Monday, February 18, 2008

Red Barber and Harry Caray in the Same Post!

I was remiss in not mentioning the fact that Walter Lanier Barber would have been 100 years old on Sunday. You have to know who Walter Barber is, if only because of who I am and what I do, and what I often talk about in this blog.

Oh, you might not know Walter, or Walt by that name. But if you're perhaps slightly older than I am, then you know him.

I'm talking about Red Barber.

Red was, perhaps, the greatest play-by-play voice of them all until his pupil, Vin Scully, damn near perfected the art. Red was much more than a play-by-play voice. Besides his baseball work (which extended from Cincinnati to Brooklyn to The Bronx to the World Series and All-Star Games), he also called college and pro football, and hosted several programs as well.

In the era that extended from Bill Stern and Ted Husing to Mel Allen and Barber, Red was a master. While he was not as dry as he's been made out to be, he was still a stern taskmaster; determined to report and not opine. Still he could be heard uttering phrases that became part of baseball lexicon (from his Wikipedia entry):

- "They're tearin' up the pea patch" -- used for a team on a winning streak.
- "The bases are F.O.B. (full of Brooklyns)" -- indicating the Dodgers had loaded the bases.
- "Can of corn" -- describing a softly hit, easily caught fly ball.
- "Rhubarb" -- any kind of heated on-field dispute or altercation.
- "(Sittin' in) the catbird seat" -- used when a player or team was performing exceptionally well. This expression was the title of a well-known story by James Thurber. According to a character in Thurber's story, the expression came from Red Barber. But according to Barber's daughter, her father did not begin using the expression until after he had read the story.
- "(Walkin' in) the tall cotton" -- also used to describe success.

Barber's call of the penultimate baseball moment - Bobby Thomson's home run in the 1951 National League playoffs - was the anti-homer call, when compared to Russ Hodge's call. Even though Barber was calling the game for the Dodgers, one can only imagine that he would not have screamed "the Giants win the pennant" the way Hodges did if their places were switched. Conversely, Red simply said that the ball was "a home run! And the New York Giants win the National League pennant and the Polo Grounds goes wild." That difference, and their contrasting styles adds to the allure of the moment.

Incidentally, there are three exisiting versions of that call - Hodges (with the Giants), Barber (Dodgers), and Gordon McClendon (on the Liberty Network). Also calling that game was Ernie Harwell (on NBC) and that call is unfortunately lost because tape was a raraity then.

The dramatic pro-Dodgers moments were never called over the top either. For the legendary catch made by Al Gionfriddo off Joe DiMaggio in the 1947 World Series, Red said:
Swung on. Belted. It’s a long one! Deep into left-center. Back goes Gionfriddo, back, back, back, back, back, back. He makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen. Oh, doctor!”
As he taught Scully (and, by extension, me and many others), Red knew that crowd noise was the coolest thing. Following Thomson's home run in 1951, Red sat silently for 59 seconds.

Friend of "Exit 55", Neil Best from Newsday, writes about Barber here. National Public Radio also dedicated a page to the Ol' Redhead. Barber appeared on their "Morning Edition" program every Friday from 1981 until his death in 1992. The interviews could be about anything - from sports (particularly baseball) to the flowers, to his beloved wife, Miss Lylah. I urge you to check these links out (Neil Best is always looking for page clicks!). The NPR page has lots of audio on it. I got a kick out of the Space Shuttle launch audio, in which host Bob Edwards is anchoring coverage of the first Space Shuttle launch, in 1981. All Edwards and his guests want to do is pick the brain of Red Barber.

On the other side of the universe, stylistically, from Red Barber was Harry Caray. I'm not going to lie here - I've been critical of Caray. I appreciate the passion that he showed for baseball but was never enamored of his style. I know people who think he is utterly brilliant, but I can hear calls of his from the 40's through the late 60's (which were supposedly his best years) and tell you that I was never blown away. It just sounded like too much bravado for me. Again, I'm of the Barber/Scully school, so it's just different strokes here.

Frankly, I also never appreciated that, in interviews, he came off quite dismissive of New York's own Phil Rizzuto, and The Scooter's use of "Holy Cow" which Harry seems to think he invented. No matter.

Caray died 10 years ago today. That's a fact being remembered at Awful Announcing, which I'm finding is stylistically different than I am. Why? Well for starters, he's very pro-Caray. Fair enough; that's not the first time people have disagreed with me on that. But he also drools for Gus Johnson, whose broadcast style is, shall we say, to scream. Others that seem to disagree on include Joe Buck (whom I basically like) and Kevin Harlan (I'm not a fan of). That's cool though - we can disagree on such things because he seems cool, writes a great blog, and is entitled to his own opinion.

Anyway, there's my take on the anniversaries of life and death of two sports broadcasting legends.


Tim Parry said...

I ever tell you my Harry Caray story?

Rob Adams said...

I don't think so. Do tell!!

Tim Parry said...

I'm in the press box in HoHoKam Park back in 1991, the Indians (who credentialed me for the exhibition games) were playing the Cubs.

I'm sitting at the end of the one-row press box, and right next to mo, on the outside, is an old guy in white shorts, a white undershirt, a sun hat, and big glasses, and he has a bag filled with cans of beer.

So I'm noticing him pounding down the beers for a few innings, when they seventh inning stretch comes. An intern (or someone unsure of himself) grabs the mic in the press box and says, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have someone special in the stands today. Chicago's own Harry Caray, who will lead us in Take Me Out to the Ball Game!"

The old guy does a spit take and goes, "Aw, f---!" Then he stumbles into the press box and slurred out a boomin' rendition!

Rob Adams said...

That sounds like Harry. Pretty good story!

Tim Parry said...

You don't want to hear the Bob Feller story. Let's just put it this way. Just because you're Bob Friggin' Feller doesn't mean you can parade around the locker room with nothing but a pair of glasses and a towel around your neck...

Rob Adams said...

Feller's a fairly unique old guy. He can be a little - shall we say - ornery, when provoked.