Paean to Red Barber

Longtime sports broadcaster is remembered

WHEN baseball announcer Walter Lanier (Red) Barber was in full swing, it was easy to picture a player ``sittin' in the catbird seat,'' ``tearin' up the peapatch,'' ``walkin' in tall cotton,'' ``movin' easy as a bank of fog,'' or displaying a pitching arm so strong ``he could toss a lamb chop past a hungry wolf.''

Those are known as ``Barberisms,'' and even listeners raised on cricket - and the pet phrases of John Arlott and Brian Johnston - have to admit that Red had a way with words.

This is entertainingly confirmed in ``Fridays with Red: A Radio Friendship,'' a rambling book that's not unlike the Friday morning National Public Radio (NPR) broadcasts it celebrates. It's less concerned with direction or shape than with holding the attention of those who love people, gardens, cats, music, and baseball.

The career of the red-headed sports journalist is already well chronicled in hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, in anthologies, and in the pages of half-a-dozen books that flowed from his own typewriter.

Yet this is not a baseball book. It's the tale of a remarkable man reconstructed from 12 years of friendship with an established broadcaster in another field - Bob Edwards, news anchor of NPR's ``Morning Edition,'' and 40 years Red's junior.

Nor is it biography. Edwards sets out simply to tell the story of the years they shared on the air. That the ripples extend to the Barber family, schooldays, racism in sport, the arts, the English language, religion, legendary baseball figures, and the principles of journalism is a bonus.

When Barber and ``the Colonel,'' as Red called Kentucky-born Edwards, began their four-minute broadcast conversations, neither was certain where each exchange would go. Red tended to switch agendas as they talked, and Edwards was shrewd enough not to have an agenda at all.

Their intention was to chat informally about sporting topics of the day, with the emphasis on baseball, with which Red was most closely associated. But Red had mastered the verbal bunt and more often than not would steer the conversation toward nonsporting topics of his choice.

As a result, it would be hard to hear a broadcast (or read this book) without enjoying fresh insights into life, and a heightened curiosity about camellias, pets, the opera, and the Book of Psalms. The book carries substantial extracts from the best exchanges with Edwards in their NPR sessions.

Barber and Edwards set high standards (and expected their colleagues to share them), they had wide interests, they worked hard, and they admitted their mistakes.

When a radio listener asked Red to recommend some reading material it wasn't a list of sports books that he offered, but ``The Book of Common Prayer'' and Winston Churchill's ``A History of the English-speaking Peoples.''

But when it comes to assessing Red's contribution to broadcasting, to sport, and to the folklore of the United States, we need look no further than to one of Edwards's finest broadcasts - his tribute to Red when he died in October 1992, to a man who was not only Edwards's mentor, but a surrogate father.

Deeply affected, Edwards barely got through his farewell: ``Red Barber taught three generations of broadcasters.... He taught us respect for the listener, respect for the language and respect for the truth.... He taught us when to speak and when to shut up, when to seize the microphone and when to let the game take over. Who will teach us now?''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.