Walter Lanier “Red” Barber, one of the most recognizable voices in baseball history, announced games for the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Yankees for thirty-three summers. His southern accent, baseball expertise, and unique blend of folksy colloquialisms and impeccable grammar and syntax made Barber a radio icon and cherished personality. From the time of his retirement from the broadcasting booth until his death, Barber remained famous and beloved for his writings, public appearances, and commentary on National Public Radio.
Born in Columbus, Mississippi, on 17 February 1908 to a locomotive engineer and a schoolteacher, Barber received his middle name in homage to a distant relative, famed poet Sidney Lanier. Barber lived in Mississippi until 1918, when his father took a job with the Atlantic Coast Line and moved the family to Florida. After high school Barber worked as a janitor to pay his tuition at the University of Florida. In Gainesville, Barber did his first radio work, fell in love with broadcasting, and dropped out of school to run the campus station.
In 1934 Powel Crosley Jr. hired Barber to broadcast Cincinnati Reds’ games. Barber’s first game as Cincinnati’s announcer was the first big-league game he ever attended. The highlight of Barber’s five summers with the Reds came on 24 May 1935, when he announced the first night game in Major League history. In 1938 Barber left Cincinnati for the Brooklyn Dodgers, beginning the period during which he made his most famous calls and became the preeminent announcer in baseball. Barber’s distinct language and witticisms made him a legend. In Barber’s world, a base runner would set off a “rhubarb” by “swinging the gate” on a shortstop, a third baseman would mishandle a ball “slicker than oiled okra,” a slugger would smile “as big as a slice of watermelon” after hitting a home run, and a high-scoring game would turn into a “ring-tailed, double-jointed doozy.”
Barber’s run with the Dodgers nearly ended in 1945. When Branch Rickey informed him that the organization intended to sign Jackie Robinson to a Minor League contract, Barber, who had absorbed the Jim Crow South’s rigid racial orthodoxy, threatened to quit. After talking to his wife, Lylah, and imbibing several martinis, Barber considered the financial and professional recklessness of quitting and opted to stay on as Brooklyn’s announcer. When Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Barber was in the broadcast booth.
He left the club six years later when Walter O’Malley took over and asked Barber to adjust his announcing style to portray the Dodgers more positively. Barber then signed with the New York Yankees, remaining the team’s announcer until he retired from the broadcast booth in 1966. Barber’s most famous moment with the Yankees came in 1961, when Roger Maris hit his sixty-first home run to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record.
After retirement Barber wrote books and articles about a wide range of subjects and dedicated himself to service as a lay preacher in the Episcopal Church. Barber’s sermons and writings often invoked figures from the sports world: in Walk in the Spirit Barber used the lives of Jackie Robinson, Ben Hogan, Roy Campanella, and Roger Bannister to praise moral and religious values such as hard work, moderation, patience, and self-sacrifice. Barber’s evolved views on race relations, which condemned the segregation of his younger years as ugly and outdated but regarded blacks as dangerously militant and fatally pessimistic, reflected these values. From 1981 until his death on 10 October 1992 in Tallahassee, Florida, Barber appeared every Friday on the National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, showcasing his gifts for storytelling and conversation.
- Red Barber, The Broadcasters (1970)
- Red Barber, Show Me the Way to Go Home (1971)
- Bob Edwards, Fridays with Red: A Radio Friendship (1993)
- New York Times (23 October 1992)