Red Barber (Walter Lanier Barber)
Red Barber had been hired by Larry MacPhail, then president of the Reds. When MacPhail moved on to become president of the Dodgers for the 1939 season, he took the play-by-play man along. In Brooklyn, Barber became an institution, widely admired for his folksy style. He was also appreciated by people concerned about Brooklyn’s reputation as a land of “dees” and “dems”. 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. There, his greatest 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. Red Barber developed a severe bleeding ulcer in 1948 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, Red Barber became the mentor of another redheaded announcer. He recruited the Fordham University graduate Vin Scully for CBS football coverage, and eventually invited 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 the team’s board of directors to be told by Branch Rickey that the Dodgers had begun the process of racial desegregation in baseball, which led to signing Jackie Robinson as the first black player in the major leagues after the 1880s. As a Southerner, having lived with racial segregation as a fact of life written into law, Barber told Rickey that he was not sure he could broadcast the games. As was related in a biography of Branch Rickey by Jimmy Breslin, Barber left the meeting with Rickey and walked for hours trying to decide his future. Having been raised in the racially segregated South, and having attended the University of Florida, which, at the time of his attendance was limited to white male students, he had in his words, “been carefully taught”, and the thought of broadcasting games played by a Negro player was simply too much for him to agree to. He arrived home and informed his wife of his decision to quit that very night. She, also being from the Deep South, had become accustomed to a much better life in a toney neighborhood of Westchester County. She convinced him that there was no need to quit then, and a few martinis into the evening, he said he would try. After 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 him and the black players who followed, 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.)
During this period, Red Barber also broadcast numerous World Series for Mutual radio and in 1948 and 1952 for NBC television, frequently teaming with Yankees announcer Mel Allen. He also called New York Giants football from 1942 to 1946, as well as several professional and college football games on network radio and TV, including the NFL Championship Game, Army-Navy Game and Orange Bowl. Prior to the 1953 World Series, Barber was selected by Gillette, which sponsored the Series broadcasts, to call the games on NBC along with Mel Allen. Barber wanted a larger fee than was offered by Gillette, however, and when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley refused to back him, Barber declined to work the Series and Vin Scully partnered with Allen on the telecasts instead. As Barber later related in his 1968 autobiography, Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat, it was O’Malley’s lack of support that led to his resignation from the Dodgers later that October. Soon afterward the crosstown Yankees hired Barber. Just before the start of the 1954 season, surgery resulted in permanent deafness in one ear. In 1955 he took his long-running television program Red Barber’s Corner from CBS to NBC. It ran from 1949 until 1958. With the Yankees, Red Barber 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. He’d already had a reputation as a “fair” announcer while with the Dodgers, as opposed to a “homer” who openly rooted for his team from the booth. Some fans and critics found this later, more restrained Barber to be dull, especially in contrast with Mel Allen’s dramatic, emotive style.
Curt Smith, in his book Voices of Summer, summarized the difference between Red Barber and Allen: “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.” Under the ownership of CBS in 1966, the Yankees finished tenth and last, their first time at the bottom of the standings since 1912 and after more than 40 years of dominating the American League. On September 22, paid attendance of 413 was announced at the 65,000-seat Yankee Stadium. Red 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 with Burke, who told him that his contract would not be renewed.
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, including Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball; 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 about other topics including the flora at his home in Tallahassee, Florida. Barber would call Edwards “Colonel Bob”, referring to the Kentucky Colonel award to Edwards by his native state. Red Barber died in 1992 in Tallahassee, Florida. In 1993, Edwards’ book Fridays with Red: A Radio Friendship, based on his Morning Edition segments with Barber, was published.
- February, 17, 1908
- Columbus, Mississippi
- October, 22, 1992
- Tallahassee, Florida