Barber Biography Offers Guide to Legendary Broadcaster's Career

Don Laible
There is more than baseball when remembering broadcasting legend Walter Lanier "Red" Barber.

It was in the summer of 1978 that I came within arms reach of Barber. It was in Cooper Park, just off of Main Street in Cooperstown, New York. He and his former New York Yankees broadcast partner Mel Allen were being honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum as the first recipients of the Ford C. Frick Award.

The Frick Award is presented annually to a broadcaster for "major contributions to baseball." Barber and Allen were the first to be honored with this prestigious recognition, and at no time since has there been more than a single winner selected each year.

As a 19-year-old that induction weekend in the "Home of Baseball", I knew the name of Barber, but at the time I had little knowledge of just how special his contributions to the game and media were.

After reading Judith R. Hiltner and James R. Walker's book, Red Barber: The Life And Legacy Of A Broadcast Legend, I'm amazed at just what an important figure the Columbus, Mississippi native was, especially in radio.

Hiltner and Walker's research is top-notch. From cradle (1908) to grave (1992), there isn't a stone unturned, when following the accomplishments of Barber. Page after page is littered with historical names in baseball leadership and poignant periods in broadcasting evolution. The growth of a young southerner bent on becoming  "somebody" in radio, and at the same time following radio networks flourishing, is captivating reading.

Larry McPhail, Phil Rizzuto, Michael Burke, Joe Garagiola, as well as Allen, partners, and bosses all to Barber, lead the list of movers and shakers who over the decades that the "Old Redhead" called ball games affected his work and how the public connected with the game.

440 pages of a fascinating life are what The Life And Legacy Of A Broadcasting Legend distills.  Barber's years calling games on both radio and TV while working for the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Yankees, along with his work later in life with NRP's Morning Edition, stir new questions and deliver definitive answers to a hall of fame career.

Barber as the "voice" of the Dodgers when Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947 is also covered by Hiltner and Walker.  

What a wonderful ride in Barber's life is explained in this Barber biography.  From the future hall of famer's early life, his first 10 years in Columbus, to his family relocating to Florida, and his riding the rails with his father, a locomotive engineer, a clearer understanding of this genuine broadcasting legend couldn't be made.

What grabs my attention, and remains a vise-like grip throughout hundreds of pages, is just how fascinated Barber was with football. For all the notoriety that is associated with Barber and baseball, his work calling football games early in his career is captivating.  His start at WRUF in Gainsville (FL) introduces readers to the strong work ethic of Barber, and his insistence on proper preparation for each broadcast he would do.

The importance of his wife Lylah and daughter Sarah add to the respect the sports world had for Barber's work.  The blood drives he spearheaded during World War II and later, during the Vietnam War, his participation in USO tours, demonstrate the evolution of Barber's personal views in a very public way.

Hiltner and Walker also explain, through Barber's career, just how influential sponsors are to broadcasts, and who would be representing them.

The Life And Legacy Of A Broadcasting Legend meticulously walks readers through the early years of radio and television, through the prism of sport.  Barber's work in covering the 1948 Winter Olympics in Switzerland, and the inside story surrounding his being selected to do so, is just another amazing nugget of information on an industry giant that makes readers want to turn just one more page before calling it a night.

Walker, in particular, is perhaps the most qualified authority to capture details on Barber's radio and TV works.  He has authored two other titles on the history of baseball on radio and television. The authors lay out how Barber when fired by the Yankees, reinvents himself as a writer. In newspaper columns, magazine features, and books, Walker and Hiltner present Barber as an example of demonstrating real stamina in carrying on his celebrated career.

The more Walker and Hiltner read about Barber, they in turn became more interested in him.  Then, those who worked with Barber, and particularly a niece in Palmetto (FL), were welcomed authorities to land first-hand information on the "old Redhead."

In my conversation with Walker and Hiltner, I learned just how much I didn't know about the great Red Barber, and just how intelligent they are. This biography is akin to a most forensic study of an American icon.

For a history lesson on American broadcasting, and one of the industry's earliest pioneers, Red Barber: The Life And Legacy Of A Broadcasting Legend should be required reading for all sports fans.