The man who broadcast Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Dodgers recalled that, as a boy in Sanford, Florida, “I saw black men tarred and feathered by the Ku Klux Klan and forced to walk the streets. I had grown up in a completely segregated world.” Red Barber confessed that when he learned the Dodgers would field a black player, his first reaction was to quit his job.
Walter Lanier “Red” Barber—“Red” for the color of his hair—was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on February 17, 1908. Seventy years later he was one of the first two broadcasters honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame, along with his rival and sometime partner Mel Allen. Curt Smith, who chronicled the history of baseball broadcasting in two books, wrote in The Storytellers, “The Ol’ Redhead was white wine, crepes Suzette and bluegrass music; Mel, beer, hot dogs and the United States Marine Band.”
Red’s father, William Lanier Barber, was a locomotive engineer from Brown’s Creek, North Carolina. His mother, Selena Martin, was an English teacher and school principal from an old Mississippi family. She insisted that her children practice what she taught. “My mother gave me an ear for language…. She gave me my interest in religion, too,” he wrote. “My father didn’t have the education my mother did, but he was a wonderful raconteur, a natural storyteller. He’d sit out on the front porch and tell stories by the hour.” The Barbers later had a second son, William Martin, and a daughter, Effie Virginia.
Red Barber called 1947 “the year all hell broke loose.”
The Barbers moved to Sanford, Florida, near Orlando, when Walter was ten years old. He was a high school football halfback and kicker at five feet eight and 165 pounds. He graduated first in his class and was rewarded with a twenty-dollar gold piece. His first ambition was to be an end man (the lead comedian) in a minstrel show, and he performed in blackface during high school and college. While he was working his way through the University of Florida as a waiter and boardinghouse manager, one of his housemates, Ralph Fulghum, asked him to read a research paper on the university radio station. As Red put it, “Then came the great turning point of my life. I know