Day 3 of 2022 new baseball books: The persnickety guy who came before Vin Scully was pretty good, too

“Red Barber: The Life and Legacy
of A Broadcasting Legend”

The authors:
James Walker
Judith Hiltner

The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
544 pages
$36.95
Released April 1, 2022

The links:
The publishers website
At Bookshop.org
At Indiebound.org
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com

The review in 90 feet or less

Seventy-two years ago on this day – April 18, 1950 – a fresh-faced 22-year-old red head from Fordham University named Vin Scully called the first Major League Baseball game of his career.

Pull up a chair. This could take a minute to put into context.

Those Dodgers of Brooklyn, coming off their second World Series appearance in three years, had a burgeoning Hall of Fame pedigree. Reigning NL MVP Jackie Robinson was hitting cleanup. Pee Wee Reese led off, Duke Snider hit third, Gil Hodges was sixth and Roy Campanella was incredibly No. 8. Don Newcombe was on the mound. They endured a 9-1 loss to Robin Roberts at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park on Opening Day to the soon-to-be-named Whiz Kids Phillies – the same team that would also outlast them on the last game of the season in a 10-inning thriller at Ebbets Field to win the National League pennant.

A couple of other future Hall of Fame voices were also there to chronicle it.

From Mark Langill’s Dodgers MLB.com blog in 2020 on the 70th anniversary of Vin Scully’s debut.

The start of Scully’s 67-year career working for the team was because of a need to fill an opening in the team’s WMGM radio booth — Ernie Harwell left to join the broadcasting team for the New York Giants, the franchise Scully grew up admiring, and perhaps the Dodgers were lucky Scully wasn’t experienced enough at the time to even be considered for that position paired with Russ Hodges.

Already on this Dodgers’ broadcast team was Connie Desmond, who Scully would later characterize as someone like a favorite uncle.

From The Sporting News archives, for auction by MearsOnlineAuctions.com

There was also Red Barber.

The then-42-year-old had been the original voice of the Dodgers 12 seasons earlier when they started doing games on WHN radio, teaming with Al Helfer in 1939. Barber recruited Scully, an intern at CBS Radio affiliate WTOP in Washington DC to cover a Maryland-Boston University football game in November, ’49, on the Fenway Park press box rooftop amidst horrible weather. Barber found he could become Scully’s mentor and taskmaster, calling him “a pretty appealing young green pea. You could tell this was a boy who had something on the ball.”

Barber who got Branch Rickey to sign off on hiring Scully just three years after Rickey made some history with Robinson.

At that point in time, the Dodgers were launching a new experiment doing games on New York’s WOR-TV. They needed more voices. Barber was ready to try this new visual experiment — he already had the historical footnote of being the broadcaster on the first televised baseball game in August of ’39.

As it turned out, Barber and Scully only overlapped four seasons. Barber was gone after a dispute with new team owner Walter O’Malley and went to work for the rival New York Yankees.

Scully endured, made the move to L.A., and the rest was …

A lengthy, definitive bio someday will be done on Scully – we continue to discount the book that historian Curt Smith slap-dashed together in 2010, without Scully’s cooperation or blessing, justifying it because Scully was a public figure whose career was of notable interest. No doubt. But Scully, who turned 93 last November, pushes back often when requests are made to do his life story. A public person, but a very private man.

Just like Barber.

And to tell Scully’s story, we need to first know Barber’s.

The foundation has been laid first by a publisher that has dedicated itself to encouraging and preserving baseball history at (almost) any cost, and now by a husband-and-wife team of academics, recently retired as professors at Saint Xavier University, and enough fans of the game to know where to start, find more untapped material to work with, and then take the leap of faith there would be an appreciative audience for this task that needed twice the size of a normal biography to tell it — plus 60 more when you throw in the footnotes, bibliography and index.

Walker has already done writing on the subject of baseball and broadcasting with two books through University of Nebraska Press’ companies: “Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio” in 2015 and “Center Field Shot: A History of Baseball on Television,” in 2008. Neither could be done without an appreciation of Barber’s work.

Hiltner, with a Ph.D. in English and American literature from the University of Maryland, has a background in writing about poetry and American fiction.

They decided the best way to frame the somewhat complicated story of Barber is by segmenting him according to his name.

Walter, his formal first name, describes the self-disciplined, rule-following, prickly professional when it came to upholding objectivity and accuracy, but also one who was painfully shy and retreated.

Lainer, his middle name, is his paternal grandmother’s distant relative and Southern poet Sidney Lanier, who championed the weak and vulnerable. (Barber was also distantly related to playwright Tennessee Williams).

Then there was the nickname, Red — the showman and story teller, who could spin the yards with the Southern drawl, throw out the colorful expressions, and loved public speaking.

Red, white and Dodger blue.

Walker and Hiltner also better connect the dots about how other Baseball Hall of Fame broadcasters of note – Harwell, Curt Gowdy, Jerry Coleman, Al Michaels and Bob Costas – either directly or through reading Barber’s educational landmark history book, “The Broadcasters” in 1970, had a notable impact on their approach to doing live calls.

But seen through the lens of Scully’s life and times, we can appreciate all the tidbits of information that come through about Barber. Scully admits he may not have always been pleased with the way Barber schooled him, but the pupil in this Socrates-to-Plato handoff also received the benefit of someone who studied those before him, such as Graham McNamee, and was able to pass it forward.

For as we learn that Scully thought of Barber as his father figure, Scully was also the son that Barber never had. A great deal of Barber’s private life also comes to light – for better or worse, whether we need to know it or not – which focuses on his relationship with his only daughter as well as acting as a caretaker during his wife’s lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s.

Barber’s life after the broadcasting fame might be well enough to fill another book in itself, covering his role as an Episcopal lay reader, his own sports writing and authoring of history, and then a run National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” segment with Bob Edwards called “Fridays with Red,” which did become a 1993 book.

In a very in-depth Q&A with the Pandemic Baseball Book Club, Walker says that “arguably, Red was more beloved at the end of his life than at any other time” because of his deep dive into traditional and evolving media opportunities, things he saw as a blessing to act upon following his forced retirement in 1966 as a team broadcaster.

Also asked why they even tackled this subject, Walter said: “No one had written a comprehensive biography of Barber’s life, even though barely tapped boxes upon boxes at the University of Florida contain fascinating archives documenting the highs and lows of his public broadcasting career. These archives supported our conviction that Barber’s story — a boy of modest means shaped by small-town life and values in the Deep South evolving into a beloved figure in Brooklyn — would make for a compelling biography. … Barber’s personal evolution speaks to diversity-based tensions that plague our culture today, as does his commitment to the civic use of mass media.”

The couple started work on the book five years ago, finished their research just before the pandemic in 2020, and spent that time in isolation writing.

“We were not sure at first if we would remain interested enough in Barber to research and write about his entire life,” Walker also said. “Did the world need another bio of a dead white male? What if we were not inspired to stick with him?”

That should no longer be a concern.

Uncovering resources like former Dodgers’ game producer Tom Villante to interview add great texture to the tale. Even if Scully’s contributions are limited to what he’s already given over the years through previous interviews and things he has written, it is extremely useful and needed to paint the Barber picture.

Barber, the 1978 winner of the first Ford C. Frick Award by the Baseball Hall of Fame for his contribution to the game’s broadcasting history (with Mel Allen), saw Scully receive the award six years later. In April 1993, after Barber’s passing, Scully wrote an essay for Reader’s Digest to honor him. Scully said that Barber was “the most honorable man I ever met” and “was more than a sportscaster. He was the voice of truth.” It is duly noted in this biography on page 421.

Barber, like Scully, made his baseball listening audience more intelligent. So does this book. Forever we are thankful for both, as this monumental effort makes us feel even more enlightened.

How it goes in the scorebook

You say rhubarb, we say rich in antioxidants, anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins.

The Wall Street Journal’s Edward Kosner notes in his review: “It’s quite a tale, although only the most devoted Barber fans are likely to wade through all of it. … In the end, Red Barber was that voice — with, as the authors write, ‘the unique perspective and gifts of the storyteller’ — that burnished baseball in one of its golden ages.”

On the back cover, a litany of blurbs touting the book’s worthiness include both MLB official historian John Thorn and author Jane Leavy as saying this “definitive” biography is one “he deserves.” Knowing now how private he really was at times, we question if he really would want such a thing, but could appreciate the work done on it.

Barber valued the concise nature of telling a story. It’s an awful huge ask to get a reader to commit to this dense, expansive documentation of his life, no matter how much information can be excavated by today’s modern methods. Just note, it isn’t the kind of book you can prop up on the recliner and scan – the physical weight has to be taken into consideration. And to think the authors admitted to the PBBC that their original draft was about 25 percent larger before it was cut down.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== In his 2005 book, “Voices of Summer: Ranking Baseball’s 101 All-Time Best Announcers,” Curt Smith creates a 10-part, 1-to-10 ranking system that takes into consideration longevity, continuity, network work, awards, master of the language, popularity, persona, voice quality, knowledge and a catch-all miscellany. Smith then determines Scully to be No. 1 on his list with a perfect score of 100. After Mel Allen (99 points), Ernie Harwell (97) and Jack Buck (96) comes Barber in the No. 5 spot with 95 points. Barber scores 10s in eight categories, but only gets an 8 in continuity (he did work for three teams in 33 years) and 7 for “miscellany,” which is somewhat arbitrary, but apparently necessary. In Smith’s latest book that fits into this subject matter, “Memories From The Microphone: A Century of Baseball Broadcasting” (Mango Publishing/National Baseball Hall of Fame, 318 pages, released Aug. 3, 2021), more on Barber and Scully are offered within the context of noting the game’s important voices, meant to be “not a substitute but a compliment” to a trip to Cooperstown (where it is no doubt shelved among the other books for sale in the store before the exit sign). There is far more depth, bredth and choppy prose in “Voices of Summer,” as well as Smith’s seminal “Voices of the Game: The Acclaimed Chronicle of Baseball Radio & Television Broadcasting from 1921 to the Present” (the present, being a 1992 version by Simon & Shuster’s Fireside publishing division following the 1987 debut by Diamond Communications)

== Included in a review of the book from retired New York Times columnist George Vecsey: “My earliest baseball memories are riding around Queens with my father, with Red Barber on the car radio, and listening to night games in our back yard, via a radio that occasionally emitted shocks from a faulty connection in the garage. Red Barber’s melodic southern accent calling a Jackie Robinson foray on the third-base line, on a warm summer night, outdoors? The best.”

== The Society of American Baseball Research bio on Red Barber, by Warren Corbitt

== In 2019, Miller and Hiltner were the subjects of a story in The Columbus Dispatch about their work on the Barber bio — particularly on much of the life of the boy reared in Mississippi actually started in the Ohio city. “Red Barber was a very important source for my book,” Walker said. “It became clear as I talked to other broadcasters, people like Pat Hughes, the voice of the Chicago Cubs, about what an incredibly important influence Barber was on the broadcasters who followed him, people like Vin Scully. I started looking it and realized that here was someone who was an extremely important person in the middle of the 20th century, followed by an incredible career as a writer, with over 750 newspaper columns. Then, he comes back in the 1970s to a whole new generation of listeners doing his show with Bob Edwards. But no one had done a biography.” Added Hiltner: “I knew I didn’t want to do a biography of some dead religious poet. Red Barber seemed like the perfect subject since there wasn’t proper biography of him.”

== Dodgers team historian Mark Langill posted on the team’s website in 2014 how Barber became the first franchise broadcaster: “When Reds executive Larry MacPhail left Cincinnati for Brooklyn prior to the 1938 season, he announced Dodger games would be on the radio in 1939. It was landmark news at the time because New York’s three baseball teams — the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees — had refused to air games on the radio, fearing it would hurt home attendance. MacPhail hired Barber away from the Reds, and “The Ol’ Redhead” enjoyed a memorable tenure with the Dodgers from 1939–53, including the first televised MLB game in history in 1939.”

== A Red Barber interview from 1978:

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