He was simply Red Barber, and baseball loved him so The Ol' Redhead: master of air waves


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- He was one heck of a hardheaded Ol' Redhead.

"If I think something is right, I will do it," he said. "If I think something is wrong, I won't do it."

Not for hell, and not for high water.

That was Walter Lanier Barber all the way.

All the way from Mississippi, where he was born, to Florida, where he grew up, to Brooklyn, where he attained his greater fame, and back. Back, finally, to Tallahassee, the place he had chosen for his retirement. He was 20 years in our town, and it was here yesterday that he died. He was 84.

He was, to the sports world, simply Red Barber, the great voice of major-league baseball. Baseball as it was in the glory days of radio. Before TV.

A unique voice, really. So very Southern, it was. Yet so precise, so descriptive. A voice -- and style -- alone. Unforgettable. Absolutely.

Too, a born-again voice. National Public Radio made it so. Early on Friday mornings, Barber's folksy words spun nostalgia, and more, as he talked, ever so easily, with host Bob Edwards. "Robert, the crepe myrtle is blooming," he once began, "and there is an old adage around here that when the crepe myrtle blooms, the watermelons are ripe."

In recent times, he had become, in story after story, "radio's beloved old coot." One writer came up with the phrase. Others fell in line.

But his greater identity was that of "The Ol' Redhead." He had long ago so christened himself. Because, as he once explained to me, he was not so comfortable with saying "I" all the time, or "myself" all the time.

I don't know how he felt about the "coot" part, and I forgot to ask. He would have had no hesitation in saying what he thought. He almost never did.

If the phrase "courage of convictions" had been coined for Barber, it would have fit ever so snugly. Barber's convictions and his courage in backing them up were sometimes little short of astonishing.

Because of his convictions, he gave up the World Series and, with it, a career as a network announcer for major-league baseball. At the time, the sponsor, Gillette, not only determined who would broadcast the World Series but what his fee should be.

Barber wearied of the one-sided arrangement.

When a Gillette spokesman called him in to grandly tell him that he was again a chosen one for the 1953 World Series, and the fee would be whatever it was, Barber balked.

"You get what you got last year," the Gillete man said, according to Barber. "Take it or leave it."

"I'll leave it," said Barber.

That night he went home for dinner. It was the 16th birthday of his daughter Sarah. "I'm giving you the greatest present I can give you," Barber told her. "I'm giving you back my self-respect."

In leaving, Barber forsook a great deal. But he became a hero, perhaps like no other, with his broadcast-media peers. It had cost him a coveted job, but he had knocked down a barrier.

Along the way, he thumbed his sensitive nose -- politely, you understand -- at other precedents.

As odd as it may now seem, the word "blood" was taboo on radio. On opening day at Brooklyn in 1942 Barber ignored that one as, with the start of World War II, he relayed a Red Cross appeal for blood donors. "I never have been one to be fazed by taboos, jinxes or hoo-doos," he said. In violation of tradition that a broadcaster should not mention that a pitcher had a no-hitter going, for fear of jinxing him, Barber would mention it.

His humor was quick, incisive, delightful. It softened his flinty convictions. He drifted, to a degree, away from baseball. He said, with the exorbitant salaries and sorry ownership, he no longer really understood the game and feared for its future.

"The truth is I'd rather watch a golf final on Sunday," he said. "There the players have to produce to earn money. Nothing up front.

"My joy in broadcasting was in working. I never cared that much about who won or lost. And now there's a new generation of players I neither know nor understand."

Over two decades, I came to associate this honest man, this caring man with a single word. Integrity.

Only last year I wrote a long piece, attempting to paint a portrait of that rare integrity. Barber liked it.

He sent a dozen roses to my house. Not to me. To my wife. He understood that I would understand.

Here's to you, Red, sitting up there in that Catbird Seat, for all the years we came to know you:

Twenty dozen roses.

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