Walter Lanier “Red” Barber invented the template for impartial sportscasters. He was never a shameless homer during his 33-year career on radio and television, although listeners knew he favored the team he was broadcasting (as play-by-play man for the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers or New York Yankees).
But the Hall of Fame broadcaster had credibility because he approached the game as a reporter, giving the facts while avoiding embellishments.
“He used to announce the road games off the ticker tape,” Richard D’Angelo, now a month shy of his 90th birthday, told me this week. “He made it sound like he was there.
“He was very calm and very quick.”
What you heard from Barber was the unvarnished truth. He also could set a scene for radio listeners, painting word pictures with his stark, compelling descriptions and his folksy sayings. It was quite a combination that he used to great effect broadcasting baseball, college and professional football. His direct, no-nonsense approach also served him well during his nine years as director of sports for CBS Sports.
Barber’s long, prolific career as a broadcaster, and later, as a writer, is the subject of a new biography by Judith R. Hiltner and James R. Walker. Red Barber: The Life and Legacy of a Broadcasting Legend (University of Nebraska Press; $36.95; hardback; 496 pages) is a thoroughly researched work with rich detail that draws upon the Red Barber Collection of papers at his alma mater, the University of Florida. The work also relies on other manuscripts, audio and visual sources, interviews, oral histories and information from more than 80 articles and books. That provides a scholarly and eclectic mix that is enhanced by the authors’ clear prose.
Hiltner and Walker, the husband-and-wife writing team for this project, hold teaching positions at Saint Xavier University in Chicago and both are independently accomplished. Hiltner is professor emeritus of literature and languages and has written critical and biographical studies of Phillip Freneau, known as the poet of the American Revolution; and Deborah Sampson, a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight during the Revolutionary War; and Herman Melville, the author of “Moby-Dick.” Walker, professor emeritus of communication, wrote 2015’s Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio; and co-wrote Center Field Shot: A History of Baseball on Television with Robert V. Bellamy Jr. in 2008.
“ … We began to think about this project as something to do together,” Hiltner told the Pandemic Baseball Book Club, an interview featured on Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf. “It’s really enriched our retirement years.”
When Roger Maris hit his 61st homer of the season on Oct. 1,1961, Barber was handling television duties for the Yankees on WPIX-TV. When Maris connected, Barber let the fans tell the story. “There it is,” and then, after a long pause to allow his viewers to absorb the crowd’s delirium, Barber said, “Sixty-one. Five thousand dollars, somebody” (a reward that was offered to the person who caught the ball — Sal Durante.).
That understated style of announcing was also made famous by Barber’s most famous protégé, Vin Scully, who called Dodgers games for 67 seasons before retiring after the 2016 season. Other broadcasters have also followed that example, to their credit.
Barber’s gift for storytelling was his ability “to take the local and make it universal.”
“He could transform Brooklyn into everyone’s hometown and Ebbets Field into everyone’s own backyard,” Chuck Yarborough, a professor of Southern history at Mississippi University for Women, told the authors in a 2019 interview.
Barber honed his skills when he began announcing college football games at Florida in 1930. Barber is certainly the university’s most prominent broadcasting figure. There have been others through the years, too: Otis Boggs, the original “voice of the Gators” from 1940 to 1981; longtime WRUF sports director Larry Vettel and program director Harry Guscott; and 90 Rock veterans David Lowe and Chris Maurer (the latter making her mark at CNBC Radio for more than three decades).
Hiltner and Walker take an interesting approach in introducing the reader to Barber, using his given first and middle names and nickname to show “the dominant strands” of his personality.
They write that “Walter” signified his ambition, “aiming to win but competing only by strictly following” the rules. “Lanier” brings out the broadcaster’s love of literature, symphony and history, among other subjects, which brought out the humanist side of his personality.
“He enjoys the challenge of mulling life’s deepest questions and formulating tentative answers,” the authors write.
“Red,” meanwhile, is “the fun-loving performer” who enjoyed participating in minstrel shows and telling stories to his radio and television audiences. Granted, the minstrel shows were in blackface and would not pass muster today, but his life was shaped by smalltown values from the Deep South. That’s not an excuse; it is simply what he did.
But Barber was highly critical of his hometown when it came to its treatment of Jackie Robinson. A 1946 incident, when Sanford city officials scrapped an exhibition game involving Robinson and the Montreal Royals — the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate — was instructive. Barber, later reacting to officials telling the team to Robinson out of town,” spoke disparagingly” about the city, calling it “as red necked a town as you’ll ever find.”
Being from the South, Barber originally struggled with the idea of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. But, the authors note, Barber took a page out of legendary umpire Bill Klem’s book, to simply “umpire the ball.” For Barber, that translated into “broadcasting the ball,” regardless of who was hitting or catching it.
Barber knew that his listeners would be waiting to hear “what (he) said as well as what (he) didn’t say.”
Tom Villante, who was Barber’s producer when Robinson made his major league debut on April 15, 1947, at Ebbets Field, told the authors that the announcer “faced a dilemma” that day.
“How do I handle it? I’m going to handle it like I handle any other player,” Villante quoted Barber as saying. “I don’t say he’s an Italian, I don’t say he’s a Greek. I don’t say he’s Polish, and I’m not going to say Jackie’s a Negro.”
“Red referred to him as a person,” Villante told the authors.
Ultimately, Barber would become friends with Jackie and Rachel Robinson.
These are some of the nuggets of information that make this biography so endearing. The authors squash the old story that Barber was fired from the New York Yankees because of a Sept. 22, 1966, television broadcast, when he told viewers on WPIX that there were only 413 fans in attendance.
“But that was not why he was fired,” the authors write. “By then the decision to fire Barber had already been made.”
Yankees executive Michael Burke, who fired Barber four days after that game, was the villain in the “413” story, which became “one of the enduring Yankees myths.”
Burke would later say that Barber was fired because he was “giving us a terrible time in the broadcast booth,” while squabbling with fellow broadcaster Phil Rizzuto and “going out of his way” to embarrass another Yankees broadcaster, Joe Garagiola, on the air “and make him look stupid.”
“But Burke’s justification for firing Barber rarely saw the light of day,” the authors write. “The press portrayed Barber as the heroic victim and his firing as another example of CBS mismanagement.”
CBS had bought an 80% interest in the team from Dan Topping and Del Webb on Nov. 2, 1964. Coincidentally or not, the Yankees, who had won 29 pennants from 1921 to 1964, would not appear in the World Series again until 1976.
For example, the authors reference a Pete Norton newspaper column from 1930 praising Barber’s announcing skills but referred to the publication as the Tampa Bay Times. Until Jan. 1, 2012, the Tampa Bay Times was known as the St. Petersburg Times. Yes, sour grapes on my part, since I worked at the rival Tampa Tribune that was bought out and closed down by the Times in May 2016. But referring to that paper as the Tampa Bay Times is like saying the Los Angeles Dodgers — and not the Brooklyn Dodgers — won the 1955 World Series. The franchise did, of course, but you get the idea.
Enough ranting on that point, although there is at least one more instance of a reference to the Tampa Bay Times.
The authors also note that when Barber arrived in Brooklyn, the Dodgers “had exactly one pennant and no World Series win to their credit.” While they correctly mention the 1920 Dodgers, the authors forgot about the 1916 Brooklyn squad that won the National League pennant but lost to the Boston Red Sox. It could be argued that the team was also called the Robins in 1916 in honor of manager Wilbert Robinson, but even The New York Times and The Brooklyn Daily Times referred to the team as the Dodgers in 1916, according to online newspaper records. The names Robins and Dodgers were interchangeable from 1914 to 1931, when Robinson managed the team.
And finally, Reds owner Powel Crosley is referred to as “Powell,” which is a common error.
But honestly, finding three minor items in a nearly 500-page book does not diminish the thorough job done by Hiltner and Walker.
He wrote approximately 240 columns for the Miami Herald from 1967 to 1971 under the heading, “The Old Redhead.” No longer forced to remain neutral, Barber could offer an opinion — and he wasn’t shy about it.
“His strongest pieces … were based upon on-site interviews or compelling current events,” the authors write. “They remind readers that Barber was at his best as a writer when he combined perceptive commentary … with his gifts as a play-by-play radio reporter who brought a scene to life for listeners who could not see it except through the lens of Barber’s keen descriptive powers.
As he aged, Barber returned to radio on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” visited for several minutes every Friday. That introduced Barber to a new audience.
He wrote six books, contributed articles to Reader’s Digest, and joined NBC broadcasters Curt Gowdy (another Barber protégé) and Tony Kubek during a 1973 Monday night game from Pittsburgh.
“Barber seemed to transition into a comfortable retirement, seeking neither fame nor fortune but receiving enough of each,” the authors write.
In addition to writing about Barber’s professional career, Hiltner and Walker dig into the broadcaster’s personal life. They note Barber’s struggle with balancing his growing fame as a broadcaster with his personal life at home.
Barber also had to accept the news of his only child, Sarah, coming out as a lesbian, and his later-life role as a caretaker for his wife, Lylah, who had Alzheimer’s disease
Lylah Barber’s 1985 memoir, “Lylah,” also provides unique perspective about her courtship with Red Barber and their family life. And the authors provide unique perspective about Barber’s role as a licensed Episcopal lay reader.
There is so much to cover, and so many names and events — Walter O’Malley, Branch Rickey, Mel Allen, Connie Desmond, Garagiola, the 1951 playoff game between the Giants and Dodgers, the 1940 NFL championship game, the 1935 Notre Dame-Ohio State college football game, and others. The authors address them all.
The best compliment ever paid to Red Barber might have come from another broadcasting pioneer, Graham McNamee. At the 1936 World Series, McNamee watched Barber call the game from the box seats above the press box at the Polo Grounds (where announcers worked at the time).
Barber, “fully engaged” after taking over the announcing duties in the fourth inning and working solo, felt a firm hand grab his elbow after a few innings, the authors write.
It was McNamee.
“Kid, you’ve got it,” McNamee said.
I feel the same way about the work by Judith Hiltner and James Walker in this biography. They’ve got it.