Category: Biography

Red Barber

Walter Lanier “Red” Barber, b. Feb 17, 1908, d. Oct 22, 1992, sports commentator, “Voice of the Dodgers”.

Red Barber’s career as a play-by-play baseball commentator spanned four decades, beginning in 1934 with the Cincinnati Reds, until his retirement in 1966 at age 58. Although he began his career calling plays for Cincinnati and capped it with a 13 year stint with the New York Yankees, Barber was best known as the “Voice of the Dodgers”, for whom he worked from 1939 to 1953. Although a Mississipian by birth, Barber charmed his way into the hearts of his Brooklynite listeners by telling them, “I may not broadcast the games with a Brooklyn accent, but I do broadcast them with a Brooklyn heart.”

Barber began his broadcasting career, when radio was in its infancy, at WRUF, the University of Florida’s station in Gainesville, FL. He began his long professional career with Cincinnati in 1934, then moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1939. Barber broadcast the first televised major league baseball game, August 26, 1939, a double-header featuring the Reds and the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. He inaugurated televised major league baseball by saying simply, “This is Red Barber speaking. Let me say hello to you all.”

While the Dodgers went on the road, Barber remained behind, calling games from the studio. However, he never tried to deceive his listeners into thinking he was broadasting from the site of an away game, letting them hear the teletype clacking in the background instead of playing taped crowd sounds. Barber left the Dodgers at end of the 1953 season following a contract dispute. He then went across town to the New York Yankees, where he stayed for 13 years, until he was fired late in the 1966 season for telling his audience that only 413 fans filled the stadium.

With colorful phrases and an exquisite command of the English language, Barber made baseball games come alive for his listeners. Players were “sittin’ in the catbird seat”, “tearin’ up the pea patch”,”walkin’ in tall cotton” or “havin’ a rhubarb”. Close plays were “bang-bang”, or “a squeaker”. An outfielder didn’t just run back for a fly ball – he went “back, back, back, back, back”. Barber’s vivid and evocative lexicon was even a key plot feature in James Thurber’s short story The Catbird Seat.

Retirement from baseball commentary was not the end of Barber’s broadcast career. Until his death in late 1992, he made weekly appearances from his home in Tallahassee on NPR’s Morning Edition. Host Bob Edwards, whom Barber affectionately called “Colonel”, talked with Barber every Friday morning; their four-minute conversations quickly became one of NPR’s most popular features. They talked sports, of course, but also about how the camillias were blooming, cats, race relations, literature and the English language. It still breaks my heart to recall Red’s last year on radio. He was clearly slowing down; he didn’t keep up with Edwards questions about contemporary sports, but dwelled more on his beloved camillias. He sounded tired. I almost wished Edwards would simply let him go, but greedily, selfishly, I wanted more Red.

Awards

  • 1979 – Baseball Hall of Fame Ford C. Frick Award – first recipient along with Mel Allen
  • 1984 – inducted into American Sportscaster Association Hall of Fame
  • 1991 – Peabody Award for radio commentary.

Quotes and Phrases:

  • “Baseball is dull only to dull minds.”
  • “Whenever you have a tight situation and there’s a close pitch, the umpire gets a squawk no matter how he calls it.”
  • “When I was in baseball and you went into the clubhouse, you didn’t see ball players with curling irons.”
  • “He’s sitting in the catbird seat.” (He has the lead.)
  • “Hold the phone.” (Manager on the way to the mound.)
  • “Running like a bunny with his tail on fire.” (The player can run really fast.)
  • “The bases are F O B’s” (Full of Brooklyn(s) Dodger players.)

Sources:
Learning Network, Info Please www.infoplease.com
Mike Cobb, The Ledger – Most Important Floridians of the 20th Century www.theledger.com
Baseball Almanac www.baseball-almanac.com
CBS Sportsline www.sportsline.com
American Sportscasters Association www.americansportscasters.com

© 2001-2006, originally published May 16, 2001