Baseball's man of letters

Curt Smith

October 26, 1992|By Curt Smith

LAST Thursday, baseball's most respected voice was silenced. Walter Lanier (Red) Barber, who died in Tallahassee, Fla., at 84, brought eloquence to language and appreciation to sport. For years he used radio to chat, as if he and his listeners were around a pot-bellied stove.

Statistics show that Barber aired five All-Star Games and 13 World Series, covered baseball's first night game in 1935, and was the first broadcaster, with Mel Allen, to enter the Hall of Fame. They cannot show how the Ol' Redhead made almost existential pleasure of sport.

Born in Mississippi and educated in Florida, Barber debuted in 1934 at Cincinnati -- at home, broadcasting from Crosley Field via the hypnotic fabric of Western Union, re-creating road games with poetry and flair.

From the start he was different -- baseball's first great radio reporter.

"Before then most voices had been shills and salesmen," said 1948-1949 colleague Ernie Harwell. "Barber consciously rejected that. He was demanding, no-nonsense -- almost obsessed with an absolute bid for perfection."

Then, in 1939, ending a five-year radio ban, Brooklyn Dodgers president Larry MacPhail brought Barber to New York. With play-by-play blanketing a borough, Barber showed why he was also baseball's first great poet.

He stirred a kinship and zealotry -- a sense that baseball belongs to the fans -- that had not previously impelled the game and has not embraced it since.

"There were three million people in Brooklyn," Barber told me, "and if every one of them wasn't rooting for the Dodgers, every one seemed to be." They heard him cover the first black to play big-league baseball, Jackie Robinson. They heard him talk of rhubarb and pea patch and catbird seat and bases FOBs (full of Brooklyns). They heard him air surpassing moments in baseball history.

On Oct. 3, 1951 -- to Brooklyn-born comic Phil Foster, it was "D-Day" for "Dat Day" -- Barber's soft, rhythmic accents called the "shot heard 'round the world," the Giants' Bobby Thomson's playoff home run to beat the Dodgers and win the National League pennant.

In 1947, Barber pinched himself -- but still did not believe it -- as Cookie Lavagetto's ninth-inning double beat New York, 2-1, in the fourth game of the World Series and wrecked Bill Bevens' no-hitter. Two days later Barber unfurled his most memorable call in the sixth game. To this day Brooklyn-born Larry King says, "If I was on my death-bed, I could still remember every word."

To a listener more than four decades later, Barber's voice still seems cultured, silken. Joe DiMaggio is up at Yankee Stadium -- "holding," Barber tells his NBC Radio audience, "that club down at the end. The big fellow, Hatten, pitches . . . a curveball high outside for ball one. So . . . the Dodgers are ahead, 8 to 5. And the crowd well knows that with one swing of his bat, this fellow is capable of making it a brand new game again.

"Joe leans in. He has one-for-three today, six hits so far in the series. Outfield deep, around toward left, the infield overshifted . . .

"Swung on! Belted! It's a long one! Deep into left-center! Back goes Gionfriddo! Back, back, back, back, back, back! . . . He . . . makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! Oh-ho, Doctor!"

Barber's NBC colleague that year was Allen -- who, like Barber, taught the second third of the American Century the apothegms of baseball. Among contemporaries in the life of baseball they alone seemed larger than life -- and fostered in a rich and magic way a golden age of broadcasting.

A detached reporter, Barber reported. An involved one, Allen roared. Mel was peanuts, popcorn and the United States Marine Band. Barber was white wine, crepes suzette and bluegrass music. Barber sat back on the small of his chair, flanked by a three-minute egg-timer (a reminder to give the score). Allen filibustered, brilliantly, for hours. Listening, you paid your money (or rather, sponsors did) and you took your choice (or rather, in Brooklyn, "cherce").

A Brooklyn taxi driver groused, "That Barber, he's too fair," but Barber said, "To care, to root, they are not the rights of the professional announcer." It shocked a borough when in 1953 Barber resigned in a quarrel with Dodgers' owner Walter O'Malley and joined Allen in the Big Ball Park in the Bronx. It stunned all baseball when the Yankees sacked Barber 13 years later.

His ouster came days after 413 people attended a Yankee game in September 1966. Embarrassed team officials refused to let cameras scan the stands. Leaning into his microphone, Barber told viewers what they could not see.

"I don't know what the paid attendance is today, but whatever it is," he said, "it is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium, and this crowd is the story, not the game."

Thereafter, Barber channeled his humanity into a magnificent valedictory. In his last quarter-century, he wrote hundreds of newspaper columns, published seven books and appeared regularly on National Public Radio's popular "Morning Edition." A new generation rediscovered baseball's man of letters -- a reporter who seemed constitutionally unable to utter a prejudicial word.

Curt Smith, a speech writer for President Bush, is the author of "Voices of the Game," a book about baseball announcing.

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