Red Barber is an American Icon. He was one of America’s first great sports radio broadcasters. During the fall he could be heard broadcasting the biggest college football games. During the Spring and summer, he was the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees. Barber’s folksy southern vernacular has even been immortalized in literature (James Thurber’s The Catbird Seat 1952). According to author Robert W. Creamer:
For all Barber’s Southern accent and country idiom (tearin’ up the pea patch, walkin’ in tall cotton, sittin’ in the catbird seat) he fit New York. He was sharp and intelligent, a thoroughly modern, refreshing broadcaster whose straightforward way of reporting the action attracted not only Dodger fans but baseball fans in general. (Creamer, Baseball in 41 p.55).
In the fall of 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Larry MacPhail left to join the army. His replacement was Branch Rickey, one of the most influential men in baseball history. Branch Rickey had presided over many successful seasons in St.Louis where he had run the St.Louis Cardinals. It was Rickey who created a minor league farm system for the Cardinals, which allowed the team to sign and develop young talent which could be kept under team control. Branch Rickey was a T-Totaler. He did not drink and he refused to attend baseball games on Sundays. He was a deeply religious man who spent a great deal of his limited spare time speaking at churches. Ever since he had been a college coach at Ohio Wesleyan University, Rickey had a strong sense of shame about baseball’s unwritten color line. No person of color had suited up for a major league baseball team. Although there was no specific rule against hiring players of color, it was commonly accepted that Major League Baseball was for white players only. Baseball players of color, whether African-American, Hispanic, or from the Caribbean Islands had to play in the segregated Negro Leagues. In this way, baseball mirrored American Society, which had made segregation legal with the Plessy V. Ferguson Supreme Court Ruling in the late 19th Century.
Red Barber was excited to work for Mr.Rickey as he liked to call him. Red lived with his wife Lylah and their daughter Sarah in Scarsdale, New York. Branch Rickey and his wife had moved to nearby Bronxville after he took the job with the Dodgers. The Rickey’s invited the Barbers over for a Sunday lunch. The Barbers and the Rickeys got along very well. But Red later realized that Branch Rickey had invited Red and Lylah over for a reason:
He wanted to know my wife. He knew good and well that, over and above what I thought, the wife I was married to had an influence over me, and he wanted to know what that influence was. (Ruhbarb in the Catbird Seat, Barber and Creamer, p. 254).
The importance of this Sunday luncheon revealed itself a few months later. It was Branch Rickey who convinced Red Barber that his stature as the radio voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers could be used to do good works. Red soon found himself the principal fundraiser for the Red Cross Blood Drive. This was very important work at any time but during World War II it was crucial. Red would later say that his work for the Red Cross was what he was proudest of during his time in Brooklyn.
He and Branch Rickey attended a meeting for The Brooklyn Red Cross. The meeting ran late so the two men walked to Joe’s Restaurant a Brooklyn Landmark across from the Dodger’s offices. The two men sat in a booth all alone in the back of the restaurant. Red recalls Mr.Rickey breaking up a roll and buttering pieces of it as he informed Red of the idea that would shake up the baseball world and American society. Mr. Rickey started off by telling a story of the time he was Manager of Michigan University’s Baseball Team and had gone on a road trip to South Bend, Indiana to play Notre Dame. Michigan’s catcher was an African-American from Upper Michigan. The young man’s family were the only African-Americans in the area and he had never encountered racism before. On this day the clerk at the Oliver Hotel in South Bend refused to let the young man check in because he was black. The clerk at the desk pulled back the register and said “we do not take Negroes here.”
Branch Rickey was shocked. He could not believe this splendid young man was being denied admission to the hotel. After arguing with the clerk Rickey arranged for the man not to be checked in but to be allowed to stay in Rickey’s room. A crowd had gathered and the clerk was loud and abusive as he emphasized how it didn’t matter who the young man was with, the hotel did not admit Negroes. Rickey sent the young man upstairs so he could register the other players. When he got up to his room Mr.Rickey found the young man crying as he sat on the bed, his body wracked by his sobs. The young man kept pulling at his hands and saying “It’s my skin. If I could just tear it off I’d be like everybody else. It’s my skin. It’s my skin, Mr.Rickey.” Branch Rickey grabbed another roll, broke it, and buttered it. Red recalled the anger within this bear of a man with bushy eyebrows who stared across the table at him.
“What I’m telling you is this: there is a Negro ballplayer coming to the Dodgers… I don’t know who he is, and I don’t know where he is, and I don’t know when he’s coming. But he is coming soon, just as soon as we can find him.”
Red Barber was speechless. Rickey continued to address him.
“Needless to say,” he went on, “I have taken you into my confidence in telling you this. I have talked about it only with my family. Jane is utterly opposed to my doing it. The family is dead set against it. But I have got to do it. I must do it. I will do it. I am doing it. And now you know it.” (Barber and Creamer, pp.266-267).
When Red got home to Scarsdale, he told Lylah he would have to quit the Dodgers. The way he saw things he was a southerner and in the south, there was always a line that could not be crossed. Red thought about his mother’s family in Mississippi, his birthplace. He thought of his father, who was from North Carolina. He thought of growing up in Sanford Florida. All of his life before moving to Cinncinatti in 1934 had been spent in the segregated south. Red insisted to Lylah that he had to quit the Dodgers because Branch Rickey was determined to sign a black ballplayer. Lylah fixed him a Martini and told him to think it over. He had a dream job and a wonderful home in Scarsdale. Was he really going to throw it all away over Branch Rickey’s determination to integrate Major League Baseball?
It was around this time that Harry Price, the Rector of The Episcopal Church of St.James the Less in Scarsdale asked Red to give a radio talk built on a sentence from St.Paul about Men and Brothers. According to Red:
It was the problem of the relationship between the Jews and the non-Jews in the wealthy community of Scarsdale, New York. It was going pretty good and it still is. A lot of people forgot that Jesus was a Jew. Some embarrassingly sickening things were beginning to happen. Sad things were being said. Things were being done to children. And so the rector asked me to talk about men and brothers. You were men and brothers together, and you should get along together.
Well, when I worked out that talk I suddenly found that I wasn’t nearly so interested in the relationship between Christians and Jews, Jews and Christians as I was about the relationship between one white southern broadcaster and one unknown Negro ballplayer, who was coming.
(Barber and Creamer p. 272).
Neither Red Barber nor Branch Rickey knew Jackie Robinson at this time. But Red Barber knew that Branch Rickey would integrate major league baseball soon. Red knew that he would be the man who would be broadcasting the games in which this unknown trailblazer would play.
Two years later Jackie Robinson was playing in Montreal. In 1947 Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and made history, winning Rookie of the Year and helping the Dodgers to the National League Pennant. Off the field, Robinson’s participation and starring role in the National Pastime had ripple effects for the civil rights movement and American Society. Recalling it all in 1967 Red Barber’s overarching feeling was one of gratitude.
So if I have been able to implement to any degree the second commandment, to have concern…Well, what I am trying to say is, if there is any thanks involved, any appreciation, I thank Jackie Robinson. He did far more for me than I did for him. (Barber and Creamer p. 276)
Author’s Note: Although Red Barber is quoted as stating that the incident at the hotel in South Bend occurred while Branch Rickey was the coach of The University of Michigan, it occurred when he was the coach of Ohio Wesleyan University. Rickey moved on to The University of Michigan the year after this incident occurred.
The young catcher Branch Rickey refers to in his story about encountering racism at the hotel in South Bend is Charles L.Thomas. He and Rickey remained friends. Charles L. Thomas became a successful dentist. He lived in St.Louis, Mo during the 1930s and visited with Rickey at The St.Louis Cardinals offices. He could not attend the Cardinals game because the lower bowl of Sportsman’s Park was segregated. Dr.Thomas later moved to New Mexico where he was one of only two licensed African-American dentists in the state. His interview with Mark Harris was published in the September 1947 issue of Negro Digest.