Rex Barney's fans broadcast their affection at book party


February 08, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Staff Writer

You're welcome, Rex. And thank YOUUUU.

That's what hundreds of Baltimoreans said to Rex Barney on Saturday at the Babe Ruth Museum, in what turned out to be a double-barreled treat for baseball lovers. To be sure, it was the museum's annual birthday celebration for Babe Ruth, the native son who went from the streets of Southwest Baltimore to baseball's Hall of Fame. But it was also a celebration of Rex Barney, the former big-league pitcher and current Orioles public-address announcer. As love fests go, this one was most predictable: Baltimore has embraced Rex Barney as it has few other sports figures.

"On Saturday, it will be hard to han dle," Mr. Barney had predicted a day earlier in an interview at the studios of WBAL-AM, where he is a popular sports talk-show host. "I'm just a big, dumb, sentimental Irishman. I cry too easily."

He was right: He did choke up a couple of times. But he had plenty of reasons to do so -- and plenty of company.

"Today, we are honoring Babe Ruth, the greatest ballplayer who ever lived," Michael Gibbons, the executive director of the museum, told an estimated crowd of 300 who jammed the tiny rowhouse on Emory Street where Ruth was born Feb. 6, 1895. "And it was his great good fortune to have been born on the same day that Rex's new book came out."

They drank champagne from plastic cups as they toasted Ruth on what would have been his 98th birthday. Then they cheered and clapped as Mr. Barney, 68, opened a new exhibit, "Brooklyn's Barney and Babe," which celebrates both his tenure as a hard-throwing but erratic Dodgers pitcher in the late '40s and Ruth's brief career as a first-base coach with the team in 1938. Later, they clustered around Mr. Barney, pressing copies of his autobiography, "Rex Barney's THANK Youuuu," for him to sign.

Just released by Tidewater Publishers of Centreville, "THANK Youuuu" is a sweet book, full of gentle remembrances of a picture-book childhood in Omaha, Neb., and playing for the Dodgers as a talented young pitcher. But there are darker passages: the pain of being finished as a big-leaguer by age 26, with a so-so record of 35 wins and 31 losses in 6 1/2 years; of health problems, of his decision to give up the booze 10 years ago. ("I wanted to talk about it in the book because I'm not Saint Rex. I'm just not.")

The title, of course, comes from one of Mr. Barney's trademark lines as the longtime Orioles ballpark announcer -- the exaggerated "THANK youuuu" as he completes an announcement. There isn't a kid in the city who can't do a credible imitation of it, along with his other noteworthy shtick, the "give that fan a contract" when somebody in the stands makes a nice catch of a foul ball.

So for many at the museum Saturday, this was the chance to chat with the self-effacing Mr. Barney, the man who has become a near-icon in this town during his quarter-century as O's announcer and radio personality. Always polite, always friendly, always approachable -- that is the image Rex Barney has.

An autograph? My pleasure.

Five minutes to talk about Pee Wee Reese and the rest of the old Dodgers? Of course, my friend.

How's the leg? Just fine.

Ah, the leg. Everybody understood Saturday when Roland Hemond, the Orioles general manager and an old friend of Mr. Barney, told the crowd, "Rex Barney was the Orioles' comeback man of the year in 1992."

fTC A few eyes even misted over. For it was only last May that Mr. Barney, troubled with diabetes for years, had his right leg amputated at the knee because of circulatory problems.

But the old athlete in him, the warrior, fought back. Mr. Barney was away from the ballpark for only a month and a half, and continued doing his radio show from home during that time. He had to use a wheelchair until August; now he walks with the help of a cane and a prosthetic device, and hopes to resume driving next month, with the aid of a specially equipped car provided by a local dealership for whom he does radio commercials.

It was during his absence that Mr. Barney's hold on this town become evident. Sure, everybody knew he was popular, a down-home ex-ballplayer whose easygoing style fit in perfectly in working-class Baltimore. In an age in which sports-talk types may be irreverent or abrasive, he is unfailingly polite, always thanking listeners for calling in, and he is especially solicitous of children. A few callers attempt to draw him into an argument, but it's like trying to pick a fight with the kindly uncle who taught you to ride a bike and took you fishing for the first time.

Still, after his operation, when the calls and letters about Mr. Barney came in to the Orioles by the thousands, even those associated with the team were amazed.

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