Sportscasting legend Red Barber dies

Oct. 22, 1992
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Red Barber, the sportscasting pioneer whose Southern lilt evoked timeless images of baseball on a hot summer afternoon, died Thursday of lung and kidney complications. He was 84.

He died at 11:14 a.m. EDT in the Tallahassee Memorial Regional Medical Center, hospital spokesman Warren Jones said. He had been admitted Oct. 10 for emergency surgery for a bowel obstruction.

'He developed lung and other kidney complications all related to his age,' Jones said.

Famed for his folksy phrases such as 'sitting in the catbird seat,' Barber spent more than a half century behind a microphone, with his most famous stint as voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1939 to 1953. Before that he worked for the Cincinnati Reds and afterwards for the New York Yankees.

But wherever he went, Barber brought his soft poetic touches. With a Mississippi drawl recognizable throughout baseball, Barber introduced his own language to the game.

A player might be 'tearin' up the pea patch' or 'running like a bunny with his tail on fire.' Sometimes, a pitcher was as 'wild as a chicken hawk on a frosty morning.' Other times, the bases would be 'FOB' (full of Brooklyns).

As one of the early stars of sports broadcasting, Barber was the announcer of the major league's first night game, first televised game and first televised World Series game.

He was inducted into the broadcast wing of Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1978. In 1991, he was honored with the George Foster Peabody Award.

Late in life, Barber started a second career as a commentator on the sports scene in particular and life in general on a weekly chat on National Public Radio.

Walter Lanier Barber was born in Columbus, Miss., Feb. 17, 1908. His father was a locomotive engineer and his mother a school teacher. He graduated from the University of Florida and moved to Tallahassee in 1972.

Surprisingly, Barber, who earned a reputation as one of baseball's most fair-minded broadcasters, once considered quitting the Dodgers in 1947 when the team signed Jackie Robinson, the first black in the majors. Barber said he didn't know if he could be fair to him.

Yet, when Barber was inducted into the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame in 1984, it was Rachel Robinson, the wife of the late Dodger great, who accepted the plaque on behalf of Barber. Barber was unable to attend the ceremony because he was at the bedside of his ailing wife.

Following 15 years with the Dodgers, Barber joined the Yankees in 1953, but his unfailing candor got him in trouble. At a 1966 home game attended by only 413 fans, he called for a camera shot of the empty stands.

A few weeks after he was fired by the Yankees in 1966, Barber ruminated on baseball. He described the game as 'a reflection of the rhythm of life's cycle in that we walk, run, and then slow to a walk again. Baseball means the individual humanist with its hopes and fears. It is the triumph of an individual making the most of his skills, the sadness of the talented individual not using his talents. It is the beauty and timing of ballet.'

Barber did not believe in getting too close to the players, and when he retired he did not follow the game that closely.

'I tried to be a reporter,' Barber explained. 'You can't be a reporter and a friend to somebody. I stayed to myself when I was broadcasting. I never was in the home of a ballplayer, and I never had a ballplayer in mine.

'I tried to be a professional broadcaster. I was never a fan. When the ballgame began, I could never get excited. I just wanted to give my listeners as much information as I could.'

Barber's career in radio started at the University of Florida in 1929. He was a janitor at the University Club, and one day a local radio station needed a replacement for a professor to read a paper on 'bovine obstetrics.' Barber took the assignment and wound up with a job paying him $150 a month.

It was a job that would carry him through sweeping changes across the years in baseball. Barber said he enjoyed his retirement and maintained he held no bitterness toward baseball.

'I was at the top of the heap and got brushed back,' he said. 'I'm glad for every day I spent before the mike. And I'm glad for every day I don't have to do it any more.'

Barber is survived by his wife, Lylah, and his daughter Sara. Funeral plans were not immediately clear.

The family asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made in the name of Barber to the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Association in Chicago.

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