Red Barber's voice on the phone was just as friendly as it is on National Public Radio, where a new audience is becoming acquainted with America's dean of sports broadcasters every Friday on ''Morning Edition.'' What was there about sports that had kept him a fan for half a century? ''Who said I was a fan?'' Read on, please.m
I've been announcing sports, first on radio and then television, since 1930, but I don't fit the image people have of a sports broadcaster. In Cincinnati was I a Reds fan? In Brooklyn did I root for the Dodgers? At Yankee Stadium was I for the Yankees? Who was I pulling for to win the World Series? The various football games? My answers in the negative always created unbelief, almost a shock, as though I had broken the sacred idols. A sports announcer who wasn't a fan?
However, in the beginning I was a fan for six-and-a-quarter football games.
This was in 1930. I was working my way through school at the University of Florida. In March I got a part-time job on the campus radio station - WRUF - for 35 cents an hour. The student who had been announcing the football games, Jack Thompson, left in the summer to join his father's law firm in Miami. The station had no football announcer. I had played high school football and was allowed to try to broadcast the games.
I improved enough to hold the job, but I didn't take it too seriously. I was a red-hot Florida Gator fan. I was a second-year student. I hadn't learned the necessity for pregame preparation. I was having a great time. The Gators were doing well, winning four, with one tie and one close defeat in their first six games.
Mighty Alabama was coming to dedicate the new Florida stadium for Game 7. The Crimson Tide was awesome under coach Wallace Wade. Everybody in the South knew this team would sweep its season and very probably go to the Rose Bowl - which it did. The names of the Alabama first team were household words. In those days when a player was replaced he had to stay out of play for the rest of the quarter. Substitutions were carefully done and usually by complete teams.
The night before the game I asked Coach Wade for a spotter to identify his players. He thought for a minute, then said, ''Yes - I'll send you a third-string guard who got hit in the head at practice, can't play tomorrow, and this will give him something to do.''
The Alabama spotter was shown my crude chart and was asked to write down the names of the starting team and, as the game went on, to point out which men were doing what. He was most agreeable, and promptly wrote down the names of the first team. That was fine with me. I never gave it a second thought.
They kicked it off, and as the first quarter went along the underdog Gators were pushing Alabama's celebrated first team all over the new Florida field. I made much of it at the mike. Was this to be a stunning upset? Would this Gator team knock the Crimson Tide out of the Rose Bowl? I was rooting for the Gators.
At the end of the quarter I looked across the field at the Alabama bench, and there were 11 of the biggest men I'd ever seen getting ready to take the field. I looked at the Alabama spotter's face, and it was a pale green. I leaned off the mike and asked, ''Are you sick?'' He said, ''Yes - and you're going to be sicker . . . that's the first team coming in.''
The hardest thing I've ever had to say into a mike in all these years was, ''Forget everything I've said about Alabama's first team. . . . The first team is coming in now.'' I was stunned. The Tampa Tribune the next day said in an editorial something to this effect: ''You would expect that white elephant of a tax-supported radio station at Gainesville to spend enough money to hire an announcer that at least knows the difference between Alabama's first and second teams. We don't ask much, but we do ask that much.''
Alabama won 20-0. I went to work. I went to practice. I interviewed coaches. I studied film. I memorized numbers. I made up my mind no spotter, nobody, would ever be in position to cause me to make such a mistake again. I ruled out caring who won or who lost. I began caring about my job as a reporter.
That Tampa Tribune editorial nearly killed me. It was a blessing. I soon quit school, went full time on the station, and made broadcasting my business. I began thinking seriously what my business was and what it should be.
The first World Series I broadcast was 1935. The Chicago Cubs opened in Detroit. Judge K.M. Landis, baseball's first commissioner, was in full charge. Three networks then carried the series. Before the first game the judge held a meeting. In brief this is what he said, and it made a lasting impression on me and fixed my working philosophy:
''You gentlemen are here to report the World Series. You are the best in your business or you wouldn't be here. There are two teams here, and for this year, they are the best in their business. Report what the players do, but don't be critical of what they do or don't do - report. There are two managers here, and for this series they are the best in their business. Report what decisions they make, but have no opinions - report.
''And there are four umpires here. You'll recognize them - they'll be in blue serge suits. For this year they are the best in their business. Whatever you do, don't try to help them umpire. They don't need your help. Report what they rule. Report the reactions of the players and the managers. But have no opinions of your own. Report.
''I assure you that the full weight of the commissioner's office will guarantee that no player, no manager, and certainly no umpire will leave the field to enter your broadcasting booth and interfere with your work. Report all you can see. Report everything that happens. But report. Leave your opinions in your hotel rooms.
''By reporting, this is what I mean. Suppose, for some reason, a player walks over to my rail box and spits a mouthful of chewing tobacco in my face. Report the line of his approach, the rapidity of his pace, how near he got to his target, and, if your eyes are good enough, (his) accuracy. . . . Report the reaction of the commissioner, if he has one. But have no sympathy for the commissioner. Just report.
''Gentlemen,'' the commissioner said, ''good day, and I expect to receive good reports on your reporting.''
I think Bill Klem was our greatest umpire. He used to tell me there was very little to umpiring. You ruled out of your mind what was the score, or if the tying or winning run was involved, or what was the pennant race. You ruled safe or out, fair or foul, ball or strike. In effect, Klem said, all there was to umpiring was to umpire the ball.
I listened to Judge Landis and to Bill Klem. I thought constantly of my work. I began to understand my work was to report the ball, and what happened to it, to at times millions of people who couldn't see the game for themselves. I was to report. They were to root. The fan has the privilege of rooting. Not the reporter.
In 1947 I had the most difficult broadcasting assignment in radio. That was when Branch Rickey broke the color line in baseball, and in American sports, with Jackie Robinson. In addition to the red-hot microphone, I was from Mississippi and Florida, and spoke with a distinct Southern accent. But I had no trouble. The broadcasts went well. I took the admonition of Judge Landis into the booth. All I did was report what Robinson did. He did the rest.
I came to know that vision is more emotional, more spiritual than it is physical. The fans see only what they want to see. On close plays that go against their teams the officials are always wrong. We are conditioned to see not only what we desire but also what we are trained to see.
As I saw it, the players played, the managers managed, the umpires decided, and the fans rooted. I reported the ball. Tom Meany was writing baseball for the old New York World-Telegram. He told me he was in a taxi and the Brooklyn game was on the radio. The driver stopped for a light, listened for a moment, and then said:
''The trouble with that Barber . . . he's too fair.''
There are rewards for not being a fan.