radio Network, succeeding Ted Husing and continuing through 1955. At CBS, Barber's most prominent contribution was to conceive and host the CBS Football Roundup, which switched listeners back and forth between broadcasts of different regional college games each week.

For most of Barber's run with the Dodgers, the team was broadcast over radio station WMGM later WHN at 1050 on the AM dial. From the start of regular television broadcasts until their move to Los Angeles, the Dodgers were on WOR-TV, New York's Channel 9. Barber's most frequent broadcasting partner in Brooklyn was Connie Desmond.

In 1948, Barber developed a severe bleeding ulcer and had to take a leave of absence from broadcasting for several weeks. Dodgers president Branch Rickey arranged for Ernie Harwell, the announcer for the minor-league Atlanta Crackers, to be sent to Brooklyn as Barber's substitute in exchange for catcher Cliff Dapper.

While running CBS Sports, Barber became the mentor of another redheaded announcer -- a young Vin Scully -- recruiting the Fordham University graduate for CBS's football coverage, and eventually inviting him into the Dodgers' broadcast booth to succeed Harwell in 1950 (after the latter's departure for the crosstown New York Giants).

Barber was the first person, outside of the team's board of directors, to be told by Branch Rickey that the Dodgers had begun the process of racial desegregation in baseball, a process that led to the signing of Jackie Robinson as the first black player in major league baseball since the 1880s. As a Southerner, living with segregation as a fact of life written into law, Barber told Rickey that he wasn't sure he could broadcast the games, but said he would try. Observing Robinson's skill on the field and the way Robinson held up to the vicious abuse from opposing fans, Barber became an ardent supporter of Robinson and the black players who followed him, including Dodger stars Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. (This story is told in Barber's 1982 book 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball.) Barber spoke out publicly and in his book about Enos Slaughter's intense opposition to major league integration to the and the "Jackie Robinson" experiment.

During this period, Barber also broadcast numerous World Series for Mutual radio and (in 1948 and 1952) for NBC television, frequently teaming with Yankees announcer Mel Allen.

New York YankeesEdit

Barber was determined to be a fair broadcaster, and not a "homer" who would seem to be cheering for his employer. By the end of the 1953 season, with Walter O'Malley having a controlling interest in Dodger ownership, Barber was pressured to become more of a homer. According to the baseball-broadcasting historian Curt Smith, however, Barber resigned from the Dodgers because O'Malley refused to back Barber in his demand that the Gillette Company pay him a higher fee for telecasting the 1953 World Series (which Gillette was sponsoring). Barber declined Gillette's fee and was replaced on the series telecasts by Vin Scully, who partnered with the Yankees' Mel Allen. Soon afterward, Barber was hired by the crosstown Yankees. Just before the start of the 1954 season, surgery resulted in permanent deafness in one ear.

With the Yankees, Barber increasingly strove to adopt a strictly neutral, dispassionately reportorial broadcast style, avoiding not only partisanship but also any emotional surges that would match the excitement of the fans. Some fans and critics found this later, more restrained Barber to be dull, especially in contrast to the more dramatic, emotive delivery of his famous Yankee colleague, Mel Allen.

In 1955, Barber took his long-running television program Red Barber's Corner, which had premiered in 1949, from CBS to NBC. It ran until 1958.

Barber described one of the central differences between himself and Allen as how they described potential home runs. Allen would watch the ball, resulting in his signature call of "That ball is going, going, it is GONE!" sometimes turning into, "It is going . . . to be caught!" or "It is going . . . foul!" Barber would watch the outfielder, his movements and his eyes, and would thus have a better idea of whether the ball would be caught. This is evident in his famous call of the Gionfriddo catch. Many announcers say "back, back, back" describing the ball's flight. It is clear from the Gionfriddo call that Barber is describing the action of the outfielder, not the ball. Curt Smith, author of Voices of Summer, summarized the difference between Barber and Allen in these words: "Barber was white wine, crepes suzette, and bluegrass music. Allen was hot dogs, beer, and the U.S. Marine Corps Band. Like Millay, Barber was a poet. Like Sinatra, Allen was a balladeer. Detached, Red reported. Involved, Mel roared."

On September 22, 1966, in a season in which the Yankees finished in tenth and last place under the ownership of CBS, their first time at the bottom of the standings since 1912 and after more than 40 years of dominating the American League, a paid attendance of 413 was announced at the 65,000-seat Yankee Stadium. [2]Barber asked the TV cameras to pan the empty stands as he commented on the low attendance. Although denied the camera shots on orders from the Yankees' head of media relations, he said, "I don't know what the paid attendance is today, but whatever it is, it is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium, and this crowd is the story, not the game."

By a horrible stroke of luck, that game was the first for CBS executive Mike Burke as team president. A week later, Barber was invited to breakfast, where Burke told him that his contract wouldn't be renewed.

Later lifeEdit

After his dismissal by the Yankees in 1966, Barber retired from baseball broadcasting. He wrote several books, including his autobiography, Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat; contributed to occasional sports documentary programs on radio and television; and from 1981 until his death made weekly contributions to National Public Radio's Morning Edition program. He would talk to host Bob Edwards about sports or other topics, including the flora at Barber's home in Tallahassee, Florida. Barber would call Edwards "Colonel Bob", referring to Edwards' Kentucky Colonel award from his native state.

Red Barber died in 1992 in Tallahassee, Florida. In 1993, Edwards' book Fridays with Red: A Radio Friendship (ISBN 0-671-87013-0) was published, based on his Morning Edition segments with Red Barber.

Honors Edit

The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association inducted Barber into its Hall of Fame in 1973. In 1978, Barber joined former colleague Mel Allen to become the first broadcasters to receive the Ford C. Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1979, he was recognized with a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Florida, given a Gold Award by the Florida Association of Broadcasters, and inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame. In 1990 Barber earned a personal Peabody Award for his NPR broadcasts, and in 1995 he was posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.

The Red Barber Radio Scholarship is awarded each year by the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications to a student studying sports broadcasting.

A WRUF microphone used by Barber during the 1930s is part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum's collection. It has been displayed in the museum's "Scribes and Mikemen" exhibit, and from 2002-2006 it was featured as part of the "Baseball as America" traveling exhibition.

Bibliography Edit

  • Barber, Red. (1954). The Rhubarb Patch: The Story of the Modern Brooklyn Dodgers. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Barber, Red, and Robert Creamer. (1968). Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat. New York: Doubleday.
  • Barber, Red. (1969). Walk in the Spirit. New York: Dial Press.
  • Barber, Red. (1970). The Broadcasters. New York: Dial Press.
  • Barber, Red. (1971). Show Me the Way to Go Home. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox. ISBN 0-664-20901-7.
  • Barber, Red. (1982). 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-17762-3.
  • Edwards, Bob. (1993). Fridays with Red: A Radio Friendship. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-87013-0.

References Edit

External links Edit

Preceded by:
Ford C. Frick Award
Succeeded by:
Bob Elson
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