OUT OF LEFT FIELD
THE CATBIRD SEAT RHUBARB
...on the air
...the title lifter
How Red Barber was left
out of his 'Catbird Seat'
By STAN ISAACS
While doing some idle reading in a book of American short stories, I came across one of my favorites, James Thurbers The Catbird Seat. Ive long had an affection for it because sitting in the catbird seat was an expression associated with Red Barber, the southerner who became a revered Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster in the 1940s and 1950s.
Non-baseball aficionados might remember Barber for his interesting chats with Bob Edwards Friday mornings on National Public Radio.
Barber is mentioned in the story. A character, an unappealing woman, an efficiency expert who fired people from jobs, was given to using expressions like sitting in the catbird, tearing up the pea patch and hollering down the rain barrel.
They were, another character explained, expressions that she picked up from listening to Barber on radio broadcasts of Dodgers games. He picked em up down south.
The story is about the improbable scheme of a Caspar Milquetoast-like clerk to get this awful woman fired. He is successful, and in the end he is sitting in the catbird seat--sitting pretty, that is.
The story was published in 1942, and reading it made me wonder at one time if Red Barber had any contact with Thurber, the noted New Yorker writer and cartoonist. I called Barber, who was living in retirement in Tallahassee, Fla..
I had never met Thurber, Barber said. A mutual friend said Thurber often listened to the Dodgers broadcasts and wanted to meet me, but we never met. Nor did he ask permission to use the phrase for the title of the story.
A year or so after the story was published, I read in Variety that The Catbird Seat would be made into a movie. I was irritated because that might run into money, but none for me. I sent word to Thurber that I was perturbed. I got word back that he was angry at me for his making liberal use of my phrase. But no movie was made."
(Actually, an English movie, starring Peter Sellers, eventually was made from the Thurber story in 1959, but with the title changed to "The Battle of the Sexes." Somewhere between the story and the making of the movie, "The Catbird Seat" title had died and Barber's famous line became irrelevant.)
This is a poster for the
1959 movie based on
Thurber's story, "The
Catbird Seat," retitled
for the movie as "The
Battle of the Sexes."
At about that time Bill Corum, The Journal American sports columnist, went on leave and Barber was selected to write the column in the interim. I wanted to call the column, The Catbird Seat Barber said, but was advised by the papers lawyers that I couldnt because Thurber had a copywright on the title. Now that was getting the goose too far from the gander. Barber settled on Sitting in the Catbird Seat as his column title.
He said the term catbird seat came from a poker game he had been involved in years earlier when he was broadcasting in Cincinnati. I was losing and tried to run a pot. I tried to bluff with a pair of eights, but a man named Frank Koch was sitting with a pair of aces from the beginning. He raked in the money and thanked me for building the pot. He said, I was sitting in the catbird seat. He was sitting pretty with those aces.
Barber used another expression that found its way into literature. His use of the word rhubarb as a synonym for an altercation or free-for-all was picked up by H. Allen Smith.
One of the first persons to interview me when I came to New York, Barber said, was H. Allen Smith for The World Telegram. We had a pleasant relationship living near each other in Westchester. Smith got Barbers permission to use Rhubarb as the name of a rambunctious cat who owned a baseball team in his comic novel by that name. Rhubarb was made into a movie.
The expression rhubarb was passed on to him, Barber said, by sportswriter Tom Meany.
He had heard it from a bartender describing a wild, bloody fight in a Brooklyn bar not far from Ebbets Field. Brooklyn had many small houses with gardens in those days, and they grew rhubarb, which was red and messy inside. I guess the bartender ws thinking of the bloody red color of the rhubarb when he described the bloody fight.
Theres a novel twist to all this.
Some years later Barbers daughter, Sara, taught English at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. When she mentioned catbird seat in relation to her father, she was told somewhat indignantly by a student that her father had gotten the term from the James Thurber story.
In trying to explain the terms origin to the skeptical students, Barber said, She had quite a rhubarb.
©2008 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. This column first posted Oct. 6, 2008.
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