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The Ole Redhead

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This coming weekend I'll be in Columbus, Mississippi to mark the centenary of Red Barber, one of the most endearing figures in the history of American broadcasting. Curt Smith will be there, too. Curt is a former presidential speechwriter and the author of Voices of the Game, the definitive book on baseball's greatest broadcasters. The Red Barber Centenary was organized by Birney Imes, editor and publisher of the Commercial Dispatch newspaper in the town where Red Barber was born 100 years ago. I once wrote Birney a fan letter after reading something he'd written about my hero. I mentioned that Red's big birthday was coming soon, so Birney got busy on a mission of community leadership. I believe he's even managed to wrangle a historic marker out of the Mississippi pols in Jackson. I'm looking forward to a great celebration of the birth and life of a most colorful character.

Regular day-to-day scheduled radio was only about 10 years old when Red Barber began his career in 1930. He always denied being a pioneer and believed that title belonged to his hero, Graham McNamee, and the other early stars who were on the air in the 1920's. But I think Red qualifies because his crowd was still making it up -- still inventing the tricks of the trade in radio. And because Red was personally involved in nearly every sports broadcasting innovation through the mid-sixties, I've always wished I could tell him about XM. He would marvel that a single broadcast entity could carry every major league baseball game in real time -- but I don't think he'd be surprised. After all, he had not only witnessed broadcasting milestones -- he was usually the guy at the microphone when they happened. But Red is better remembered for his sound. Red kept the southern accent when he reached the big city. Hearing Red, you could taste the bourbon and smell the magnolias.

Walter Lanier Barber was born on February 17, 1908 in Columbus, Mississippi. His father was a railroad engineer who loved to tell stories. His mother was an English teacher who read him the classics. Red turned out to be a perfect combination of the two -- a story-teller who used literary references. If a shortstop made a couple of errors, but recovered to make a good play on a ground ball, Red would say, "And like the Ancient Mariner, he stoppeth one in three." The reference is to the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem in which the mariner stops one of three men going to a wedding. Then there was a time when a leadoff batter hit a double and none of his teammates could even advance him to third--much less bring him home. Red commented that they had "left him languishing there like the Prisoner of Chillion." Prisoner of Chillon and Sonnet of Chillon are poems by Lord Byron.

But Red didn't have to borrow from the classics, he created language of his own. The bases are FOB -- that's "Full Of Brooklyns." A dispute on the field was a "rhubarb." Red's perch in the pressbox was "the catbird seat." A bunch of hits together and the team would be "tearin' up the pea patch." An exhausted pitcher might be "as wild as a hungry chicken hawk on a frosty morning." And a fielder unable to get a grip on the ball---well that ball must be "slicker than oiled okra." A close game could be "tighter than a new pair of shoes on a rainy day." By contrast, a team with an overwhelming lead would have the game "tied up in a croker sack."

All this reflected his earliest years growing up in Mississippi. But then the boll weevil ate the cotton and there was less work for Red's dad, the railroad engineer. So the family moved to Sanford, Florida near Orlando. There were no theme parks there in Red's day -- just lots of truck farming. Red's high school baseball team was known as "The Celery-feds."

Red saved money for college, but lost it when his bank failed during the Great Depression. He was working his way through the University of Florida, where an agriculture professor offered him money if he'd read his scholarly paper on the campus radio station. How scholarly? The title was "Certain Aspects of Bovine Reproductive Techniques." Red said the title pretty much indicated why the professor didn't want to read it himself. But the station manager liked Red's delivery and offered him a job paying 50 dollars a month -- and that's how Red Barber ended up in broadcasting. Red became the voice of the University of Florida Gators, but he did a lot more than sports. He did the news, interviewed professors, hosted live music shows -- even sang along with a group called the Orange Grove String Band. He said he was a cracker boy doing cracker music. But he also had notions of bigger things.

Red rode the bus to southern and Midwestern towns that had radio stations with big, booming 50,000-watt clear channel signals. He would wear a white linen suit to audition for those stations in Charlotte...Atlanta...Chicago...Louisville...and Cincinnati -- and THAT was the one that hired him.

WLW in Cincinnati -- heard over an area of the eastern U.S. so wide that it called itself "The Nation's Station," was owned by Powell Crosley, who also happened to own the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. Crosley decided his radio station should carry his ball club's games. No one on staff had a background in sports, but they remembered that kid who auditioned in the white linen suit -- HE had done sports. In fact, Red had never seen a major league baseball game until he called the 1934 Opening Day game for the Cincinnati Reds.

And he reached the big time at the end of his second season. WLW teamed up with three other independent stations in Chicago, Detroit and New York to form the Mutual Broadcasting System, an alternative network to NBC and CBS. The new network's first broadcast was the 1935 baseball world series. Red Barber represented his station on Mutual. He was just 27 years old.

Red was back doing the fall classic the next year when the New York Giants of Bill Terry, Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell were no match for the New York Yankees of Lou Gehrig, Lefty Gomez and the young Joe DiMaggio.

Back in his home ballpark in Cincinnati, every day was an adventure because the Reds were run by Larry MacPhail, a baseball genius and an impulsive drunk. Red said MacPhail would routinely fire people and have no memory of it the next day. No matter, because the fired employee knew he was to show up the next day. MacPhail's teams were the first to play baseball at night, the first to travel by plane to road games, the first to have special promotions such as "Ladies Day, and the first to play a major league game on television (and during that game, Red Barber did the first TV commercials -- ever). The TV game was not long after MacPhail had moved from the Cincinnati Reds to the Brooklyn Dodgers and took Red with him. There was no radio baseball in New York because the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants believed people would not go to the ballpark if they could hear the game on radio. MacPhail knew better than that and he broke the New York radio baseball ban in 1938, installing Red Barber as the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

After World War II, the Dodgers replaced MacPhail with another great innovator, Branch Rickey, who invented the farm system for developing players. But Rickey's biggest contribution to the game transformed the whole country. Branch Rickey was the man who integrated Major League Baseball, and by doing so, set into motion the beginning of the end of Jim Crow America. Guess who was at the microphone when it happened? The self-described cracker boy called the first integrated game in the big leagues.

Rickey gave Red a full year's advance warning that he intended to have a black man play for the Dodgers. Red was dumbstruck. He went home and told his wife Lylah that he didn't think he could broadcast a game that included a black player. It violated all the rules and betrayed all the values that had shaped him as a southern man of his generation. Lylah replied, "Well, you don't have to decide tonight. Let's have a martini." By the time the year had passed in the spring of 1947, Red had decided that his economic interests would be served by staying with the Dodgers. He described what happened next in his best book, 1947: The Year All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball. Jackie Robinson, that first black player, endured death threats, insults and indignities beyond description -- and he triumphed -- playing brilliantly, courageously, and changing hearts and minds. He certainly changed Red Barber's. Red had grown up on friendly terms with Klan members. One of his teenage ambitions was join a minstrel show troupe. All of a sudden he became a civil rights convert, thanks to the courage and convictions of Jackie Robinson. Robinson and the African-American players who followed him (Roy Campanella, Joe Black and Don Newcombe) always praised Red for never mentioning a player's color and always treating them the same as white players. That was exactly what they wanted -- equal treatment, nothing more. But Red always said that Robinson had done far more for him than he ever did for Robinson. Red used to say, "Suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes."

The way Red handled integration fit with Red's regular broadcast style. He believed he was a reporter. Although the ballclub paid his salary, Red never rooted for the home team; he merely reported what he saw and heard. Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey were fine with that, but the next Dodger boss to come along had different ideas about Red's job. Walter O'Malley wanted Red to be a "homer," an on-air promoter of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The point is illustrated by one of the most famous moments in baseball history.

It's October 3, 1951 at the Polo Grounds in New York. The Dodgers had spent the last weeks of the season blowing a commanding lead in the National League. The New York Giants caught them at the end and forced a playoff series. The Dodgers took a three-run lead into the bottom of the ninth in the deciding game and were just three outs away from going to the World Series. Every baseball fan knows that the Giants rallied and the pennant was won by Bobby Thomsen's 3-run homer. The Giants' announcer, Russ Hodges, exploded with excitement -- screaming over the roar of the crowd, "THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!" He screamed it seven times. In another press box booth nearby, Red Barber was doing the game for the Dodgers, and his call of the Thomsen homer was very different. Red never shouted over a crowd. He didn't want to strain his voice and he thought the roar was an important element of the game broadcast. He let you hear that roar. In this case, he allowed that cheering to go on for a full minute without interruption. When he finally spoke, Red did a wrap-up and went to a commercial. He certainly knew how devastating the moment was for Dodger fans and how badly Brooklyn hearts were broken. But Red was not one to lose perspective. After the commercial, he reminded listeners that there was a war on in Korea. Then he said, "The Dodgers will get over this and so will their fans." Never mind that Red was wrong. Dodger fans still aren't over it.

The great Dodger breakthrough finally arrived in 1955 when Brooklyn defeated the hated Yankees in the World Series -- but by then Red was on the other side, broadcasting Yankee games alongside his former rival, Mel Allen. Red had rid himself of Walter O'Malley and once again enjoyed on-air freedom under Yankees president George Weiss. As a voice of the Yankees, Red got to witness Mickey Mantle's triple crown, Don Larsen's perfect World Series game, and Roger Maris's record-breaking 61st home run. But Red's luck ran out again when CBS took over the team in the mid-60's and became the worst owners in the history of the most storied franchise in American professional sports. The Yankees were terrible under CBS and team president Mike Burke, a former CIA man. In fact, the Yankees were so bad that they drew fewer than a hundred fans to a game late in the 1966 season. Fewer than a hundred fans in "the house that Ruth built." To Red, THAT was the story -- not a meaningless game between a pair of losers. So Red had the camera pan the rows and rows of empty seats in big, historic Yankee Stadium. The CBS Yankees were embarrassed, and Mike Burke fired a broadcasting legend.

Red had other offers, but decided he'd had enough. Red and Lylah moved back to Florida where Red did some local TV and wrote books. In 1978, the Baseball Hall of Fame decided it would honor an announcer each year, but couldn't decide whether the first should be Red Barber or Mel Allen -- so both men were inducted. It's been one per year ever since.

The next thing that happened to Red was NPR. When Morning Edition went on the air in 1979, it had two sports segments each day and no sports reporters to fill them. The person in charge of sports was former classical music producer Ketzel Levine (who has since re-invented herself yet again as a garden writer). When Ketzel did a Black History Month story about Jackie Robinson, her father, a Brooklyn Dodger fan in his youth, told her she should talk to Red Barber. When she did, she fell in love with Red's smooth, southern broadcast style and his way of telling a story. She knew Red was great radio and asked him to be on Morning Edition once a week. It was Red's idea that he not read a commentary, but instead have a "live" conversation with the program's host -- me. Our first conversation was in January, 1981 as Red was approaching his 73rd birthday. I was 33, but I was unaccustomed to the type of unscripted, free-ranging, open-ended conversation that Red had been doing on the air for 50 years. Red would ask me questions. Yikes! I was the straight-laced newsguy who wasn't supposed to have any opinions. Well, it took awhile, but I went to school on Red Barber and learned how to relax and join the party. Our four-minute talks each Friday were the most popular moments in all of public radio. The public radio audience is not a big sports audience. Even those who knew who Red Barber was hadn't heard him in at least 15 years. But the public radio audience knows good radio, and they loved Red Barber. If they didn't appreciate his baseball stories, they loved hearing him talk about his cat being dive-bombed by a mockingbird protecting a nest. They thrilled at hearing Red describe the dogwoods, azaleas and camellias growing in his garden. And when Red complained about squirrels eating the seeds in his bird-feeder, people from all over the United States sent elaborate designs for squirrel-proof bird-feeders. They cared! Red delighted them every Friday and they wanted to give back.

Our talks ran for 12 years. Our last was on October 5, 1992 and it was clear that Red was ill. The following week, when, for the first time, he couldn't go on, many thousands of listeners sent cards and letters to the hospital and to NPR. And when he died at age 84 on October 22nd, there were expressions of mourning the likes of which I've never seen. That's when I decided to write a book, Fridays with Red, to give something to the fans who missed him, to celebrate a good man and a legendary radio career, and to give public thanks for what he'd done for me and for NPR. He had made me a better broadcaster and a better journalist, teaching me how to better communicate on the air, to react to spontaneous unscripted situations and to just be myself. He also was instrumental in building the Morning Edition audience, which became the biggest in all of morning broadcasting -- radio or TV. Those who remember those broadcasts still call me what HE called me -- Colonel Bob, because I'm a Kentucky Colonel. Colonel Bob had the great good luck to serve for 12 years as straight man to one of the greatest broadcasters of all time.

The sports world remembers Red Barber as the voice of the Reds, then the Dodgers and then the Yankees -- broadcaster of numerous World Series games and a man honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It also notes that he called professional and college football games (Red was at the mike for 12 college bowl games).

The radio world remembers him as a broadcast pioneer, an early inductee into the National Radio Hall of Fame, a man whose career spanned 62 years -- from Hoover's Great Depression to Clinton's dot-com boom. His talents were certainly apparent to Edward R. Murrow, who hired him to be director of sports for CBS, a company that ultimately pitched them both overboard.

I remember him as a friend, a mentor, and something more -- for the opportunity to work with the Ole Redhead, born a hundred years ago this month, was truly a magnificent gift in the middle of my career.

Fortunately, there are recordings. I can still listen to him and marvel.