OUT OF LEFT FIELD
Jas. Thurber, Red Barber
and the Catbird Seat
By STAN I SAACS
One summer while browsing in a book of American short stories, I came across James Thurbers The Catbird Seat. It rang a bell 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.
A character in the story, an unappealing woman, is an efficiency expert who fires people from jobs. She was given to using expressions like sitting in the catbird seat, tearing up the pea patch and hollering down the rain barrel.
They were all, another character explained, expressions she learned from listening to Barber on radio broadcasts of Dodger games. He picked em up down South.
The story is about the improbable schemes 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. I wondered if Red Barber had any contact with Thurber, the noted New Yorker writer and cartoonist. Both are deceased. Barber was 80 when I called him at his home in Tallahassee, Fla.
I had never met Thurber, Barber said. A mutual friend said Thurber often listened to the Dodger broadcasts and wanted to meet me. But we never met. Nor did he ask for permission to use the phrase for the title of the story.
A year of 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 not 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. (Editor's Note: The story finally was filmed in 1959 in England as "The Battle of the Sexes" with Peter Sellers starring.)
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 I was advised by the papers lawyers that I could not because Thurber had a copy-right 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 with 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 people 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 tam in his comic novel by that name. Rhubarb was made into a movie.
Sports writer Tom Meany had passed the term onto Barber. 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. Barber said, I guess the bartender was thinking of the bloody red color of the rhubarb when he described the bloody fight.
Some years later, Barbers daughter, Sara, who taught English at LaGuardia Community College, 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 student, Barber said, She had quite a rhubarb.
©2012 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. This column first posted Aug. 20, 2012. An earlier version of this column was posted on Oct. 6, 2008.
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