'42' Error: How the Jackie Robinson Movie Got Red Barber Wrong

David J. HalberstamSpecial ColumnistMay 2, 2013

John C. McGinley as broadcaster Red Barber in the Jackie Robinson biopic "42."
John C. McGinley as broadcaster Red Barber in the Jackie Robinson biopic "42."

The movie 42 was brilliantly done. It captured the racial biases of the day, the unbearable hardships Jackie Robinson endured and the character of the venerable old ballparks.

But if he were alive today, announcer Red Barber wouldn't be happy with his portrayal in the critically acclaimed film. Not that John McGinley did a bad job acting the part (a difficult task given the fact that Red used inimitable homespun idioms), but the Ol' Redhead would have been troubled by a few inaccuracies, one in particular.

Barber was truly the first to fashion a syrupy rhythm for delivering baseball on radio, doing so accurately and entertainingly. He later hired and nurtured Vin Scully in Brooklyn. Vin would be the first to call Red his mentor.

Part of Barber's mellifluous charm was his strong southern drawl, a soothing relief to millions of fast-talking New Yorkers who scurried and hurried endlessly around a busy city. Late in the depression and certainly through the war years, his commentary was an innocuous diversion, particularly for women. While doing the play-by-play, Red taught women how to score games while many of their loved ones were fighting wars in Europe and in the Pacific. 

Barber was principled. He didn't befriend players because it could taint his unbiased call.

Somewhat complicated and quirky, Barber also insisted that a man's spot at night was his home. It's the way he was raised. His father was a railroad man who worked on Florida's tracks by day and was at home with his family every night. Red also liked being home every night.

In 1939, the Dodgers were the first of the three New York teams to commit to a full schedule of radio broadcasts. Dodgers president Larry MacPhail brought Barber to Brooklyn from Cincinnati.

It was agreed, due in part to Red's conviction and more so to financial pragmatism, to do home games live from the ballpark and to recreate road games from the studio. Barber's brilliance glittered on these recreations.

Sitting in a stark studio, Red made a lot out of the little game data that came from the out-of-town Western Union wire (ball, strike, hit, out and the like) and managed to skillfully paint a colorful word picture of the game.

For instance, he committed to memory the batting stances of virtually every National League hitter. Then, when players came up, Barber gazed up at the ceiling of the studio, visualized the stance and vibrantly infused a description of it into his play-by-play. As such, Barber artistically put "flesh on the skeleton" of information.

The Dodgers recreated away games until mid 1948 (July 5 at Philadelphia) when there was pressure to do road games live because the Yankees (1946) and Giants (beginning of 1948) had already started to do so.

But in 1947, the season chronicled in the film, Red Barber and sidekick Connie Desmond still recreated road broadcasts from the WHN studios. (By the way, Red never used fabricated crowd noise that was popular with other broadcasters who did recreations. Listeners would only hear the tick-tick rhythm of the Western Union wire in the background. Barber was that pure. Other play-by-play announcers beefed things up, using pre-produced crowd noise and other gimmicks like the sound of a bat hitting the ball. Not Red.)

For Red, nothing got in the way of the facts. Today unfortunately, no family members can speak for Red, who died in 1992. His wife Lylah is gone (1997) and their lone offspring, Sarah Lanier Barber, died childless in 2005. So allow me to correct misrepresentations in 42.

In the scenes where Pee Wee Reese puts his arm around Robinson in Cincinnati and when Jackie homers (Sept. 17 off Fritz Ostermueller) in Pittsburgh, the movie incorrectly shows Barber broadcasting from the booth in each park. Red and Connie were actually in the New York studios. Most games were played then in the afternoon. If they weren't completed by 5 p.m., the play-by-play was cut off in midstream because Ted Husing's Musical Bandstand was more profitable to WHN, the station running the Dodgers broadcasts. But that's another story.

Screenwriter and director Brian Helgeland and actor McGinley must have studied Barber in great depth. They knew to place an egg timer on the counter of the broadcast booth (which Red used to remind himself to give the score every few minutes). While it was probably a conscious choice to simplify the story, wouldn't it have been more interesting to stay true to the times and depict these recreations?

Later in the film, there's a shot of the Ebbets Field broadcast booth with "WMGM" painted on the facade below it. In 1947, it was still WHN. The station didn't change its call letters to WMGM until September, 1948. As such, the shot of Ebbets Field wasn't from 1947.

If I'm being pedantic, my apologies.

A much more troubling inaccuracy is an injustice to Barber himself, who prided himself on impartiality. He never openly rooted. But he's regrettably seen in 42 applauding in the Pittsburgh broadcast booth after emoting "Oh Doctor!" on the Robinson home run call. To my knowledge, Barber used "Oh Doctor!" sparingly—perhaps only once and hesitatingly so—in the '47 World Series when Al Gionfriddo dramatically robbed Joe DiMaggio. ("Back, back, back, he makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! Oh doctor!")

Having met Barber a couple of times, I'm afraid he would have been unhappy to see this misrepresentation of him applauding Robinson's home run. Red publicly lambasted the Giants' Russ Hodges for losing it on his famous Bobby Thomson call in 1951. Yes, through the years, there were subtle voice inflections in Red's call suggesting that he was pleased to see Robinson excel, but he never blatantly rooted, and applauding has long been considered taboo in broadcast booths and press boxes.

Remember this is the same Red Barber who, as a Yankee announcer in 1966, once asked his television director to have the cameras pan Yankee Stadium when only 413 fans were in the cavernous house that seated 70,000. Would this man applaud in Pittsburgh—or in the station's studio, where he really was—the day Robinson helped the Dodgers win the pennant?

I don't think so, no matter what the movie says.

But hey, it's Hollywood. Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.