I worked myself into a tantrum last Friday when Max Scherzer was making his first start for the Mets.
I wanted to see the game, plus hear what the Mets’ knowledgeable TV triumvirate of Cohen-Hernandez-Darling had to say about it.
Then I found out that Major League Baseball had farmed out this game to some Apple outlet, with unfamiliar broadcasters.
Yes, the very same Rob Manfred operation that now welcomes gambling commercials. (Coming next year: commercial patches on uniforms. Baseball goes Nascar.)
I knew enough to instantly switch to Good Old Howie Rose, of course – baseball is a great sport for radio, with lifers like Rose -- but people who could not access WCBS-AM radio (upstate New York, for example) were stuck with the gimmick -- noisy strangers hawking silly “probability” statistics but clueless about the daily workings of the Mets.
Baseball clearly has no shame.
* * *
Totally by coincidence, I have been reading a biography of one of the great baseball broadcasters of all time, Red Barber, who introduced my brain, my heart, my ears, to the Brooklyn Dodgers, starting in 1946.
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.
Later I got to know Red in the Yankee Stadium press room, in the 60’s, after he had switched over to the “big ball park in the Bronx” – his alliteration, not Mel Allen’s.
Walter Lanier Barber had respect for the game itself, and for the intelligence of the listener, and for the rules and codes of life.
I did not know, back then, that Barber was also a lay preacher, but what I did know was that he stood up for the right thing, by his standards, and he offered a measured response when things did not go the Dodgers’ way. He was not an overt rooter, did not refer to ”we,” did not make excuses for Dodgers.
On the final day of the 1950, the Dodgers had Cal Abrams thrown out at home, and then lost the pennant on a home run by Dick Sisler. I can remember listening in my family house, as Barber delivered what I took as a sermon of sorts, that life would go on, there would be another season. It helped me get through another Yankee World Series – a piddling issue, to be sure, but he gave hope; there were more important things in life.
Now I know Red Barber better, through a valuable new book, “Red Barber: The Life and Legacy of a Broadcasting Legend,” by Judith R. Hiltner and James R., Walker, published by the University of Nebraska Press, which often issues serious sports biographies and histories. Red Barber deserves this adult biography.
The book takes me to Barber’s southern childhood, his hard-working father and idealistic mother, a very segregated world, and even Barber’s youth as an entertainer doing – gasp – minstrel music, mimicking stereotypes of Black music. As the young and very ambitious man, morphed into a broadcaster, he was lucky to be instantly taken with a young nurse named Lylah Scarborough, also very southern, but with a difference: she had played with Black children, and had treated Blacks in her profession.
The book shows how Miss Lylah prepared Barber to adjust to the advent of Jackie Robinson in 1947, and also to enjoy the culture of the city. He never denied it: he was a work in progress, with help from his mother and his wife.
Barber broadcast many sports, eventually on national networks, but his specialty was baseball, first in Cincinnati, then in Brooklyn. He had a code: he could drop folksy sayings (“rhubarb,” “catbird seat”) in his southern cadence, but he had to remain an adult on and off the air. He took his cue from his father, fighting for better contracts; he also learned from Branch Rickey, the innovative, educated and religious boss of the Dodgers.
Barber knew he was speaking to Dodgers’ fans but he did not root – was not a “homer,” in the press-box slight. He also did not go along with certain broadcasting ways: calling the 1947 World Series, he told the national audience that Bill Bevens of the Yankees had not given up a hit with two outs in the ninth. The superstitious blamed Barber after Cookie Lavagetto broke up the no-hitter but Bevens assured Barber, heck, it was Bevens’ own fault for walking so many hitters.
When a new owner named Walter O’Malley took over the Dodgers, Barber continued to tell the truth. Once he informed the radio audience that the opposing infield was playing deep for a double play because Carl Furillo, the Dodgers’ stalwart right fielder, was notoriously slow. Any true fan knew that already – the great Dick Young had labelled Furillo “Skoonj,” a slang Italian reference to snail -- but O’Malley dropped a snide remark on Barber the next day.
Not long afterward, Barber was calling Yankee games, remaining his own man, once noting the sparse crowd (413 paid) for a late-season Yankee game. More broadly, as the book emphasizes, Barber’s austere presence became out of style. Time to move on.
Barber spent his final decades back in Florida, still a national figure, from his Friday morning NPR “Morning Edition” conversations with Bob Edwards, plus writing and speaking and eventually caring for Miss Lylah when she developed Alzheimer’s. He died in 1992 and she in 1997.
Sports broadcasting has continued to evolve. I would submit that the booth of Cohen-Hernandez-Darling bristles from the individual gifts of all three, starting with honest calls from Cohen and his enlightened questioning of his booth mates -- former ballplayers, a genre that Barber disdained.
Hernandez offers the perspective of a fiery on-field leader and Darling offers the perspective of a Yale star who does his homework. My guess is that Red Barber – who was always looking for another protégé like Vin Scully -- could have worked with all three of them.
Baseball fans will enjoy this serious biography of an evolving adult who set a high standard for broadcasters, players and fans.
Red Barber could get excited. Here is his classic call of the game-saving catch by Al Gionfriddo in the 1947 World Series -- watch Joe DiMaggio make a rare show of frustration. Barber's exclamation of "oh....doctor!" was not a stock phrase of his. He just blurted it.
4/13/2022 10:30:13 am
George, I also remember Durocher and I believe Reese calling the games on TV. I can't forget how they would give a player and manager's views. For instance, 2 and 1, one out, the runner on first is going. If the pitch is good and it should be, (the hurler doesn't want to get behind in the count - 3 and 1- the batter will hit behind the runner hit and run).
4/13/2022 09:06:01 pm
John, you, the hitting pitcher....too bad you missed a chance to see Casey up close..He was a tough old bird. When he broke his hip at 75, he delighted in slinging his post-surgical leg over the other one to demonstrate mobility. His wife was horrified. I knew Gordon -- he played in the Newsday touch football games...was renting a pool house or something in Locust Valley. Lost touch. Hope all is well in NC. I was rooting for UNC...be in touch. GV
Alan D Levine
4/13/2022 10:47:50 am
George--As I recall, the Yankees, owned by CBS at the time, fired "The Old Redhead" for announcing that the attendance was 413.
4/13/2022 09:08:12 pm
Alan, the authors write that it was more complicated...that he had gotten grouchy and they were looking to work Jerry Coleman into the mix. It happens. But I knew Michael Burke quite well, and he owned that he did the deed...when actually Dan Topping was supposed to do it. Be well, GV
4/13/2022 11:02:17 am
George right on ! The game is being ruined. Switching channels I happened to catch a Yankees game on ESPN. On the screen was a box ( almost like picture in picture) that showed Alex Rodriguez and Michael Kay sitting and talking about everything but the game.They were holding sheets in their hands that looked like a script.
4/13/2022 09:10:43 pm
Dennis, it's all gotten pretty show-biz. Mets broadcasts show the three broadcasters, joking around, usually having fun with Hernandez...but that is their shtick. I don't find A-Rod to be a lot of laughs. GV
4/13/2022 12:39:03 pm
George: It is a pure screenplay: "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."
4/13/2022 09:13:13 pm
Altenir, thank you. Maybe I will write a screenplay..A Queens Tale.
4/14/2022 07:48:13 am
George: I would love to know about these places. Maybe you can take me to Queens on my next trip to New York. I’ve only been to Queens once, and of course, I always pass through the place when I land at JFK.
4/13/2022 03:33:40 pm
When the present fails, remember the past and hope for the future.
4/13/2022 09:15:10 pm
Ed, good memory. I can't recall who the player or coach was, but Shorty Laurice liked to mess with him. BTW, Gladys Goodding..double D. Nice old lady sitting in a corner of Madison Square Garden, playing the organ. Old-fashioned funky, in the old days, GV
4/14/2022 04:31:16 pm
GV, remember the question, “Who played for three NY teams?”
4/13/2022 08:14:18 pm
4/13/2022 09:19:41 pm
Bruce, I bet you can get NY radio stations nowadays in Ontario...But I had trouble getting Mets games where my kid brother lives, between Albany and Syracuse, a few years ago. The night of the OJ car chase, I was driving outside Detroit andI could pick up the NY Knicks station, where people were following the chase....28 years ago! Good grief.
4/13/2022 09:28:26 pm
4/13/2022 10:43:50 pm
Seventy-seven, W - A - B - Cceeee! . . . . Cousin Bruce Morrow!
4/13/2022 10:48:26 pm
GV, this comment made a synapse connect, not baseball, but OJ and Long Island related.
4/13/2022 11:23:33 pm
4/13/2022 11:29:14 pm
4/14/2022 10:54:49 am
Bruce, the Emperor was Akahito, I believe. Michiko had suffered great stress as she was not royal, actually “lost her voice” for awhile. She had been a teacher of young children. She was greeted by the children with severe physical disabilities singing a children’s song she had written. Our amazing music teacher had found it, taught the children, phonetically, the Japanese words. The Empress burst into tears when she heard it. It was a lovely visit.
4/14/2022 11:36:15 am
ed...thanks for name. i was too lazy to look it up.
4/14/2022 03:10:09 pm
4/15/2022 07:54:51 am
Dear Clare Gentile: Thank you for your literate and informed note.Lot of players wear necklaces, etc. I remember a year or two ago, somebody's chain broke on his hard slide into, I think, second base. So he called time and prodded around in the dirt.
4/15/2022 04:52:19 pm
Red Barber was certainly one of the icons of baseball broadcasting. I came to that opinion late having grown up as a Yankee fan in Washington Heights in the 1940’s. It was common for Yankee and Giant fans to tolerate each other, but we were united in our distain for Dodger fans.
Edwin W. Martin Jr
4/17/2022 03:48:32 pm
George, I hope you and the Gang, will forgive me for injecting hockey into the middle of beisbol season, but some guy named George Vecsey just published an article in the New York Times, an obscure hard copy publication that I felt needs PR.
4/18/2022 06:21:21 pm
4/20/2022 08:50:32 pm
Ed, pardon me for delaying my response to your lovely note. Yes, the Islanders were a classy outfit on Long Island but not as much as the Human Resource Center. You and Peggy had such a hand in helping challenged people to live and work...we personally know examples of people who went through there and are functioning in society. I also know that Jim Brown would show up on occasion when asked by a former Manhasset High football teammate who was a contributor -- and my source says Brown would not talk to "fans" when he came but would spend his time with the young people who depended on the center. And I also know Peggy volunteered to coach young people how to enter the work society.
Comments are closed.
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.