COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) - Red Barber’s story began in Columbus, it’s true.
But the story of Red Barber’s story began in a Chicago thrift shop.
Barber, the radio broadcaster whose descriptions of Brooklyn Dodgers games, including the arrival of Jackie Robinson, during baseball’s golden era made him a national celebrity and a broadcasting icon, was born in Columbus in 1908 and lived here until age 10. Barber began his broadcasting career in 1934 and continued to work in radio until his death in 1992.
But what a pair of retired professors promise to be the first comprehensive biography of the man known by generations of sports fans as “the old red-head,” began in that Chicago thrift shop.
That’s where spouses James Walker and Judith Hiltner stumbled over a book called “Things To Do When You Retire.”
Walker (Mass Communications) and Hiltner (English) had recently retired as professors at Saint Xavier University and were intrigued by the book title.
“It was a book about what to do after you’ve done all the things everybody does when they first retire,” Walker said. “So I said to Judith, ‘Why don’t you sit down and make a list things you would like to do and I’ll make a list and we’ll rank everything 1 to 5. Then we’ll see where we overlap.’”
Given their teaching backgrounds, it was not surprising that writing a biography was on both lists.
Walker had written extensively about baseball on the radio, including his 2015 book, “Crack of the Bat.”
What he found in doing research for the book was that, although Barber had written an autobiography and his former co-host on the NPR weekly radio show Bob Edwards had written a book on their collaboration, there had never been a thorough biography of the man.
“Red Barber was a very important source for my book,” Walker said. “It became clear as I talked to other broadcasters, people like Pat Hughes, the voice of the Chicago Cubs, about what an incredibly important influence Barber was on the broadcasters who followed him, people like Vin Scully. I started looking it and realized that here was someone who was an extremely important person in the middle of the 20th century, followed by an incredible career as a writer, with over 750 newspaper columns. Then, he comes back in the 1970s to a whole new generation of listeners doing his show with Bob Edwards. But no one had done a biography.”
Hiltner embraced the subject.
“I knew I didn’t want to do a biography of some dead religious poet,” she said. “Red Barber seemed like the perfect subject since there wasn’t proper biography of him.”
‘Retracing Barber’s steps’
For more than three years, the couple have traveled the country, retracing Barber’s steps from North Carolina, where Barber’s father was born, to north Florida, where Barber moved with his family in 1918 and where he was first introduced to broadcasting as a student at the University of Florida, to Cincinnati, where Barber began his baseball broadcasting career as the radio voice of the Cincinnati Reds in 1934 and, finally, to New York, where Barber became a legend broadcasting first the Dodgers (1939-1953) and then the Yankees (1954-1966).
The couple finally arrived in Columbus, where Barber’s story began, meeting with Mona Vance-Ali at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library on Wednesday and Thursday and with Columbus historian Rufus Ward and baseball aficionado Glenn Lautzenhiser on Friday.
Walker and Hiltner picked up Lautzenhiser’s name from a Washington Post story about Edwards’ visit to Columbus in 2007 to mark the 100th anniversary of Barber’s birth. Barber died at his home in Florida in 1992.
The couple said the visit to Columbus has been important in understanding the influences that shaped Barber’s life.
“His parents were an interesting couple,” Walker said. “His father worked for the railroad, a tough, dirty job. I think that’s where Red got his work ethic from. He idolized his father.”
His mother’s influence was just as profound.
“She was someone who gave him an appreciation for art and literature,” Hiltner said. “Red was someone who appreciated the arts all his life and I think that began with his mother.”
Hiltner said in their years of research, the image that has emerged is that of a man who embraced traditional values yet was always growing and evolving — embracing everything from Civil Rights and ending the Vietnam War to women in the clergy. He often spoke as a lay minister of the Episcopal Church, once speaking at St. Paul’s in Columbus in the mid-1970s.
Barber is also linked to Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color line in 1947.
It was that relationship that spoke to Barber’s ability to evolve in his thinking.
In the spring of 1945, Dodgers president Branch Rickey took his radio announcer into his confidence, telling Barber of his intentions to bring a black player to the majors.
In Ken Burns’ documentary, “Baseball,” Barber recalled his response:
“You didn’t doubt Mr. Rickey. If he said he was going to do something, he did it,” Barber remembered. “So I went home and told my wife, Lylah. You have to remember: I was born in Columbus, Mississippi. I grew up in Samford, Florida and went to school at a segregated university, the University of Florida. This was something I never even dreamed of.”
Barber told his wife he was considering resigning from the Dodgers rather than broadcast games featuring a black player.
“Lylah calmed him down,” Hilpner said. “They talked and after a few martinis, he began to settle down. By the next morning, he had changed his mind about quitting.”
“I think he realized, too, what we would be walking away from,” Walker said. “At that time, the average player was making about $12,000. The best player, Joe DiMaggio, made $100,000. Red was making $125,000. It’s hard to walk away from that kind of job.”
Two years later, on April 15, 1947, Robinson became the first black player since the 1800s to play in a major league game, with Barber chronicling the player’s ground-breaking career.
“I’ve said that Robinson did more for me than I did for him,” Barber said in Burns’ documentary. “I had to change my outlook on racial equations. Being raised in the South, when the black player came, I had to begin thinking differently. I had to understand with clear eyes that I should and must accept him equally as I did other players. I’d say it matured me.”
‘What’s in a name?’
Walker and Hiltner said Barber’s evolution in thinking reflect the complexities of the man.
“He really is a complex person,” Hiltner said. “In fact, even his name reflects that — Walter Lanier ‘Red’ Barber.”
“Walter was his given name. He was a public figure, but a very a private person,” Walker said. “Lanier is the name his parents gave him because he was a distant relative of Sidney Lanier, a 19th Century poet. That expresses his literary nature. And, of course, Red was the name he was known by as a broadcaster, his public persona.”
The couple are nearing the end of the research phase of the project. The first draft is due to the publisher, University of Nebraska Press, in May 2021 with publication tentatively set for the spring of 2022.
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