Book Review: ‘Red Barber: The Life and Legacy of a Broadcasting Legend’

  • “Red Barber: The Life and Legend of a Broadcasting Legend” by Judith R. Hiltner and James R. Walker. PHOTO BY ELLIOTT ERWITT/MAGNUM PHOTOS

  • RED BARBER

For the Gazette
Published: 7/15/2022 5:33:19 PM

“Red Barber: The Life and Legacy of a Broadcasting Legend” by Judith R. Hiltner and James R. Walker; University of Nebraska Press

Years ago on a Florida road trip I stopped at the Sanford-Orlando Kennel Club, a dog track that opened in 1934 and catered mostly to the local railbirds. The facility included a clubhouse and dining room, a large grandstand near the finish line, and a smaller one close to where the dogs broke from the starter’s box.

This was the segregated area, an empty relic and haunting reminder of the town where Walter Lanier “Red” Barber was raised. He was 10 years old when his family moved from Mississippi in 1918, a time in Sanford when “the brutal realities of the Jim Crow era [were] still potent.”

A recently published biography reveals how Barber overcame this cultural bias to become arguably the best broadscaster in baseball history. “Red Barber: The Life and Legend of a Broadcasting Legend” is co-written by Judith R. Hiltner and James R. Walker.

The authors meticulously researched this 544-page biography. More than 1,000 footnotes cite the material used from the New York Times, San Diego Union, Tallahassee Democrat and dozens of other newspapers, as well as Robert Creamer’s biography “Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat” and Barber’s own memoir and syndicated columns.

On Opening Day in 1934, the 26-year-old Barber sat in the upper deck of Crosley Field in Cincinnati and broadcast his first game, a 6-0 loss by the Reds to the Chicago Cubs. The broadcast booth was no more than a microphone nailed to a wood plank, but flagship station WLW-AM was a 500,000-watt behemoth and Barber’s broadcasts went far and wide.

Five years later, he was broadcasting Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field, and in 1954 he went 15 miles north to Yankee Stadium to work alongside another future Hall of Famer, Mel Allen. At his apex, Barber was making $50,000 a year.

Hiltner and Walker capably describe Barber’s play-by-play delivery: “His low-key voice, speaking at a lively pace, accentuated the tension of the scene, second by second, and it rose ever so slowly and deliberately to a roaring crescendo, almost like a piece of opera.”

Evolution of a broadcaster

Called a “sorrel-topped youngster” by the Tampa Bay Times, Barber’s swirl of red curly hair inevitably garnered him the nickname “Red,” which later and inevitably became “The Ole Red Head.”

Barber’s father William was a railroad engineer who raised pit bulls for extra income. “Passenger trains were too easy for Dad, he preferred the rumbling power of a huge string of boxcars,” wrote Barber in his 1968 memoir.

His mother, Selena Lanier, was related to Tennessee Williams. She grew up in Mississippi, graduated from the state’s first women’s college, co-wrote a textbook on English grammar and “patiently corrected her young children’s speech whenever it deviated from proper syntax.”

Selena, said Barber, was a key to his success because “to ad lib for hours upon hours, day after day, you must have an ear for language.”

He also relied on a textbook written by Amherst College professor John Genung titled “Practical Elements of Rhetoric.”

Hiltner and Walker describe how Barber learned to transcend most but not all of his prejudices, including a passion for performing in blackface. Quoting from his memoir, Barber insisted, “I never wanted to be anything else but an end-man in a minstrel show.”

He nearly left the Dodgers rather than introduce the nation to Jackie Robinson, and for a long time neither he nor his wife Lylah (Scarborough) accepted the fact that their only child, Sarah, was a lesbian. Eventually Barber formed solid relationships with both, but the work it took to rid himself of these deep-seated beliefs likely contributed to the bleeding ulcer that nearly killed him in midlife.

Barber declined a scholarship to Rollins College in Winter Park after a friend told him it was a “stuffy rich kid’s school” and convinced him to pay his way through the University of Florida. He lasted until his sophomore year, when he landed an announcing gig at a local radio station. The job was at WRUF in Gainesville, a sundown station where he eschewed straight-laced formality for a “folksy, cracker sort of thing of just kind of leaning over the back fence visiting.”

His first sports broadcast was in 1930, a football game between Florida and Florida Southern. He called it “organized chaos” and regretted not bringing pencils or a scorecard. From then on he rigorously researched the players and teams, proclaiming “preparation is 75 percent of the work for a game.”

The Barber brand of baseball broadcasting

The Brooklyn years were to Barber what the Capitol years were to Sinatra. Hiltner and Walker describe him taking the subway to Franklin Avenue and walking five blocks to Montgomery Street and Ebbets Field: “Along the way he talked with store owners standing outside their shops and sometimes grabbed a soda and sandwich at a local deli.”

On sweltering summer days, baseball fans would go on the porch, turn on the radio and feel like Barber was in the rocking chair next to them. They would smile at his Barberisms — a rally was “tearing up the pea patch,” a “rhubarb” was arguing with the ump, and “being in the catbird seat” meant the game was in hand.

The latter phrase was renowned, and in 1942 James Thurber used it for the title of a short story that appeared in the New Yorker. Its genesis, said Barber, came when he was beaten by a poker player with two aces in the hole. “I was in the catbird seat,” he told Barber. (Catbirds wait in treetops for smaller birds to spot worms and then swoop down and take it from them).

I decided I needed to hear Barber in action, and listened to the first four innings of the fourth game of the 1949 World Series between the Dodgers and Yankees on YouTube.

Barber filled the time between pitches with comments about the weather. “It’s extremely warm and muggy, an afternoon for perspiration. … What do they say Down East in New England, the sun is burning it off?”

After Yankee hitters Phil Rizutto and Tommy Heinrich led off with back-to-back hits, Barber said, “Newcombe has got one foot in the pickle vat.” It was the only Barberism I heard; he must have used them sparingly. He did, however, call Rizutto a “dead bird” after he got picked off third base.

Relevant after baseball

After he left full-time announcing, Barber wrote books, magazine articles and newspaper columns. He did a USO tour to Vietnam and in 1967 he joined other Yankees on a trip to Walter Reed Hospital to visit wounded soldiers. “Barber was surprised and genuinely moved watching Mickey Mantle’s patient and warm interactions with wounded men,” wrote Hiltner and Walker.

In 1978 Barber was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The microphone he used at WRUF is displayed at Cooperstown and his archives are available at the University of Florida. Each year a scholarship is awarded in his name.

In 1982 he began a weekly appearance on NPR’s “Morning Edition” with Bob Edwards that continued until his death. “Take care of that cold, or whatever it is,” were Edwards’ last on-air words to him on Oct. 2, 1992.

William Gutfarb, a member of the board of trustees at both the Yawkey Foundation in Boston and Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, is a devotee of old-time baseball videos. He wrote me to say, “Barber’s years were what I consider the golden years of the game. There were none of the constant ‘who cares’ statistics, no drop-in ads ad nauseam, just reporting on the game and what is going on on the field.”

Indeed, anyone who wants to know what broadcasting was like before the advent of spin rates and exit velocity, reading “Red Barber” would be a good place to start.


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