Barber, Walter Lanier (“Red”)
Barber, Walter Lanier (“Red”)
(b. 17 February 1908 in Columbus, Mississippi; d. 22 October 1992 in Tallahassee, Florida), sportscaster and author, best known for his folksy southern accent and colorful language as a broadcaster for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees on radio and television
Barber was one of three children born to William L. Barber, a locomotive engineer for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and Selena Martin, an English teacher. He was nicknamed “Red” because of his hair color. Sidney Lanier, the southern poet, was a distant relative. Barber’s family moved to Sanford, Florida, when he was ten years old. He graduated from Sanford High School in 1926 and picked celery, drove trucks, and worked as both a roustabout and a road builder. Barber attended the University of Florida at Gainesville from 1928 through 1930, hoping to become an English teacher, and worked as a janitor to help pay tuition costs. His career ambitions changed, however, after he was selected to read the paper of a professor who forgot to appear for his scheduled airtime on the campus radio station, WRUF. Barber dropped out of school in 1930 to become chief announcer and director for WRUF.
The short, wiry Barber met Lylah Scarborough, a nurse, while recuperating from an automobile accident at the University of Florida hospital. They married on 28 March 1931 and had one child.
Cincinnati Reds owner Powel Crosley, Jr., hired Barber in 1934 to broadcast Reds baseball games over his radio stations, WSAI and WLW, in Cincinnati. Barber’s first such broadcast was the first major league game he had ever seen. He remained with the Reds through 1938, impressing listeners with his voice, style, and sensibility.
In 1939 New York removed a ban on the radio broadcast of baseball games (imposed after a 1934 agreement between the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, and New York Giants), and Barber began announcing Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games with Al Helfer on WOR radio and television. On 29 August 1939 Barber broadcast the first major league baseball game ever televised, between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Barber covered Dodgers games through 1953, building a reputation as a fair, accurate announcer known for his colorful, dramatic reporting. Without pretentiousness, he spoke conversationally and with soft-voiced authority in a chatty, easygoing style and introduced listeners to colorful southern terms. Barber called the broadcast booth “a catbird seat” and described players arguing with umpires as going to “the rhubarb patch.” He labeled batters enjoying a hitting streak as “tearing up the pea patch.” No announcer better captured the sequence of events that makes baseball unique: the fidgety tension of batter against pitcher; the blind destiny of the ball; and the bang-bang climax. In 1954 Barber started broadcasting New York Yankee baseball games on WOR radio and television. His impartial style contrasted with legendary announcer Mel Allen, who openly rooted for the home team. The Yankees fired Barber in 1966, two years after Allen’s dismissal, when he honestly reported the smallest crowd ever to attend a game at Yankee Stadium. Barber revealed that the crowd numbered just 413 and asked the television cameras to show the stands. The producer, however, had ordered television camera operators not to show the empty seats.
While announcing in New York, Barber lived on Lyn-wood Drive in Scarsdale, New York, and then on River Road in Scarborough, New York. He served as sports director for CBS in New York from 1946 to 1951 and provided sports coverage for newsreels from 1940 through 1948. Besides broadcasting thirteen World Series and four All-Star Games, he covered eight Orange Bowls, two Rose Bowls, one Sugar Bowl, five Army-Navy football contests, and four National Football League (NFL) title games for CBS radio and television from 1946 to 1955.
Barber’s most dramatic broadcasts were game four of the 1947 World Series, when Cookie Lavagetto of the Brooklyn Dodgers broke up a no-hit bid by Bill Bevens of the New York Yankees; game three of the 1951 National League playoffs, when Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants clouted a game-ending home run off Ralph Branca of the Brooklyn Dodgers; the 1935 football game in which Notre Dame scored two touchdowns in the final minutes to defeat Ohio State, 18–13; and the 1940 NFL championship game when the Chicago Bears humiliated the Washington Redskins, 73–0. He also covered the consecutive no-hitters by Johnny Vander Meer of the Cincinnati Reds in June 1938 and Jackie Robinson’s historic first game and season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
In his 1968 autobiography, Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat, Barber reviewed his announcing career. Barber mentioned dedication, loyalty, professionalism, and skill as the essential qualities of an effective baseball broadcaster. The deeply religious, Mississippi-born Barber also described how he nearly quit as announcer when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson as the first modern major league black player. Additionally, he discussed his difficulties with the New York Yankees management and with the new breed of sportscaster.
Barber’s moving Walk in the Spirit (1969) told the inspirational stories of Lou Gehrig, Ben Hogan, Roy Campanella, and other athletes who had overcome adversity and used them to illustrate various biblical verses. His next work, The Broadcasters (1970), provided anecdotes about Dizzy Dean, Graham McNamee, Ted Husing, and other baseball announcers. Sportscasters were among the first celebrities of mass communication, demonstrating cantankerous, eccentric behavior, verbal flamboyance, irascibility, and egotism. Barber disliked the trend toward hiring former athletes as broadcasters. He also authored Show Me the Way to Go Home (1971) and 1947: When All Hell Brolle Loose in Baseball (1982), the latter chronicling Jackie Robinson’s major league debut and manager Leo Durocher’s suspension.
Barber, a licensed Episcopal lay reader and preacher for the Diocese of New York, broadcast sports commentaries on Fridays from 1981 to 1992 on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and wrote a monthly column for the Christian Science Monitor. Barber chaired the Board of the Youth Consultation Service helping troubled teenagers and unwed mothers, led fund-raising for the Saint Barnabas Home, a temporary shelter for children in New York City, and helped the American Red Cross blood donor campaign. After moving to Tallahassee during his retirement, he wrote a weekly column for the Tallahassee Democrat and tended his flower garden. He continued as a licensed Episcopal lay reader and preacher until the age of seventy.
Barber was elected to the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1973, the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 1979, the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame in 1984, and the National Association of Broadcasters’ Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1989. He won the Ford C. Frick Award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978, the George Polk Award from Long Island University’s Department of Journalism in 1985, and the George Foster Peabody Award in 1990 and served on the Veterans Committee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Barber died of pneumonia and kidney complications in Tallahas-Barber’s autobiography, Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat (1968), with Robert Creamer, describes his distinguished broadcasting career. His 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball (1982), recounts his personal struggles as a religious southerner in accepting Jackie Robinson as the first black player in modern major league baseball. His other books include The Rhubarb Patch: The Story of the Modem Brooklyn Dodgers (1954), Walk in the Spirit (1969), The Broadcasters (1970), and Show Me the Way to Go Home (1971). Lylah Barber, Lylah: a Memoir (1985), contains his wife’s reminiscences. Curt Smith, Voices of the Game (1992), assesses Barber’s impact on baseball’s broadcasting history. Bob Edwards, Fridays with Red: A Radio Friendship (1995), discusses Barber’s National Public Radio commentaries. Quentin Reynolds, “The Two Lives of Red Barber,” Reader’s Digest (Aug. 1954), sheds light on Barber’s role as an Episcopal lay reader. Articles that illuminate Barber’s early career include Richard G. Hubler, “The Barber of Brooklyn,” Saturday Evening Post (21 Mar. 1942); Current Biography 1943; and John K. Hutchens, “Red Barber in a New Role,” New York Times Magazine (31 Dec. 1944). Vin Scully, “Unforgettable Red Barber,” Reader’s Digest (Apr. 1993), contains reminiscences by another distinguished sportscaster. His entry in Contemporary Authors, vol. 141 (1994) summarizes his literary impact. Obituaries are in the New York Times (23 Oct. 1992), Newsweek (2 Nov. 1992), Sports Illustrated (2 Nov. 1992), and Time (2 Nov. 1992).
David L. Porter