I was startled the other day to see Red Barber's photograph in the New York Times. He had been the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers when I was a kid growing up in New York City.
I remember so clearly his calm Southern drawl helping me to keep my own homemade scorecard of Brooklyn Dodgers games over WOR. Somehow, it never occurred to me there was a face to go with the voice. But he became such a presence in my life that it would never occur to me to call him anything but "Red."
The voice was enough. It was literate, folksy and whimsical. His syntax was perfect. He spoke like nobody I had ever met in my neighborhood. And yet his descriptions of baseball were so quietly self-assured, you realized the man behind that voice knew the game. Red's voice drew word portraits. He put the Brooklyn Dodgers and their opponents right before your eyes. There was no television then, and baseball came to us only on radio. Thanks to Red, it was enough.
I knew the faces of the players, because their pictures were in the New York Daily News. But I never once thought of a face to go with Red's voice. Just his voice was enough. In recent years, when he broadcast a weekly segment on National Public Radio every Friday morning, his voice seemed not to have changed. Years after he had broadcast his final Dodgers and Yankees games, he remained the same wise presence. Obviously, there was a difference. Red had become a man in his 80s. He was more interested in cats and bird life in Florida than the peccadilloes of contemporary ballplayers who now average $1 million per year in compensation.
Occasionally, Red would speak about modern players. But most of his talk was about his cats or his garden. He only opened up about baseball when his radio partner, Bob Edwards, mentioned the old Brooklyn Dodgers or players like Jackie Robinson or Joe DiMaggio. What was Red Barber like? For one thing, he was a man with self-respect. He was tough. He never knuckled under. One brief story tells you a lot.
By 1953, Red had been the voice of the Dodgers since 1939. He was the most famous sports announcer of the day. The Dodgers won the pennant again that year, and Barber was picked to call the World Series against the New York Yankees.
The Gillette company was sponsoring the World Series, and it offered the announcers the sum of $500 for the entire series. Barber had been paid $200 a game during the regular season by a beer company. Why, he asked, should he work the series for less money? Gillette told Red that the honor of being behind the mic for the series should be enough. They told him to take the $500 or leave it, feeling secure his ego would not let him turn them down. Red left it.
And because Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers' owner, refused to back him up in his fight, Red also quit his job as announcer for the Dodgers.
Barber did attend the series, however. He was at the final game and made his way through the mob in the Yankees' dressing room to congratulate Casey Stengel, the winning Yankee manager.
"Congratulations, Casey," Barber said.
"Red, let me congratulate you first for what you did. A major-league job is worth major-league money."
It's an indication of how highly baseball people coveted Barber's services that he was hired the following season to broadcast the Yankees' games.
@body:It was Red Barber who introduced us all to expressions like "rhubarb," "sittin' in the catbird seat" and countless others.
He came by them honestly.
One night a Dodger fan got into a bitter argument with a Giant fan in a tavern. The Dodger fan went home and got a gun and shot the Giant fan in the stomach. The next day, a sportswriter came in for a drink and the bartender told him: "We had quite a rhubarb here last night."
Red heard the story at the ballpark. From then on, whenever there was a fight or an argument on the field he would say, "We have quite a rhubarb going, friends."
He got "catbird seat" from an experience in a poker game. In the game, Red kept raising on every card. At the end, his opponent turned over his hole cards. They were a pair of aces.
"Thanks, Red," he said as he raked in the pot. "I had those aces from the start. I was sittin' in the catbird seat."
The phrase became a regular part of Red's descriptive arsenal. Whenever the Dodgers were in an unassailable position, he would pronounce that they were "sittin' in the catbird seat." Hearing this phrase, everyone knew that victory was at hand.
He did things announcers don't do today. They don't have to. We are all watching on television, and if we pay attention, we usually see just as much as the announcers.
Here's Red describing a day at Yankee Stadium in the mid-1950s when a game was delayed by rain. Notice the folksy charm blended with pinpoint reporting.
The groundskeepers must bring out that old canvas, and they are working like beavers. Now they're going to cover first and second. Yes, they've definitely got the right side of the infield covered. That's first and second. Now they're working on third and home. That's on the left side. There goes third. There goes home. Now they've got third and home covered. Now they've got the entire infield covered. And even though it's raining pretty hard, that infield is nice and dry.
There's a little thunder to be heard now, but no lightning. However, where there's thunder, there's bound to be lighting. Or so they tell me. The only lightning seen around here, though, was that homer li'l ole Mickey Mantle blasted in the second. Well, with the way things stand at the present moment, how about returning to the studio for a little music until the game starts again?
Another day, Red described the old Ebbets Field, legendary home of the Dodgers, long since demolished and turned into an apartment complex. Notice how he combines his word picture of Ebbets with his description of Roy Campanella at bat for the Dodgers:
For those of you who haven't seen Ebbets Field, it's a double-decked stadium and the double decking begins at the right-field corner. In other words, there is no stand in back of right field; that's the famous fence . . . the right-field wall. . . .
Campanella fouls this one back . . . in back of right field is Bedford Avenue . . . curve ball outside . . . ball two . . . that's a big thoroughfare . . . it's about a six-lane street in Brooklyn . . . and that's a 40-foot-high wall. If you want to be exact, 39 1/2 feet . . . 19 1/2 feet of concrete and then 20 feet of wire panels. . . .
The pitch is way outside for ball three. The field is in wonderful shape. The ballpark is just as pretty as a brand-new bug. Got a lot of baseball going today. . . .
Red arrived at the ballpark three hours early and talked to the players before the game began. So he always had plenty of things to talk about in the booth during the course of the game.
Here's an example:
One day Stan Musial came up in a clutch situation in the late innings of a St. Louis Cardinals game. Red recalled for his listeners a conversation Musial had in the dugout before the game. Another Cardinal player, Wally Westlake, had told Musial he felt so good that he thought he might be able to get three hits.
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"Do you ever feel that way, Stan?" Westlake asked Musial.
"Every day," Musial said.
The point of the story is that Red waited until the relief pitcher was advancing toward the mound, at the high point of the game, before he told us a story that would show us how confident Musial always was when he came to bat.
@body:Red was a white man raised in the segregated South. He doubted, at first, that the Jackie Robinson experiment would work. He didn't think black players could be integrated into a sport which was at that time made up largely of white Southerners. Then, seeing how Robinson was treated by some racists that first year, he said: "I began to be ashamed of the white people I grew up with."
Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer, remembers Red's radio description of Robinson's first moments on the field in baseball.
"Red interrupted the game and said a few things about human dignity and human rights . . . I remember the end exactly. Red said, 'And I hope he bats a thousand.' "I think that was Red's greatest moment on the air."
But there were so many of them. I forgot, for example, to tell you why he was finally fired by the Yankees in 1965. At the conclusion of a listless season, Red infuriated Yankee owners by reporting that only 413 fans had shown up to see their last-place team on a glorious September afternoon.