Red Barber, who was 84 when he died last week in Florida, was only 31 when he began broadcasting Brooklyn Dodger games in 1939, but despite his youth he had an immediate impact on Brooklyn and on baseball. Big league teams had been on radio before, but daily play-by-play broadcasts were not considered an important part of baseball. Some clubs did not broadcast at all. New York City's three teams—the Dodgers, the Yankees and the Giants—even had an agreement not to put games on the radio, on the dubious premise that doing so would hurt ticket sales. Larry MacPhail, who took over in Brooklyn in 1938, scoffed at that idea and brought in Barber.
The Dodgers were a rising team, and Barber's vivid word pictures of their games delighted fans not just in Brooklyn but all over the New York area. His musical descriptions of an at bat were filled with crescendos, diminuendos and rests. For example, as Barber described a confrontation between Dodger slugger Dolph Camilli and St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Lon Warneke, you could almost hear the Ol' Redhead tap his baton.
"Dolph is not the biggest man in baseball, but there are none stronger," Barber drawled. "No, suh. They don't come stronger than Dolph Camilli. Down in training camp one time, some of the ballplayers went to visit a zoo. Hold it. Here's Warneke's pitch. A curve down low. There was a gorilla in the zoo, and Camilli got to staring at the gorilla, and the gorilla got to staring back at Dolph. A curve stays wide, ball two. And they're both a-lookin' at each other, and someone, I think it may have been Whit Wyatt...John Whitlow Wyatt of the North Georgia Wyatts, says, 'You know, I think Camilli could take him, hand to hand.' Hold it. Camilli swings! There's a high drive to right. It's way up there. Slaughter's at the base of the wall looking up, looking, but Enos can plumb forget this one. It's gone. Over the 344-foot sign. Number 16 for Dolph Camilli. Say, folks, I think Wyatt may have something there."
After Barber began broadcasting Dodger games, attendance in Ebbets Field shot up to record levels, and when Brooklyn won the National League pennant in 1941, the Dodgers were the most popular team in New York and, indeed, in the country. Barber had clearly demonstrated the importance to baseball of broadcasting. Radio, and later television, became as integral a part of the game as the batter's box.
Barber thought of himself as a reporter, not a showman or a shill. Despite his affection for Brooklyn and the Dodgers, he was never a homer. He had superb command of English, but he always spoke naturally on the air, lacing his rapid, precise descriptions of complex action with folksy, down-home Southern expressions that delighted his Northern audience.
He was a true professional who set standards of excellence that have been approached but never surpassed. Perhaps his finest monument is that the two other most-admired baseball broadcasters of the past 40 years—Vin Scully and Ernie Harwell—both broke into the major leagues working and learning under Red Barber.