The boys -- and the voices - of summer past

Monday Books

October 18, 1993|By James H. Bready

FRIDAYS WITH RED: A RADIO FRIENDSHIP. By Bob Edwards. Simon & Schuster. 231 pages. Illustrated. $21.

RED Barber had two careers in broadcasting: from 1930 to 1966 or so on commercial channels, and from 1980 to 1992 (he died last year at this time, aged 82) on National Public Radio.

The first time, the medium was mainly sports and mostly baseball. Barber worked in Cincinnati (Red's Reds), Brooklyn (Ebbets Field) and New York (the Bronx Bombers).

After his retirement, he was a commentator from his home in Florida on NPR's "Morning Edition" -- four stopwatch minutes' conversation with Bob Edwards every Friday, live.

Mr. Edwards didn't call the Ol' Redhead "Mister." It would have been incongruous to be so formal. Younger than Barber by some 30 years, Mr. Edwards is from Kentucky; Barber, born in Mississippi, called his Friday morning colleague Colonel (pronounced Kuh-null).

Speaking into microphones hundreds of miles apart, the two got on well. You could call this short book a eulogy.

"Fridays With Red" will mean most to a reader who knows the difference between George Weiss and Mike Burke, who knows how "the catbird seat" and "the rhubarb patch" came to enter speech north of the Potomac. But NPR isn't exactly into sportscasting. And Mr. Edwards asserts that "Red was the most popular figure on any NPR program." Here was a man ready to talk engagingly about camellias, opera, English, the Bible, page one and, especially, topics he and Mr. Edwards had not agreed upon ahead in their day-before phone call.

OK, here was a broadcaster whose sentences had a beginning, an end and a syntactically valid path between -- and never a fatuous "you know." An ultimate Edwards tribute: "He even knew when to shut up."

This was the generation of Walter Lanier Barber, Mel Allen, Ernie Harwell, Russ Hodges -- all talking Southern, at least to start with. Mr. Harwell is the one best known to Baltimoreans, who let Detroit take him away. (His play-by-play on CBS Radio of the American League playoff games may have been his last before retirement.)

Nowadays, sponsors hire many a former big-name player, however inarticulate, and Mr. Edwards says sadly that there would be no place in today's broadcasting booths for Barber (whom Michael Milken clones fired, from the Dodgers and then from the Yankees). Yes and no. Commercials now hog all the time between innings when Red or Mel used to expatiate; yet the Orioles' Jon Miller, perceptive and punitive, does get a lot said.

So in the end it is conceivable that the Barber the announcer who spoke of "tearin' up the pea patch" won't rate as many lines in the history of U.S. broadcasting as Barber the commentator who "chatted over the backyard fence" (that phrase is Frank Deford's) with Bob Edwards. He offered standards and insights, that wily old fellow in Tallahassee, in contrast with the fads, smut and insults of today's trash radio.

NPR scripts consistently read well; "Fridays With Red" reads beautifully. Mr. Edwards, a master of elocution, is also a thorough pro at the keyboard.

James H. Bready, retired Evening Sun editorial writer, is historian of the Orioles.

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