Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Rhubarb of the Catbird Seat: The Way It Was, 17 February

1908---The rhubarb from the catbird's seat, as the doctor slaps it: Red Barber---arguably, the man who will introduce an element of objectivity into the old-time radio play-by-play booth, through his groundbreaking work with the Cincinnati Reds and, especially, the Brooklyn Dodgers---is born in Columbus, Mississippi.

And, as he will discuss in due course in his memoir, Barber will have Larry MacPhail to thank once for each of those two gigs, MacPhail having hired Barber when the former was president first of the Reds and, in short order, the Dodgers. Which didn't exactly come easy, as nothing involving Dem Bums in those years ever really did.
MacPhail was violently pro-radio. He knew it was the strongest single promotional tool he could have, and he wanted it. [A] five-year anti-radio ban then in existence among the New York clubs was expiring after the 1938 season, and almost before MacPhail had warmed the executive chair at 215 Montague Street in Brooklyn he notified the Giants and the Yankees that he was not going to renew it. He was going to broadcast in 1939. They protested but MacPhail told them flatly that he would not be a party to another five-year ban, he would not be a party to a five-month ban, he would not be a party to a five-minute ban. He was going to broadcast.

It created a big rhubarb. The Giants and the Yankees blustered and threatened. They said, "We'll run you out of town if you broadcast." MacPhail said, "You go right ahead and run me out of town all you want to. I'm going to broadcast. Next season. 1939."

And he did, and this is where I came in . . . In March of 1939, I left my friends and associates at the radio station in Cincinnati and drove down with [my wife] Lylah and the baby down to Clearwater, Florida, where the Brooklyn club was training. I was to spend a couple of weeks with the team to get acclimated and then I was going to drive on up to New York and get settled before the ball club got there . . .

. . . [O]ne day that spring MacPhail and I had been sitting out in the sun watching practise, not saying much of anything, and when it was over he got up to leave. On the spur of the moment, I asked, "Larry, do you have any instructions for me about this job in Brooklyn?" . . . MacPhail just said, "No," and started to walk away. he had never given me an instruction in Cincinnati as to how he wanted a broadcast done, and never in the years to come at Brooklyn did he ever give me an instruction.

He walked away about ten or fifteen feet and then . . . all of a sudden he whirled around and his face was furious. He came striding back to where I was and he bellowed, "Yes! Yes, I have! . . . When I told the Yankees and the Giants that I was not going to be a party to that anti-radio ban any more and that I was going to broadcast, that [Eddie] Brannick [Giants team secretary] said to me, 'If you dare broadcast, if you dare break this agreement, we'll get a fifty thousand watt radio station and we'll get the best baseball broadcaster in the world and, MacPhail, we'll blast you into the river'."

MacPhail's face got even redder, and the veins stuck out another inch or two, and he yelled, "That's what that [and I won't quote exactly what he called him] Brannick said to me. He threatened me! Now, yes, I have an instruction for you. I've got a fifty-thousand-watt radio station: WOR. Whether you knot it or not . . . there's not a bigger one. And I've got you." He let that sink in, and then he said, "And I don't want to be blasted in the river."

He glared at me and then he spun around and walked away. This time he kept walking.

---Red Barber (with Robert W. Creamer), from Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat. (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1968.)

He became as famous for his repertoire of folksy colloquialisms ("tearin' up the pea patch" for a team mounting a ferocious rally; "we have quite a rhubarb going, folks" for an on-field argument or brawl; "the catbird seat" for his own spot in the broadcast booth) as for his refusal to root overtly for the teams who hired him. Until subsequent Dodger boss Walter O'Malley began to object to his pointing forth shortcomings as well as strengths in various Dodger players' games, Barber never had to deal with even sponsors trying to pressure him to root in the booth.

He also possessed a dryly Southern wit that never abandoned him, entirely.

BOB EDWARDS: Are hearts still heavy in Tallahassee this week?
RED BARBER: Well, I'll tell you something. I was around the Ohio State-Notre Dame game in 1935, and the Bobby Thomson home run, and the Mickey Owen dropped third strike, and the Chicago Bears' 73-0 win over the Redskins. And I saw the FSU-Miami one-point game, and you know what happened the next morning?
BARBER: The sun rose right on time.

---An exchange between Red Barber and his producer/host, Bob Edwards, for Barber's regular Friday morning segments on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, November 1991. Cited in Bob Edwards, Fridays with Red: A Radio Friendship. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.)

Red Barber's most remembered sports call was probably the following. It is the sixth game of the 1947 World Series, Brooklyn Dodgers versus New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium. Joe Hatten is on the mound for the Dodgers; the Bums have an 8-5 lead, Joe DiMaggio is at the plate and the Brooklyn outfielder includes a runt named Al Gionfriddo.

Joe DiMaggio up, holding that club down at the big fellow, Hatten, sets and pitches---a curveball, high outside for ball one. So---the Dodgers are ahead, 8-5. And the crowd well knows that with one swing of his bat this fellow's capable of making it a brand-new game again . . . Joe leans i---he has one for three today, six hits so far in the Series . . . Outfield deep, around toward left, the infield overshifted . . . Swung on---belted! It's a long one deep into left center---back goes Gionfriddo! Back, back, back, back, back, back, back, back, back he makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! Ohhh-hooo, Doctor!

Red Barber's second-most remembered sports call? Most likely, two games earlier, from his own catbird seat in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field---when Yankee pitcher Bill Bevens, despite surrendering ten walks, stood on the threshold of consummating the first no-hit, no-run game in World Series history. Up to hit for the Dodgers: Eddie (The Brat) Stanky, a man who had broken up a no-hit bid by Cincinnati pitcher Ewell (The Whip) Blackwell with two outs to go in that game.

The scenario as Stanky comes up: Al Gionfriddo is the runner on second (and he's there in the first place after a daring steal against an extremely young Yogi Berra behind the plate), Eddie Miksis is the runner on first.

So Stanky's up with the idea of trying to---wait a minute! Stanky is being called back from the plate and [Cookie] Lavagetto goes up to hit . . . Gionfriddo walks off second, Miksis off first . . . they're both ready to go on anything . . . Two out, last of the ninth . . . the pitch---Swung on---there's a drive hit out toward the right field corner. Henrich is going back---he can't get it! It's off the wall for a base hit! Here comes the tying run . . . and here comes the winning run!

A rift over O'Malley's failure to support him in negotiating his annual World Series contract with Gillette sent him across the rivers and into the enemy camp, Barber joining the Yankees for a memorable decade's run. A firing, likely provoked when Barber ordered a near-empty Yankee Stadium panned by camera at the climax of a very bad Yankee season (1966, their first in the cellar since before Babe Ruth's time), sent him out of full-time baseball broadcasting at long enough last.

But the Dodgers didn't go quietly without a Barber protege: it was Barber in 1950 who hired the man who's been their primary voice since 1954, perhaps the only man (though many have tried) who's ever really earned the right to be considered Red Barber's equal.


1942: HANK GUTSTOP, HOSTESS---Taking the family out to dinner as a favour to Hank is one thing, but the reason Vic (Art Van Harvey) wants to do the favour surprises Sade (Bernadine Flynn) a moment, on today's edition of Vic & Sade. Also stars: Bill Idelson. Writer: Paul Rhymer.


1881---Arthur Judson (impresario; created United Independent Broadcasters, which became in due course the Columbia Broadcasting System), Dayton, Ohio.
1908---Staats Cotsworth (actor: Front Page Farrell, Mark Trail), Oak Park, Illinois.
1914---Wayne Morris (actor: Radio Reader's Digest, NBC University Theater of the Air, Lux Radio Theater), Los Angeles.
1919---Kathleen Freeman (actress: California Artists Radio Theatre), Chicago.
1924---Margaret Truman (singer: The Big Show), Independence, Missouri.
1925---Hal Holbrook (actor: Brighter Day), Cleveland.


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