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Original Issue

Red Barber's memoirs take us behind the sports microphone, but not very far

It took about 10 minutes recently to list an even two dozen erstwhile sports stars who—through the magic of television—have become sportscasters. The gamut runs from Dandy Don Meredith, Jack Twyman, Frank Gifford, Joe Garagiola, Pee Wee Reese and Ralph Boston clear on through Lynn Shackelford who, fans may remember, played Mr. Outside to Lew Alcindor's Mr. Inside at UCLA and now helps out on Lakers broadcasts in Los Angeles.

It's a bull market in athletes, all right, even if many do have problems with that language we laughingly call English. (Remember a series of commercials one former star undertook a few years back? Unfortunately, he had a speech problem that made him sound like Elmer Fudd, so his spiel for Roman Meal Bread came out as a pitch for something called Woeman Meaw Bwead.) It was not always so. There was a time when an announcer was hired on the basis of how he sounded and what kind of excitement he could transmit on the air. That was when radio was a fan's best friend and Ted Husing, Bill Stern, Harry Wismer and Red Barber called the play-by-plays.

Of radio sports' big four, Red Barber is the one best qualified to write the book on sports broadcasting. He was the one who reported, where others performed. And—it's almost as if there's a sportscaster's curse—he's the only one to make it through with all his pieces working. (Husing was the victim of a brain tumor. Stern, now back on the air on Mutual, went through a long bout with drugs. Wismer died from an accidental fall.)

What the Old Redhead writes most about in his new book, The Broadcasters (The Dial Press), is the Old Redhead. Starting from 1929 at WRUF (Radio University of Florida), where he read a paper titled "Certain Aspects of Bovine Obstetrics" for a free meal, through the Dodger games, the Yankee games, the years as sports director at CBS and back to Florida in semiretirement, he traces in breezy, if sometimes self-serving, prose his 40 years behind the mike.

But there also is Ted Husing, banned from covering the Series by Judge Landis for criticizing the umpiring in 1934. Here is Barber calling the first televised major league game—Cincinnati at Brooklyn—and receiving for his work, from NBC, an engraved silver cigarette case along with bill for same. Here's the man from Gillette paying Barber all of $200 a game to announce the 1952 Series over coast-to-coast TV (Barber refused to do another Series for that kind of money). And here's Barber again, defying the jinx that says you don't mention no-hitters in progress, calling it no hits for the Dodgers while Floyd (Bill) Bevens was cranking up to pitch to Cookie Lavagetto. And here's Bill Stern calling 'em just the way they happened, even if he had to guess.

"When Stern would do a football game and name the wrong ballcarrier," Barber writes, "he would simply have him lateral the ball to the right man." But when Clem McCarthy called the wrong Preakness winner in 1947, Stern afterward took glee in retelling Clem's mistake. Barber repeats McCarthy's now-famous response—"Well, you can't lateral a horse"—and an old myth, that it happened at the Derby instead of the Preakness. You can't lateral a horse race either, Red.

But if the material is all there, Barber seems reluctant to look beyond the memories to tell us what happened to those days and—well, to the institution of baseball itself. Why isn't it the national pastime anymore? What happened to change it, for surely part of the reason is what happened up there in the booth, when radio got an eye and they called it television.

Baseball was the perfect summer spectator sport. Slow, easy, lots of time to get some sun and drink beer. Baseball on radio made sense, too—a broadcaster like Red Barber filling those long breaks in the action with good talk. As if the pitcher was shaking off signals and the batter was out of the box, kicking the dirt off his spikes and adjusting his supporter just so Barber could fill you in on the stats and standings. But baseball on TV is about as exciting as watching sponge cakes rise at the Pillsbury bake-off.

Is there a future for baseball? No word from Mr. Barber. Barber was the Dodgers' broadcaster when they let Jackie Robinson into the majors. We learn that "there were white players on the Dodgers who went to Rickey and said they wanted to be traded if the Negro came. In time they got their wish." But he never tells us who.

Barber was with the Yanks when Mel Allen got fired and he hints that Allen's reaction was a little stronger than "Well, how about that?" But Barber knows more than he tells. The same is true about the disintegration of the Yankees; Barber blames it on Owners Del Webb and Dan Topping bleeding every nickel from the franchise before dumping it, anemic, on an unwary CBS. But it's worth a chapter, not a page or two. In these days of let-it-all-hang-out sports writing from people like Jim Bouton and Dave Meggyesy a breezy reminiscence just isn't enough.

Barber devotes his final chapters to advice for would-be announcers. Looking over a quick checklist—which includes Jerry Coleman, Phil Rizzuto and Tony Kubek—one good piece of advice would be: "Play infield for the New York Yankees."