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Original Issue


Red Barber is now a mainstay of National Public Radio

"Red, good morning."

"It is a good morning down here in Tallahassee, Bob. About 73 degrees, and we've been having thundershowers this last week, so everything is green."

"Let's go to the Pete Rose story. He has knee surgery today, and should recover in time to serve a five-month sentence for tax evasion...."

'Yes, I do not think there is any question that he will be recovered by then. Of course this is the big story, it was even on the front page of the Tallahassee Democrat"

"But it's a sad story, wouldn't you agree?"

"It's a tragic story. A man so talented physically and so emotionally dedicated to baseball. He played every play just as hard as he could. But you have to go all the way back to the 1919 World Series as far as baseball's position is concerned. That's when baseball realized that its biggest danger was gambling. And Judge Landis became the first commissioner and immediately sentenced for life the White Sox players involved."

And so began a typical Friday morning conversation on National Public Radio's (NPR) Morning Edition between host Bob Edwards and Baseball Hall of Fame announcer Red Barber. Though their conversation is usually about sports, don't expect to hear strings of scores being spewed out as if they were commodities prices. Instead, Edwards and Barber shoot the bull, like old friends at the corner store jawing over a game of checkers. They don't always agree, and on occasion, they may not get the facts exactly right, but listeners love them all the same. In fact, Edwards and Barber's weekly four-minute segment on sports, now in its 10th year, is carried on more than 385 stations in the United States and is occasionally heard overseas on the Voice of America.

How did an 82-year-old baseball legend find fame and a whole new generation of listeners on the country's most erudite radio network?

Well, that's a good story. Let me tell you about it, as Barber would say. We go back to Dec. 14, 1980. Elston Howard, the first black to play for the New York Yankees, had died that day and NPR was looking for someone to comment on his passing. Ketzel Levine, then a sports producer at NPR, remembered how her father used to listen to Barber's broadcasts of the Brooklyn Dodgers' games. She also recalled that Barber was the Dodger announcer in 1947 when Jackie Robinson joined the team and broke major league baseball's color barrier.

Levine tracked down Barber, who had retired to Tallahassee, and asked him if he would be interested in taping a brief tribute to Howard. Says Barber in his oft-imitated drawl, "I told them if the equipment was ready, I could do it right then." Which he did, in one take.

"I suppose I made a favorable impression, because they asked me to do a spot once a week," Barber recalls. So on Jan. 1, 1981, after a 14-year hiatus from broadcasting, Barber once again became a regular presence on the radio airwaves.

Judging by the bagfuls of letters delivered to Barber each month, much of his NPR audience consists of baseball buffs. But many correspondents confess that they don't particularly like sports, they just like Red. "In the broadcast medium we're used to people 'pronouncing and announcing,' " says Edwards. "But Red is just himself. A real person who happens to be brilliant, witty and energetic."

Barber's Friday morning routine is to rise at 6:00, scan the Tallahassee Democrat for any late-breaking news, pour a cup of tea, then take a seat behind the microphone perched on a desk in his office at home. At 7:00 the producers at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., make contact with Barber, who broadcasts out of his home, and at 7:35 Edwards begins with his customary "Red, good morning."

Barber, who doesn't rehearse or script his segment, insists on going on the air live. "That's broadcasting," he says. "It's exciting and spontaneous. Taping is dull."

The result is a loosely orchestrated conversation with Edwards, complete with meanders. "I know what questions I'm going to ask Red," says Edwards. "There is certainly no guarantee, however, that he'll answer them."

Instead, Barber may talk about the crape myrtles blooming in his backyard; the squirrels that are eating the birdseed; or his wife, Miss Lylah. "One time, he read from The Prophet," says Edwards. "The comedian Flip Wilson was trying to get a statue of Kahlil Gibran erected in Washington [D.C.], and Gibran is one of Red's favorite writers." Barber is just as likely to spend precious minutes of his brief segment discoursing on Luciano Pavarotti's singing or the writings of Winston Churchill. A bemused Edwards says, "Sometimes we even talk about sports."

Not surprisingly, Barber is best when reflecting on baseball days gone by. He evokes an era that some listeners remember and others delight in imagining. "I'm only 29," says Mark Schramm, Barber's producer. "I didn't live the Dodgers. But I hear Red's voice, and I'm transported back. There's Hilda Chester and her cowbell, the Sym-Phonie Band, and the players, like Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella. I close my eyes, and I can see Ebbets Field."

Barber also seems more comfortable exercising his droll wit when he is talking baseball. For instance, during NPR's Opening Day baseball call-in show last April 2, Edwards, a self-professed fumbler with a switchboard, cut off a caller from the Washington, D.C., area. "Red," he said, "we lost Washington."

"Indeed," Barber quickly noted. "To Minnesota in 1961."

Although Barber is most famous for broadcasting baseball, he has covered almost every sport during his 56 years in radio and often can gracefully put sports headlines into a historical context. When he heard about the million-dollar bidding wars for TV rights to the 1992 Olympic Games, with technical crews numbering in the thousands, Barber recalled the days when he was sports director for CBS Radio, and was the network's only broadcaster at St. Moritz in 1948.

What makes Barber so compelling is his scope of interests, plus his precise vocabulary. "My mother always liked the English language," says Barber, who grew up in central Florida and attended the University of Florida. "When I was a child, she read to me from the classics. Those were the only books allowed in our house." Before the lure of radio captured Barber in 1934, he was studying to become a college English professor. Considering his curriculum vitae, it's no wonder he's such a hit with NPR listeners.

Listeners also respond to the regard in which Barber and Edwards hold each other. The two laugh, joke, debate and carry on in an easy, unaffected way. As regulars know, Barber often refers to Edwards as "Colonel Bob." What many people don't know is that the title comes from the fact that Edwards, a native of Louisville, is a member of the Kentucky Colonels, an honorary society in the Bluegrass State. Barber appreciates such distinctly Southern niceties. The appellation is catching on. In November 1988, when Edwards greeted musician Randy Newman before an interview on Morning Edition, New-man responded, "And good morning to you, Colonel Bob."

Barber's popularity is widespread, according to NPR congressional correspondent Cokie Roberts. "I talk to the most powerful people in Washington every day of the week. But the only interview that people ever ask me about is the one morning I sat in for Bob Edwards and talked to Red," says Roberts.

Barber, you should understand, is fiercely loyal to Edwards and has been known to be tough on anyone who tries to replace him, even for one day. Roberts had been warned what to expect before her brief stint as Edwards's replacement on April 22, 1988. After all, the segment is live, and no one knew what Barber was going to say. Compounding the problem, Roberts admits, was the fact that she is largely ignorant of sports. "I was hoping he'd talk about camellias," she says. "I know a lot about those."

There was no floral talk that day, but the broadcast turned out to be a memorable one, nonetheless. "Cokie," Barber mused when his mike came on. "What kind of a name is Cokie? Where I come from, there was a Cookie Lavagetto. But Cokie?" Roberts explained that when they were children, her older brother couldn't pronounce her proper name, Corinne, and the nickname stuck. "Well, I always say, If you want to know something, just ask," says Barber.

From there Barber and Roberts, a native of Louisiana, discussed their Southern roots. "It was delightful," says Roberts. "Though I did hear myself saying, 'Now, Red, getting back to sports....' "

"I think one reason that Red is so popular is that he's a part of American history at this point," Roberts continues. "Listeners also like the fact that Red is on live. There's a magic to that. They appreciate the pictures that they can paint in their minds with Red's words. I've never been to Red's home in Tallahassee, but I can see it. I've never met Miss Lylah, but I have a sense for her, too, because Red gives us these wonderful word pictures. Actually, that's what all of us in radio try to do. Let listeners see with our words."

And Barber, it seems, still is turning out those verbal masterpieces.



Edwards (left) and Barber converse comfortably, even though one broadcasts from Washington, D.C., the other from Tallahassee, Fla.



[See caption above.]

Free-lance writer Lisa Twyman Bessone of Chicago is a frequent contributor to this magazine.