The Old Redhead
Red Barber was a legendary baseball announcer for radio and television, who worked for three major league teams: the Reds, Dodgers and Yankees.
Some years after his sports broadcast career, Barber enjoyed renewed fame as a regular public radio contributor. For 12 years, he conversed, every Friday, with Bob Edwards longtime host of NPR’s Morning Edition on an array of topics, which included sports, gardening and nearly everything else.
During that period, I moved to Tallahassee, Florida, where Barber lived at the time. Shortly afterward, I was surprised to learn that he and I had gone to the same high school (many, many, many, many ….weeks apart).
For real, the team nickname in his day was The Celery Feds.
It was peculiar that I didn’t know that Barber and I shared an alma mater. I was really into baseball when I was young; therefore it seems unlikely that I’d never heard, or read this, information before. Rather, I suspect that it never registered with me. Unlike with players, they don’t keep stats on the play-by-play broadcasters.
Barber was the Dodgers announcer when Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut in 1947. Until fairly recently, I’d never considered what Barber thought of the decision by Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey to sign a Black player.
It turns out, that he wasn’t a fan of the idea.
In Barber’s book 1947 When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball, he described his reaction to Robinson’s signing. Barber recalled life in the segregated South which included seeing Black men, who had been tarred and feathered, forced to walk the streets of Sanford, Florida, by Ku Klux Klansmen.
Barber also wrote that one his youthful aspirations was to perform in minstrel shows. Tarring and feathering black men, minstrel shows, segregated schools and businesses… was the normal that Barber knew.
Months before Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, he informed Barber of his intent break baseball’s color line. Barber would write later: “I believe he (Rickey) told me about it so far in advance so that I could have time to wrestle with the problem, live with it, solve it.”
Upon hearing the news, Barber’s solution was to quit. He told his wife, Lyla that day, a Friday, that he would resign Monday. Her response was “You don’t have to quit today, let’s have a Martini.”
Here is a short video in which Barber explains the decision.
As the video points out Barber realized that the news Rickey gave him required Barber to examine himself. In the video he recalls remarkably empathetic thoughts (about that it was chance that he was born white). Barber said that he admired Robinson’s athleticism, and spirituality.
Barber also mentions hearing the voice of (Baseball’s first commissioner ) Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis echo from the grave with a simple directive “Report.”
Barber was able to compartmentalize; separating his professional obligations as an announcer from his biases that were due to his upbringing in the Jim Crow South.
During the course of their time together with the Dodgers (Barber left the team for the Yankees after the 1953 season), Barber and Robinson became friends.
In modern times, people might claim Barber “got woke” Perhaps. I didn’t know Barber, so I can’t say how he’d feel about that.
It is impressive howBarber’s life changed for the better, when Rickey put him in an uncomfortable situation and he was thus forced into some deep self-examination. I suspect he would have made the right decision, even without a Martini.