Rex Barney, voice of Orioles, dies at 72 Ex-Dodgers pitcher served as stadium announcer since 1974


Imagine the ballpark hot dog hawkers suddenly falling silent or the national anthem never being played again. Imagine Orioles games at Camden Yards forever without Rex Barney.

The former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who was the voice of Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards for 23 summers was found dead in his home in Baltimore yesterday morning. A native of Omaha, Neb., embraced by Baltimore fans for his congenial, small-town touch, Mr. Barney was 72 years old.

Mr. Barney, who had spoken with friends on Monday evening, was found in his home near Memorial Stadium by an old friend who went to check on him after no one answered telephone calls, an Orioles spokesman said. According to the death certificate, he died on Monday, but the cause of death was not known late yesterday.

Mr. Barney had worked the last home game against the Texas Rangers on July 30 and was due to begin a seven-game homestand last night. Instead, there was a three-minute ceremony led by Hall of Fame broadcaster Chuck Thompson, including a moment of silence. Flags were flown at half-staff. For the entire game, the public-address microphone was shut off, and batters walked to the plate unannounced, welcomed only by the crowd.

"His voice was almost like a security blanket," said Mike Flanagan, former Orioles pitcher and now a television announcer, who joined the team in1975, the year after Mr. Barney became the full-time public-address announcer at Memorial Stadium. "Being announced by Rex always gave me a quiet confidence, almost like the voice of a baseball god. He made you feel like everything would be all right."

Jim Palmer, Hall of Fame pitcher and Orioles broadcaster, said: "Baseball loses a great friend. He was always there for me, so easy to talk to, like having my own shrink, so gentle, compassionate and kind. I feel robbed."

In a world of sportswriting wise guys, Mr. Barney was a kindly, avuncular presence in the press box, a tall man with wispy gray hair offering no apologies for his sometimes saccharine style. A book reviewer once said he was "almost embarrassingly

sentimental" about baseball, but folks say the sentiment sprang from genuine love for the game and compassion for people.

"He had such a passion for baseball," said Bob Brown, who worked with Mr. Barney for 15 seasons when he served as Orioles public relations director.

When Boston Red Sox slugger Carl Yastrzemski played his last game at Memorial Stadium in 1983, Mr. Brown wrote a tribute that Mr. Barney delivered to the crowd. The two men who sat next to each other in the press box had to agree they would not make eye contact during the presentation, lest they both be reduced to tears.

It was easy enough to hear Mr. Barney's corny radio patter, his unfailing politeness, his signature "thank youuuuu" and "give that fan a contract" for a good catch in the stands and assume he led a charmed life in the game. This lifelong love affair, however, was shadowed by unfulfilled dreams. For all his folksy ways, Mr. Barney knew as well as anyone how cruel baseball could be.

"I'll go through the rest of my life knowing I didn't become as good as I should have been," he told a Sun writer in 1989. "I had so much potential, and I just didn't live up to it."

The right-hander could throw so hard, 100 miles an hour at times. Broadcaster and former catcher Joe Garagiola wrote that Mr. Barney's fastball ranked with those of Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. Hitters feared him, but often for the wrong reasons. It was anybody's guess where the ball would wind up.

New York Daily News sportswriter Dick Young earned a permanent spot in Rex Barney lore with two quips about the young pitcher. He wrote: "If the plate were high and outside, Rex Barney would be in the Hall of Fame." Mr. Young also wrote that Mr. Barney "could throw a ball through a brick wall if he could hit the brick wall."

He did strike out Joe DiMaggio with the bases loaded in the 1947 World Series, but still walked more batters that year than he struck out.

A stellar season

Mr. Barney found a more consistent rhythm in 1948, his fourth of six major-league seasons and the only year in which his strikeouts exceeded his walks. After a rough start, he hit the zenith of the season and of his major-league career on Sept. 9, 1948, at the Polo Grounds in New York. He no-hit the Giants and did not allow a hard-hit ball the entire game.

"That cat could throw aspirin tablets. That's what the ball looked like that day," said Sam Lacy, who saw the no-hitter while covering the Dodgers for the Baltimore Afro-American. "When he had control, he was unhittable."

Mr. Barney finished that season with 15 wins, 13 losses and an earned run average of 3.10. One writer said that, at 23 years old, Mr. Barney was "rapping loudly on the door to pitching greatness."

He nudged the door ajar, but never swung it wide.

A mediocre 1949 season was followed with disaster in 1950, when Mr. Barney broke his leg sliding into a base on the last day of the season. The injury affected his pitching motion, and arm trouble followed. In 1951, after walking 16 men in a minor-league game, he left baseball, having won 35 regular-season games and lost 31. He struck out 336 batters and walked 410.

"He tried to come back," said former pitcher Ralph Branca, Mr. Barney's teammate and roommate on the Dodgers. "He worked hard. He tried different windups."

He always dismissed the broken leg as a reason for his premature departure from the game. It just didn't work out, he would say. But the disappointment stayed with him always, he said.

What he gained since then is standing as a local legend, as much a part of Baltimore as Harry Caray is a part of Chicago. Former Orioles play-by-play announcer Jon Miller said yesterday: don't think any PA announcer has had such impact in his own town. He wasn't from Baltimore, but he was a real Baltimorean, in the same way Brooks Robinson was."

After knocking around jobs in breweries and radio, Mr. Barney came to Baltimore in the early 1960s. He did some radio work here in between jobs at a liquor distributor and as a bartender at the old Pimlico Hotel. In the late 1960s, he started filling in as an Orioles public-address announcer. In 1974, he was hired full-time, and there he remained. He also did Orioles pre- and post-game shows on WBAL Radio, and had been part of the club's television announcing team.

Mr. Brown said Mr. Barney "hated to be away from the ballpark," but poor health pulled him away a few times.

He was hospitalized with a stroke in June 1983, but returned to the microphone two months later to finish out the Orioles' world championship season. Mr. Barney missed the last two games at Memorial Stadium in 1991, when he suffered dizzy spells. In 1995, he missed 10 games after a mild heart attack.

In May 1992, Mr. Barney's right leg was amputated below the knee because of circulatory problems. After missing six weeks and 17 home games, he returned to the ballpark and was greeted by fans who held banners and lined up by the hundreds in front of the press box to welcome him back.

That's how it was at Camden Yards, where Mr. Barney would chat and exchange greetings with a constant stream of fans.

"I never saw him turn away from a fan," said Michael Gibbons, Babe Ruth Museum director.

Grip on the microphone

Ah, but he could be tough in yielding the microphone, said Joseph E. Foss, Orioles vice chairman for business and finance.

"He was a true iron man, though struggling the last few years," said Mr. Foss. "Even when he was ill or hoarse, we had difficulty wrestling the mike from him. Last year, during a bout of laryngitis, he reluctantly stood aside, but he sat beside his replacement for those four days to make sure it was done right. He was very possessive of that microphone."

Last night, he would be succeeded only by a memory, in his place just the sounds of the ballpark he so dearly loved to hear.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Ignatious Roman Catholic Church, 740 N. Calvert St., Baltimore.

Mr. Barney, who was divorced twice, is survived by his former wife, the former Carol McLaughlin; a son, Kevin Barney of Mexico; a daughter, Christine Barney of California; a brother, Tex Barney of Omaha; and three grandchildren.

Pub Date: 8/13/97

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