From the Archives: Florida’s Red Barber: From Catbird Seat To Canary In The Coal Mine

 Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on June 3, 2015.

By Robert Sanchez

Many longtime fans of America’s “national pastime” will tell you that the best pictures of baseball games are those they hear on the radio. The scenes are meticulously painted into the listeners’ imaginations by artists who are masters of their craft, the play-by-play announcers and their sidekicks in the broadcast booth, the color commentators.

Among the best ever was a Mississippi native who arrived in Florida when he was young, began his career in Gainesville, and spent the final two decades of his life in Tallahassee. In the intervening years, what a life!

Born in Columbus, Mississippi,  Walter Lanier “Red” Barber grew up poor. His family moved to Sanford, Florida, in the 1920s. In the fall of 1929, the year Wall Street’s crash plunged the nation into the Great Depression, the 21-year-old redhead hitchhiked to nearby Gainesville to attend the University of Florida. He intended to become a school teacher. To help pay his way through school, he got a job working as a janitor at the university’s pioneering radio station, WRUF. The AM station, the fifth-oldest in Florida, had just begun broadcasting in 1928.

According to various accounts, Barber first spoke on the air at WRUF when he was pressed into service to read a scholarly paper about cows after the author, an agriculture professor, failed to show up when scheduled. Finding that he liked broadcasting, Barber dropped out of the university and took on various other duties at WRUF, serving as its sports director and staff announcer. His experience  broadcasting the Gators’ games  led to his being hired by the Cincinnati Reds in 1934 as the team’s play-by-play announcer.  It was the beginning of a career that took on dimensions worthy of Forrest Gump as Red Barber seemed to be on the scene for some of baseball’s most historic moments.


Red Barber at WRUF Radio Station in Gainesville, Florida. (Florida Memory)


In 1935, for instance, the Reds’ owner Powel Crosley had installed lights at the team’s ballpark. In May, the Reds staged Major League Baseball’s first night game, and Red Barber was in the broadcast booth for the Mutual Broadcasting System. MBS’s powerful Cincinnati affiliate, Crosley’s WLW, could be heard throughout much of the eastern half of the United States … at night, so the more night games, the better.

Barber wasn’t always in a broadcast booth when he called the games, especially at the start of his career. Road game broadcasts were often re-created based on information sent via Western Union. Barber was good at these re-creations, and he refused to use a practice common among other announcers. Some added sound effects — crowd noise, vendors’ cries, the crack of the bat — to make it seem like a broadcast from a ballpark, but Barber wanted no part of a practice he considered deceptive. Incidentally, among the numerous announcers who re-created games and used the sound effects in that era were Texas businessman Gordon “the Old Scotsman” McClendon and a future President, Ronald Reagan, who did telegraphed re-creations of Chicago Cubs games on Des Moines, Iowa’s powerful radio station WHO.

When the Reds’ General Manager Larry MacPhail was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers, he took Barber along to be that team’s play-by-play announcer. Thus Barber was in New York City in 1939 when NBC, the dominant radio network of that era,  decided to try an audacious experiment: televising a major league baseball game.  Red Barber was there to call the plays for what turned out to be the first Major League Baseball game ever televised. Fittingly, it pitted the Dodgers against the Cincinnati Reds.

By 1947, in addition to calling the Dodgers’ games for a New York radio station during the regular season, Barber called World Series games for the national networks — first on radio, later on TV. He also called college and pro football games. As Sports Director for CBS Radio, he created and anchored Saturday afternoon roundups of college football games from around the country — arguably a precursor to the NFL Network’s popular “Red Zone” channel, which hops from pro game to pro game.


 

 Red Barber (R), sitting with Pee Wee Reese and Burt Shotten at Ebbets Field. (Florida Memory)


Given Barber’s versatility, year-round visibility, and distinctive style, it was no surprise that he was quite possibly the nation’s best-known sportscaster in 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. As portrayed in the movie “42” and in numerous books and documentaries, Robinson encountered resistance and abuse when he crossed MLB’s color line to become the first African American player in the big leagues’ modern era. Fortunately, Red Barber was there in the broadcast booth for the Dodgers when Robinson made his debut at Ebbets Field. Moreover, those who have documented the history of that tumultuous period in baseball history give Barber a share of the credit for the fans’ ultimate acceptance of Robinson in particular and baseball’s desegregation in general. Barber’s accent and folksy expressions were as Southern as biscuits and gravy, but — after initially expressing some misgivings in private — he overcame the biases of his upbringing and exhibited an attitude that was welcoming and professional.

Thanks to National League Rookie-of-the-Year Robinson, the Dodgers made the World Series in October of 1947. Red Barber was there to describe yet another iconic scene in baseball history as Brooklyn’s Cookie Lavagetto broke up Yankee pitcher Bill Bevens’ attempt to become the first to throw a no-hitter in the World Series. That feat would not occur until nine years later, in game 5 of the 1956 World Series, when the Yankees’ Don Larsen threw no-hitter. In fact, not only did Larsen allow no hits, but he pitched  a perfect game in which not one batter reached base for the foe in this “subway series” game: the Yankees’ hated intra-city rivals, the Dodgers.


 
 
 Jackie Robinson stealing home against the Yankees in the eighth inning of the 1955 World Series opener at Yankee Stadium. (Flickr/Stechico)

Notwithstanding the rivalry among New York City’s three historic baseball teams — the Yankees, the Dodgers, and the Giants — Red Barber  jumped ship after the 1953 season. A contract dispute with the Dodgers led to his becoming the play-by-play announcer for the Yankees starting in 1954.  So it was that once again Barber was present in 1961 when another historic achievement occurred. Yankee slugger Roger Maris hit his 61st home run of the season, shattering the longstanding record of 60 homers established in 1927 by Babe Ruth.  Maris’ record stood until it was shattered during baseball’s shameful steroid era.

Barber’s spare description of Maris’ feat brought criticism from those who thought he should have cheered it, but understatement fit Barber’s reportorial style. He steadfastly adhered to the best tenets of sports journalism. Unlike many of today’s play-by-play announcers who cover games for a particular college or pro team and whose hiring  must be approved by the teams they cover, Barber did not “root, root, root for the home team” and/or try to promote ticket sales.

Honesty may be the best policy in most of life’s situations, but not necessarily in sports reporting. Former Florida State University quarterback Peter Tom Willis found that out the hard way when he was fired as the color commentator on the Seminoles’ radio broadcasts. At one point he had observed — correctly — that the team’s simplistic offensive scheme resembled that of a high school team. As it happened, however, the offensive coordinator at the time — Head Coach Bobby Bowden’s son Jeff — didn’t appreciate the comment, so Willis was sacked.

A similar fate happened to Red Barber. In 1966, when the New York Yankees had reached a low point under the neglectful ownership of CBS, Red Barber was the  play-by-play announcer for the Yankees’ telecasts. He was fired for telling the truth: that the game’s paid attendance  at Yankee Stadium, the venerable “House that Ruth built,” was a mere 413. That’s not a typo, by the way; the paid attendance at the 70,000-seat “House That Ruth Built” was actually four hundred thirteen that day. At the end of the season, Barber was, as they say in the biz, non-renewed. His sin: blurting out the truth.

After a brief stint living in Key Biscayne, the Barbers moved to Tallahassee where Red’s wife, Lylah, had attended the School of Nursing at the institution then known as Florida State College for Women. The relative obscurity of his life in retirement did not last long. In 1980 he began contributing a four-minute-long segment each Friday morning on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” His discourses on varied topics ranging from sports to camellias attracted a devoted following. In 1993, Barber’s contributions to the program were beautifully described in “Fridays with Red: A Radio Friendship,” a book by longtime Morning Edition host Bob Edwards.


 

 Red Barber at his radio set in Tallahassee, Florida. (Florida Memory)


 Red Barber died in October of 1992 at the age of 84. Among his many claims to fame were the folksy expressions in the language he used to describe the games. A heated disagreement on the field was “a rhubarb.” A hitter on a roll was “tearing up the pea patch.” Someone prospering was “walking in high cotton.” But perhaps the phrase with which Barber was most identified was “sitting in the catbird seat,” which is taken to mean being in an enviable position. Barber told biographers that a listener, author James Thurber, used the phrase as the title of a short story and refused to acknowledge Barber’s prior use of it — or even allow Barber to use it as the running title of his newspaper column.

For much of Barber’s 33 years in broadcasting, first on radio and then on TV, he was indeed “in the catbird seat” observing some of history’s greatest sports events from an enviable perch in the press box. However, his unceremonious firing by the New York Yankees for telling an inconvenient truth made him metaphorically a different kind of bird. He became the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” symbolizing what many observers perceive as the sad decline and imminent death of integrity and professionalism in sports journalism. Today, many of the prime jobs don’t go to trained journalists but to marginally articulate ex-jocks whose main job is to promote a product.

If that model of “journalism” were confined to the semi-frivolous world of sports, it would be less worrisome than it is beginning to appear. Unfortunately, given the decline and unsustainable business model of once-great newspapers along with the ratings-driven business model of TV and the “click-bait” imperative for on-line media, the malady affecting much of today’s sports “journalism” suggests that Red Barber truly may have gone from sitting on the catbird seat to being one of journalistic integrity’s first canaries in the coal mine.


Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons