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For Barber, it began at Florida Field

Published Oct. 14, 2005

Red Barber's voice, at 83, still has "Boys of Summer" resonance. So easily, his au courant mind recalls March 4, 1930, the day Walter Lanier Barber first used his sweet, educated drawl as a student radio announcer at the University of Florida. That fall, 61 years ago, the Gators dedicated Florida Field with a game against mighty Alabama. Barber was a UF junior and a nervous neophyte of a play-by-play commentator.

"I would be terribly victimized and embarrassed that day," Barber said earlier this week by telephone from his Tallahassee home. "But it was also the day I became a broadcaster, never to allow myself to be inadequately prepared, and never again to even think of showing favoritism to any team or individual."

Unbiased and professional.

More about that later.

After his Gainesville launching, Barber was hired in 1934 for $25 a week as Cincinnati Reds broadcaster. In 1939, it was on to the Brooklyn Dodgers where the Ol' Redhead became Ebbets Field legend alongside Robinson, Reese, Snider, Furillo and the "Summer" boys. Barber announced the first big-league baseball game on TV, Dodgers-Reds in 1939. It was Red to whom manager Leo Durocher uttered his famous, "Nice guys finish last."

This was Brooklyn, and New York, the absolute "deep north," but the Barber southern twang was worshipped. During 14 seasons with the Dodgers, the signature lines endlessly flowed, like "Sittin' in the catbird seat," and "Walkin' in tall cotton," and "tearin' up the pea patch," and "the bases are FOB: full of Brooklyns."

In 1954, Barber made a cross-Apple move to The Bronx, to do New York Yankees games, and the quintessential major-league baseball voice lasted until a 1966 firing by Mike Burke, a CBS executive and ill-fated franchise boss and nonsensical judge of play-by-play talent.

"It was difficult at first, but I soon realized I'm indebted to the Yankees," Barber said. "For so long, I had been a prisoner to a microphone. Broadcasting is a jungle. For 25 years now, I've been a free man, blessed with a great wife. It's a wonderful life."

For six years, Red lived in Miami, dabbling in radio and writing periodically for the Miami Herald. He free-lanced for the Christian Science Monitor and has written six books. Since 1972, Red and wife Lylah have lived in Tallahassee, where on Friday mornings he continues to do a live four-minute show at 7:35 on National Public Radio. Barber was long gone from broadcasting when the seven-figure salaries came along for the Michaels, Maddens, Summeralls and Costases. But is he rich? You bet. Oh, I don't know if Red and Lylah have great grosses of money, but they are rich, and he never quits counting the way.

Still sittin' on the catbird seat.

Saturday, the Ol' Redhead returns to his Gainesville alma mater. Barber will be honored at the Gators football game with Tennessee. Florida Field will bulge with 85,000 people, but Red will find a quiet corner and flash back to 1930, and the stadium's dedication Saturday, when a Hall of Fame broadcasting career got off to a staggering start.

More about that later.

Barber was born in Columbus, Miss., and at age 10 his family moved to Sanford, the celery growing capital of Florida. Red enrolled at Gainesville in 1928, the year coach Charley Bachman's football Gators went 8-0 before losing 13-12 to Tennessee. Earlier that year, university radio station WRUF went on the air.

"I didn't go to school with any broadcasting ideas," Barber said. But the young redhead from Sanford meant to have a good time. He recalled Saturday nights from Gainesville's 1920s, when student frolickers from then-all-male UF would show up in a blustery bunch for the 7 o'clock movie at the town's only theater. The manager fumed at seeing his more sedate customers being chased away.

"He made us a deal," Barber recalled. "If we would stay away at 7 o'clock, the picture-show man would give us a free film at 11 p.m." In 1929, after a football game, Red and four buddies were killing time while awaiting the theater freebie. "Somebody suggested we go looking for moonshine," Barber said. "One fellow drove a bakery truck, so we all jumped in. But we had an accident and I was hurt.

"Luckiest day of my life."

Red was rushed to the university infirmary. Opening the door was rookie nurse Lylah Murray, a graduate of Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, predecessor to Florida State University. It was love at first mercurochrome. Red took Lylah's hand in his hour of pain, and never let go. They were married March 28, 1931, and still are.

Champions at compatibility.

In 1991, you'll seldom hear a radio or TV set blaring with a ballgame at the Barbers' house. "Oh, I'll see a little of the World Series," Red said, "but I don't care who wins. I've got things to do other than watching baseball. I like to cook. Lylah and I share the housework. People write, asking for autographs, and I'm my own secretary. We're plenty busy without watching ballgames."

Barber did Reds, Dodgers and Yankees play-by-play for 32 years with an unbiased, professional, no-baloney style that too few modern sportscasters choose to emulate. He never referred to the Dodgers as "we." Red would've resigned rather than root for a team or an individual. He never glad-handed athletes. Barber ducked no controversial issues in order to protect his baseball or network superiors. Red was never a "house man," which is the 1990s broadcast-booth norm. He was a "tell it like it is" announcer when Howard Cosell was still paying his way into the bleachers at Ebbets Field.

Okay, about that story I've kept delaying, from the 1930 Florida-Alabama football game. An incident that Walter Lanier "Red" Barber continues to say, "made me a broadcaster."

In his words "Alabama had a great team, headed for a 10-0 record in Wallace Wade's final season as coach, including a Rose Bowl win over Washington State and sharing the '30 national championship with coach Knute Rockne's Notre Dame squad. Florida's Gators were pretty good, but not in the class of the Crimson Tide.

"I didn't have much of an idea about how to approach broadcasting the game. Players didn't yet have numbers on uniforms, much less names. I knew I needed a spotter to tell me who was running the ball and making the tackles.

"Back then, coaches weren't allowed to substitute players until the end of a quarter. Through the first quarter, the Alabama-Florida score surprisingly stayed 0-0, the Gators doing far better than expected. But as the second quarter approached, I noticed some especially imposing players loosening up on the Alabama sideline.

"Soon, I realized I'd been fooled by my spotter. The Crimson Tide had played its second unit for the entire first quarter, but he kept giving me names of Alabama's first-stringers. When the real Tide players hit the field, it became a 20-0 romp.

"I was angry and embarrassed, but it was a lesson learned. I became a broadcaster that day, never again to allow myself to become emotionally involved with a team. Never again to care who won. Cheerleading was not meant to be a part of the broadcasting profession."

His style worked masterfully, all the way to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Red Barber was the godfather of major-league broadcasting greats. Saturday, he'll be back in Gainesville, where all the memorabilia from the Ol' Redhead's lifetime permanently rests in the UF library. Where the WRUF newsroom is named for its ultimate pupil. On the campus where it all began.