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The antithesis of much that is awful in baseball play-by-play announcing is alive, well and full of whimsy in Tallahassee, Fla. Walter L. (Red) Barber can be heard each Friday morning on National Public Radio, chatting from his home with host Bob Edwards. He may talk about his camellias or Steinbrenner's Yankees or his Abyssinian cat, Arwe (Coptic for wild beast). Unlike so many sports announcers. Barber talks with us rather than at us. He doesn't cheer, shout or sell the ball club's favorite snake oil. After years on television and in semiretirement, the Ol' Redhead has come back home to radio.
On June 12 Barber was voted into the new American Sportscasters Hall of Fame along with Don Dunphy, Ted Husing, Bill Stern and Graham McNamee. He's already in the microphone wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In February 1983, when Barber turned 75, a former Cubs play-by-play man named Reagan went on NPR to call Barber the "dean of sports broadcasting." As Edwards says, "Radio is just over 60 years old, and here's a guy who's been on the air for 54 years of it. For me, it's like talking to Edward R. Murrow every week."
If Barber didn't invent play-by-play, he came close. He called his first professional game for the Cincinnati Reds in 1934, became the "verce" of the Brooklyn Dodgers in '39 and moved to the Yankees in '54 after TV became king. The Yankees fired him 12 years later for. Barber claims, such heinous crimes as refusing to laud a 10th place Yankee team and asking the cameraman to pan over a throng of 413 partisans in Yankee Stadium. Ever since, he's been fixin' to water his Japanese magnolia trees, writing books and, since 1979, appearing on NPR. The only games he watches these days are the league championships and the World Series.
Barber likens the four-minute radio repartee to "two fellas just talkin' over the fence." "I become the straight man," says Edwards, "and let him take us wherever he wants. Usually it's someplace wonderful."
One of Barber's wonderful places is the broadcast booth of yore. According to Red, many of sportscasting's old virtues are no longer appreciated. Take objectivity, for example. "I broadcast the game the way it was played," he says. "I didn't try to create a fictitious group of heroes in the Bronx when they weren't there." By contrast, modern day broadcasters such as Harry Caray of the Cubs and Phil Rizzuto of the Yankees are constitutionally unable to utter an impartial word. Barber and many of his colleagues were encouraged to be reporters. Before the 1935 Series, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis told Barber and his peers, "Just suppose that some player walks over to my rail box...and spits a mouthful of chewing tobacco in my face. Report the direction of his walk, the rapidity of his pace, the distance of his stance and the accuracy of his expectoration. Report the reaction of the commissioner, if he has one. Leave your opinions in the hotel room."
Says Barber, "I felt I was the servant of the audience. Larry MacPhail [his boss in Cincinnati and later in Brooklyn] even went so far to say, 'If you think my ball club needs to be burned, burn it.' "
Neither, Barber notes, did the booth bulge with retired athletes, as though it were an oldtimers' bus on the way to Cooperstown. Nearly one-third of the 140 over-the-air announcers in baseball today are former players or managers.
"I was blessed to come up when I did," Barber says, "because I'm certain I couldn't even get started today. I never hit .300, you know. I never won 20 games. It's big money now. It's a name business. Every time there's an opening, somebody says, 'Look, here's a very competent broadcaster and here's an athlete with a big name.' Well, who are they going to pick? They pick the name. When the Yankees decided they could get along without me, who were the three announcers the next year? [Joe] Garagiola, Rizzuto and [Jerry] Coleman." Mike Burke, the Yankees' president at the time of Barber's firing, says that tension between Barber and colleagues Garagiola and Rizzuto was the main reason Red lost his job.
That Barber has returned to his origins, performing on live radio before a third generation of listeners, has made for a happy twilight in his life. Barber told Edwards on the occasion of his NPR debut, "We're turning the clock back to the early days of radio, with its immediacy, spontaneity and excitement." It would be true excitement if we could hear a few seconds of his call of Cookie Lavagetto breaking up Bill Bevens's no-hitter in the 1947 Series: "Well, I'll be a suck-egg mule!" But even without it, Red's in the catbird seat.