In the Catbird Seat One More Time

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to
Wednesday, February 13, 2008; 1:44 PM

It began last September when local businessman and amateur baseball historian Glenn Lautzenhiser ran into his friend Birney Imes, the executive editor and publisher of the Commercial Dispatch (Columbus, Miss.), at a local restaurant.

"I told him I was going to be giving a speech a few days later on the subject of 'I'm a suck-egg mule,' and wondered if he knew what I was going to be talking about," Lautzenhiser said the other day. "I gave him a hint, that it had to do with a famous native of Columbus, and he still didn't have any idea."

When Lautzenhiser explained that he'd be speaking about an expression often used on the air by the late Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster Red Barber, born in Columbus in 1908, Imes was intrigued enough to show up to hear his presentation at the Possum Town Toastmasters Club. He took notes, then wrote a column about Barber in the Sunday paper.

In the age of the World Wide Web, it did not take long for Imes' story to reach the computer screen of broadcaster Bob Edwards, the long-time host of Morning Edition on National Public Radio until he left in 2004 to originate his own signature show on XM Radio.

For a dozen years, Barber had called in to Morning Edition virtually every week from his home in Tallahassee, Fla., to chat with Edwards about any and all topics, from baseball to The Gulf War to the state of the roses in his garden.

They became great friends and their conversations were fabulous must-listen radio. Only Barber's death in 1992 ended the charming weekly feature that introduced Barber to a whole new generation of listeners. Most never had the privilege or pure pleasure of hearing him do the play-by-play for three different major league teams, including memorable stints with the old Brooklyn Dodgers from 1939-1953 and his last gig, sharing the N.Y. Yankees booth with another southern gentleman, the late, great Alabama baritone, Mel Allen, from 1957-1966.

After reading Imes's piece, Edwards e-mailed the editor immediately and wondered if he knew that the 100th anniversary of Barber's birth in Columbus was just around the corner. He also told Imes he'd be more than willing to come to town and give a speech of his own about his old friend and radio colleague to celebrate Ol' Redhead's birthday.

Imes quickly called Lautzenhiser and it did not take long for the two of them to jump on Edwards' offer and then expand on it, forming a committee to plan a proper celebration of Barber's life.

This weekend, Columbus will, indeed, honor its native son with several events around the Mississippi town where Barber's mother worked as a schoolteacher and his father was a railroad engineer. The family moved away to Sanford, Fla., when Red was 10, but he always considered himself a native Mississippian, and never lost that languorous, syrupy drawl that certified him as a true son of the south.

They'll kick it all off with a traditional crawfish boil at an antebellum mansion outside of town on Friday night. On Saturday, a stone memorial marker will be unveiled on a street not far from Barber's boyhood home by incomparable New York publicist Joe Goldstein, a born and bred Brooklyn Dodgers fan who knew and listened to Barber for years and has helped spread the word nationwide about this weekend's festivities.

On Saturday night, 300 guests will attend a dinner at the Mississippi University for Women, where Barber's mother graduated in 1899. Those guests and hundreds more will then move over to the larger Nissan Auditorium to hear Edwards and several other speakers reflect on Barber's rich and remarkable life, along with a number of video tributes sent in from former Dodgers Duke Snider and Tommy Lasorda and broadcasters Jerry Coleman and Ernie Harwell, among others.

Even ESPN's Chris Berman, who shamelessly adapted Harwell's famous "back, back, back" call as his very own early on in his ESPN career, has sent along a tape to help honor Barber's memory, a very classy move.

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