On October 22, 1992, Red Barber—the legendary announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers, with a voice that one sportswriter called “a spoonful of sugar drifting through a glass of iced tea”—dies. He was 84 years old. In an era when almost every major league baseball team had a distinct voice—Mel Allen for the Yankees, Curt Gowdy for the Red Sox, Harry Caray for the Cards—Barber’s erudite-but-homespun Mississippi twang was the Dodgers. He pioneered a colorful, reportorial style of play-by-play narration that generations of broadcasters have imitated: He gave his listeners a scrupulously detailed but carefully nonpartisan version of the events on the field, so that they could feel like they were sitting in the stands themselves.
Barber’s baseball-broadcasting career began with the Cincinnati Reds in 1934, when the 26-year-old announcer called the first major league game he had ever seen, and ended in 1966 when the New York Yankees fired him for noting on air that only 413 people had come to watch the last-place Bombers play. But from 1939 to 1953, his years as the play-by-play announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Barber became a citywide celebrity. He invented an entirely new vocabulary that was nevertheless almost instantly familiar to anyone who listened to his broadcasts for more than a few minutes. To Barber, the baseball diamond was “the pea patch.” An argument was “a rhubarb.” A sure-thing game was “tied up in the crocus sack” and a team that had a game well in hand was “sitting in the catbird seat.” Everyone who heard Barber say that the bases were “FOB” knew he meant that they were full of Brooklyn players; likewise, listeners knew that a player who was “assuming the ballistic burden” was coming in to relieve the pitcher.
Meanwhile, Barber broadcast some of baseball’s most important moments: the first night game and the first televised game, for example, along with Jackie Robinson’s first game as a Dodger and Roger Maris’ record-breaking home run. Fans adored him–once, after the Dodgers won the pennant, they mobbed him as he left Ebbets Field and pulled out handfuls of his hair to keep as souvenirs. During baseball season, his voice was everywhere. “People tell me you could walk through Brooklyn without a radio and still hear Red describe the game,” sportscaster Bob Costas said. “You wouldn’t miss a pitch because it would come from an apartment windowsill, from a storefront, from a car radio with its window open.”
In 1978, Red Barber and Mel Allen were the first announcers to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Three years later, Barber’s vivid, literate broadcast style won him a whole new generation of fans when he joined newsman Bob Edwards for four minutes every Friday morning on NPR’s Morning Edition to talk about politics, gardening, family—and, of course, baseball.