Red Barber wrote it some 30 years ago in the preface to his book “1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball,” about his role in describing Jackie Robinson’s initial year in the big leagues:
“I had the microphone at Brooklyn when Robinson came. It was the hottest microphone any announcer had to face.”
John C. McGinley warmed up to that statement rather quickly.
Cast as Barber in the new movie “42,” which makes it to theaters Friday, McGinley said it was his duty to replicate the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Hall of Fame broadcaster as testament to the way Southern California fans revere Vin Scully’s place in the history of the franchise.
“My number one priority, and where I thought it could be most authentic, was to get Red Barber’s cadence and sound as exact as possible,” McGinley said. “We hear him a lot more than we see him in the movie, so the actor here could really check his ego at the door and really focus on the sound. That point of focus is a luxury for an actor, not to worry about this (a shot from the waist up) but just the sound. So it was a real, pure exploration of Red’s sound.”
Writer/director Brian Helgeland provided McGinley with plenty of Barber-type lines to deliver. The most famous was replicating Barber’s reference to Robinson as a “brunette” when he stepped to the plate for the first time as a Dodger – the only way he let the listeners know Robinson wasn’t your typical white player.
Helegand, whose resume includes capturing the 1950s era when doing the script for the 1997 “L.A. Confidential,” also gave McGinley a series of World Series CDs where Barber called the games with Mel Allen, “so I kind of obsessive-compulsived-out on his cadence because his sound is so eolian. It took me four or five weeks to get it.”
It’s to a point where McGinley, as Barber, barks out something like “Stanky has a chin wag with his old teammate Chapman” or “the game is tied like a pair of shoes on a rainy day,” it almost evokes a laugh from the theater audience as if they were listening to it live.
As Barber, McGinley not only captures the spirit of the broadcaster’s role in the whole “Great Experiment,” but of the period when baseball returned from World War II.
“To my ear, it so distinctly reflects an era of the boys coming home,” said McGinley, “this revved-up sound because everyone had been away and they had a lot to do when they came back. Baseball was being reconstituted.”
Barber’s most famous call – “Oh, doctor!” – is saved for the film’s climactic moment. Helgeland also decided to include a shot of McGinley, as Barber, actually clapping at what he just witnessed.
Did that really happen, or was it a Hollywood interpretation to let the audience visualize that even someone as important as Barber had feelings and could react to an important moment?
“I don’t know if he applauded or not,” Helgeland said, “but I knew he looked at sportscasting as reporting and made it a point to report what happened on the field. In his own mind, he treated Robinson the same as any other player in his at-bats, base running, and fielding. I don’t know if he ever editorialized.
“We used him as a counterpoint in the movie as to what’s was going on down on the field.”
McGinley, best know for his movie roles in “Platoon,” ”Wall Street,” “Office Space” and the TV show “Scrubs,” also reviewed Barber’s autobiography to get a better understanding where his real-life character was coming from – raised in the South, a product of segregation, but one who got on board quickly and was one of Robinson’s champions.
“As Red Barber took the Brooklyn faithful, so too went their sentiments,” said McGinley. “Brooklyn fans hold Red Barber to their heart as some of us hold our own children to our hearts. So when he created the Robinson fan train, people got on board.
“To not treat the way fans hold that voice and that memory of Red Barber would have been a real profound mistake.”