Sometimes There Was Magic
NYTimes.com - December 23, 2008
On Old Cassette, Barber’s Voice Brings to Life Game He Missed
By RICHARD SANDOMIR
No one broadcast Johnny Vander Meer’s second consecutive no-hitter in June 1938, but that did not deter fans from telling Red Barber years later how much they enjoyed his call.
Barber should have called it, at least for symmetry’s sake.
He was then in his final season with the Cincinnati Reds (his storied run with the Brooklyn Dodgers started the next season) and behind the Crosley Field radio microphone for Vander Meer’s first no-hitter on June 11 against the Boston Bees.
But because the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees were in the last season of a five-year ban on radio broadcasts from their stadiums, Vander Meer’s no-hitter at Ebbets Field on June 15 was a witness-only event, unheard on any airwave. So while Vander Meer was making history in Brooklyn, Barber was home in Cincinnati, being called by exhilarated fans who knew that his home number was listed under his wife’s name.
Forty-one years later, Barber came to the annual meeting of the Florida Association of Broadcasters. They presented him with their Gold Medal. He recalled a prayer about the “changes and chances of time,” then offered his listeners the gift of time passed.
“Something no one has,” he said. He later added, “It’s going to be yours.”
Rome Hartman attended the broadcasters’ conference, which he recalled being held in Orlando, Fla.
“It was so extemporaneous that everyone was in awe,” said Hartman, a former sportscaster who was then general manager of a radio station in West Palm Beach. “He had it in his mind because he didn’t read it off any script. It came out of his memory.”
The first part of his gift, preserved in a cassette tape bought by Hartman after the conference but forgotten in a box of memorabilia for many years, was Barber’s vivid recap of the first eight innings. “Suddenly, this thing became alive,” Barber said.
Barber’s recapitulation of the game is a reminder that Vander Meer, no matter the sensation he caused with his first no-hitter, was an afterthought early on in the Brooklyn game. It was the first night game at Ebbets Field, and 38,748 fans, well beyond capacity, had jammed in. “They must have been in the aisles and hanging from the rafters,” Barber said.
The second part, which lasts just over three minutes, is Barber live — yet 41 years late. He calls the bottom half of the ninth as if it were being played before him, with Vander Meer facing the bases full of Brooks with one out.
“Now,” Barber said, “on the brink of greatness, unprecedented greatness, he’s gone wild.” With Reds Manager Bill McKechnie at the mound trying to calm Vander Meer, Barber said: “There’s no one warming up in the bullpen. It’s going to be Vander Meer going all the way. It has to be. He pitched a no-hitter four days ago at Cincinnati against Boston, and tonight is his night. His father and mother are here. The girl he’s going to marry. They’re all here. And this crowd is now for him. They’ve turned their backs on their ball club, the Dodgers. They want him to do it.”
Barber, who died in 1992, was 71 at the time, 13 years past his firing by the Yankees. His lyrical voice rose excitedly during the half-inning and sometimes lowered as if he were telling Cub Scouts a ghost story. He spoke rapidly and clearly, describing the runners on base and the Reds’ defensive setup. And when he said Vander Meer’s name, the syllables were transformed by Barber’s Mississippi roots into the gentler-sounding “Van-da-me-ah.”
“Ernie Lombardi, ‘Big Schnozz,’ sitting back of the plate, ready to give the sign,” he said. “Koy up. Vander Meer pitches. It’s a strike. No balls, one strike. The score is six to nothing in favor of the Reds. But the score is not the story. The story is Vander Meer!”
Bob Edwards, a Sirius XM talk show host, talked to Barber every Friday for 12 years on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition”; he remembered Monday that at a public radio conference in 1983, Barber surprised attendees by recreating the bottom of the ninth of Game 4 of the 1947 World Series. Brooklyn’s Cookie Lavagetto broke up a no-hitter by the Yankees’ Bill Bevens with a pinch-hit double and won the game for the Dodgers.
“It was the only good thing that happened at that conference,” Edwards said, adding, “He was a showman. When he was a kid, he wanted to be in vaudeville.”
With two outs and shortstop Leo Durocher facing Vander Meer, the tinkling glasses in the banquet room were muted. His audience of broadcasters was quiet.
“Durocher swings, and it’s a hard line-drive going down the right field and it’s foul just by a couple of feet in the right-field corner,” he said and his audience exhaled loudly — “You had to catch your breath,” Hartman said — and applauded. (The New York Times article the next day said Durocher’s foul went into the right-field stands.)
Then, the conclusion: “It’s no balls, two strikes, three on,” the old Redhead said. “It’s a high fly ball going to medium center field. Harry Craft comes under it, sets, and takes it, and it’s a double no-hitter for Vander Meer.” A brief pause, and, finally: “Thank you.”