Rex Barney, voice of Orioles, dies at 72 Ex-Dodgers pitcher served as stadium announcer since 1974

August 13, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch and Mike Klingaman | Arthur Hirsch and Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Imagine the ballpark hot dog hawkers suddenly falling silent or the national anthem never being played again. Imagine Orioles games at Camden Yards forever without Rex Barney.

The former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who was the voice of Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards for 23 summers was found dead in his home in Baltimore yesterday morning. A native of Omaha, Neb., embraced by Baltimore fans for his congenial, small-town touch, Mr. Barney was 72 years old.

Mr. Barney, who had spoken with friends on Monday evening, was found in his home near Memorial Stadium by an old friend who went to check on him after no one answered telephone calls, an Orioles spokesman said. According to the death certificate, he died on Monday, but the cause of death was not known late yesterday.

Mr. Barney had worked the last home game against the Texas Rangers on July 30 and was due to begin a seven-game homestand last night. Instead, there was a three-minute ceremony led by Hall of Fame broadcaster Chuck Thompson, including a moment of silence. Flags were flown at half-staff. For the entire game, the public-address microphone was shut off, and batters walked to the plate unannounced, welcomed only by the crowd.

"His voice was almost like a security blanket," said Mike Flanagan, former Orioles pitcher and now a television announcer, who joined the team in1975, the year after Mr. Barney became the full-time public-address announcer at Memorial Stadium. "Being announced by Rex always gave me a quiet confidence, almost like the voice of a baseball god. He made you feel like everything would be all right."

Jim Palmer, Hall of Fame pitcher and Orioles broadcaster, said: "Baseball loses a great friend. He was always there for me, so easy to talk to, like having my own shrink, so gentle, compassionate and kind. I feel robbed."

In a world of sportswriting wise guys, Mr. Barney was a kindly, avuncular presence in the press box, a tall man with wispy gray hair offering no apologies for his sometimes saccharine style. A book reviewer once said he was "almost embarrassingly

sentimental" about baseball, but folks say the sentiment sprang from genuine love for the game and compassion for people.

"He had such a passion for baseball," said Bob Brown, who worked with Mr. Barney for 15 seasons when he served as Orioles public relations director.

When Boston Red Sox slugger Carl Yastrzemski played his last game at Memorial Stadium in 1983, Mr. Brown wrote a tribute that Mr. Barney delivered to the crowd. The two men who sat next to each other in the press box had to agree they would not make eye contact during the presentation, lest they both be reduced to tears.

It was easy enough to hear Mr. Barney's corny radio patter, his unfailing politeness, his signature "thank youuuuu" and "give that fan a contract" for a good catch in the stands and assume he led a charmed life in the game. This lifelong love affair, however, was shadowed by unfulfilled dreams. For all his folksy ways, Mr. Barney knew as well as anyone how cruel baseball could be.

"I'll go through the rest of my life knowing I didn't become as good as I should have been," he told a Sun writer in 1989. "I had so much potential, and I just didn't live up to it."

The right-hander could throw so hard, 100 miles an hour at times. Broadcaster and former catcher Joe Garagiola wrote that Mr. Barney's fastball ranked with those of Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. Hitters feared him, but often for the wrong reasons. It was anybody's guess where the ball would wind up.

New York Daily News sportswriter Dick Young earned a permanent spot in Rex Barney lore with two quips about the young pitcher. He wrote: "If the plate were high and outside, Rex Barney would be in the Hall of Fame." Mr. Young also wrote that Mr. Barney "could throw a ball through a brick wall if he could hit the brick wall."

He did strike out Joe DiMaggio with the bases loaded in the 1947 World Series, but still walked more batters that year than he struck out.

A stellar season

Mr. Barney found a more consistent rhythm in 1948, his fourth of six major-league seasons and the only year in which his strikeouts exceeded his walks. After a rough start, he hit the zenith of the season and of his major-league career on Sept. 9, 1948, at the Polo Grounds in New York. He no-hit the Giants and did not allow a hard-hit ball the entire game.

"That cat could throw aspirin tablets. That's what the ball looked like that day," said Sam Lacy, who saw the no-hitter while covering the Dodgers for the Baltimore Afro-American. "When he had control, he was unhittable."

Mr. Barney finished that season with 15 wins, 13 losses and an earned run average of 3.10. One writer said that, at 23 years old, Mr. Barney was "rapping loudly on the door to pitching greatness."

He nudged the door ajar, but never swung it wide.

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