The term “rhubarb” (meaning a heated dispute) started in 1938, when a Brooklyn Dodgers fan shot and killed a New York Giants fan in an argument. New York sportswriter Tom Meany reported that a bartender called the incident a “rhubarb,” but the bartender’s name is not known and the meaning was not explained.
Brooklyn Dodgers radio sports commentator Red Barber (1908-1992) made frequent use of “rhubarb” and wrote two books with the word in the title—The Rhubarb Patch; The Story of the Modern Brooklyn Dodgers (1954) and Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat (1968). The “rhubarb” term was always exclusive to baseball—and mostly New York City baseball—but is seldom used today.
Wikipedia: Red Barber
Walter Lanier “Red” Barber (February 17, 1908—October 22, 1992) was an American sports commentator.
Barber, nicknamed “The Ol’ Redhead”, was primarily identified with radio broadcasts of Major League Baseball, calling play-by-play across four decades with the Cincinnati Reds (1934—38), Brooklyn Dodgers (1939—1953), and New York Yankees (1954—1966). Like his fellow sports pioneer Mel Allen, Barber also gained a niche calling college and professional football in his primary market of New York City.
Barber became famous for his signature catchphrases, including these:
. “Rhubarb” – any kind of heated on-field dispute or altercation.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
rhubarb, n. and adj.
U.S. slang (orig. Baseball). A heated dispute, a row.
1941 N.Y. Times 19 May 20/6 There was what the boys call ‘a bit of a rhubarb’ in the eighth when Cavarretta tried to steal home… In the ensuing run-down, the Cubs charged Phil’s progress was illegally blocked by Lavagetto.
1943 Baseballing Jan. 369/3 A ‘rhubarb’, which has become Brooklynese for a heated verbal run-in, especially between players and umpires.
1949 Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch 17 Jan. 3/2 The citizen waiting for a streetcar yesterday was of several minds about the ‘rhubarb’ between the Virginia Transit Company and its drivers.
13 April 1940, Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, “Dizzy Dean is Dodger Possibility” by Tommy Holmes, pg. 5, col. 4:
Probably Durocher’s sage advice kept the ex-cotton picker out of many a mess of rhubarb.
8 November 1946, The Sunday Courier and Press (Evansville, IN), “Notes from a Bookworm,” pg. 10B, col. 7 ad:
Another item that interested us was one involving “Rhubarb,” by H. Allen Smith. Red Barber, the baseball commentator, has been using a new interpretation of the word, which probably soon will become public property. To quote Mr. Barber, rhubarb refers to the disagreements and dickerings which occur between the players and the umpires while the game is in progress.
OCLC WorldCat record
The rhubarb patch; the story of the modern Brooklyn Dodgers.
Author: Red Barber
Publisher: New York, Simon and Schuster, 1954.
Edition/Format: Print book : English
OCLC WorldCat record
Rhubarb in the catbird seat
Author: Red Barber; Robert W Creamer
Publisher: Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1968.
Edition/Format: Print book : Biography : English
The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Third Edition)
By Paul Dickson
New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
rhubarb A ruckus with the umpire(s); a confused situation; a fight between players or between the players and fans; a stew; a noisy argument; a heated dispute. “Mr. ‘Red’ Barber has used the term ‘rhubarb to describe an argument, or mix-up, on the field of play (New York Herald Tribune, July 13, 1943; OED). Dizzy Dean’s definition adds: “Most of the fightin’ is done with their mouths.”
Bush League Boys:
The Postwar Legends of Baseball in the American Southwest
By Toby Smith
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press
Sports Illustrated reported that in 1938 a Brooklyn Dodgers fan shot and killed a New York Giants fan in a barroom beef over the outcome of a ball game. The bartender, whose name no one remembered, described the incident to baseball writer Tom Meany as a “rhubarb.” What the barkeep meant by that is also lost. Radio broadcaster Red Barber heard the tale, liked the word, and began to say it frequently on his play-by-play of the Dodgers’ baseball games. Barber had a large audience and the word subsequently passed into the language. The popularity of “rhubarb” grew such that in 1951 the word became the movie title for a screwball comedy about a pet cat named Rhubarb who had been willed ownership of a baseball team.