There were no games to discuss or teams to analyze two years ago when the pandemic paused sports for more than four months. But sports-talk radio was still humming, meaning Ray Didinger and Glen Macnow had air time to fill on weekend mornings.
They maneuvered through their first few shows on WIP-FM by discussing evergreen topics — chestnuts, Macnow said, like determining Philadelphia’s greatest sports hero — before realizing that the shutdown might last a while. They needed something more substantial.
Didinger, whose illustrious sports journalism career ends Sunday with his retirement, had seen nearly everything after working in sports for more than 50 years.
He covered the highs — Didinger is likely the only journalist who covered the Flyers’ first Stanley Cup, the Phillies’ first World Series title, and the Eagles’ first Super Bowl appearance — and the many lows, but nothing could prepare him for when the games stopped.
“I was saying to Glen, ‘What are we going to do? We have to talk about something,’” Didinger said.
Their weekend show strays from stereotypical sports radio as they don’t take many calls from Johnny from Bridesburg, dish out hot takes, yell and scream to fill the time, or run silly contests.
“I think the show works because people regard it as two close friends sitting around and talking over a cup of coffee in the morning or a beer at lunch or, in Ray’s case an enormous Diet Coke, and just talking as friends talk,” Macnow said. “As a listener, you’re invited to join in. I think people appreciate that Ray and I get along really well and it’s never work. It’s just two guys chatting.”
Macnow had an idea for how they would navigate the shutdown in 2020. The hosts — who both broke into the business as sportswriters — had covered nearly all of the city’s significant sports figures over the years and knew how to get them on to the show.
But instead of a standard 10-minute interview, Macnow and Didinger would hold their guests for an hour-long chat and simply ask them to “tell us your story.” Didinger wasn’t so sure it would work. This was far from conventional sports radio. But Macnow urged him to give it a shot.
“I said everyone has a story, everyone has a biography,” Macnow said. “The people we deal with, the sports figures, have really interesting biographies. Let’s get an hour out of it.”
It’s all Gene Mauch’s fault
Didinger spent more than 25 years in newspapers, beginning first as a news reporter for the Delaware County Daily Times before becoming a sportswriter at The Philadelphia Bulletin and The Daily News. He left in 1996 for TV, first at NFL Films and then as the expert with the yellow notepad on NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Eagles postgame show. He has written 12 books and has been on sports-talk radio since the format launched in Philly in the 1980s.
A former Eagles season-ticket holder, Didinger moved from Section EE at Franklin Field to the press box in 1970 and has been the authority on the Birds ever since.
He does not have a cell phone or a Twitter account, but the 75-year-old Didinger mastered three forms of sports journalism: print, radio, and TV. He was added in 1995 to the writers’ honor roll at the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was voted five times as the Pa. Sports Writer of the Year.
In a city with a rich tradition of sportswriting, it’s hard to find a career that can match his. But it almost never started.
“I almost flunked out of college because of the ‘64 Phillies,” Didinger said. “I started at Temple in September of ‘64. I was just starting college when Chico Ruiz stole home. It was so traumatic, that whole thing, that it just turned the city into the walking dead. You’re already making a big adjustment from high school to college, but to have that on top of the Phillies collapse was brutal.
“When my transcript arrived in the mail, my father looked at it and said, ‘What is this?’ I said ‘Dad, it’s all Gene Mauch’s fault.’ ”
Home boy but not a homer
Didinger grew up in Folsom and attended St. James High in Chester before heading to Temple. He spent his entire career in Philadelphia, turning down offers to work in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. Those cities sounded great, but they weren’t home.
He fell in love with sports while hanging out at his grandfather’s Southwest Philadelphia bar, a place he introduced readers to in his Daily News column two days after the Phillies finally won the World Series.
“Ray’s was a sportsman’s bar, which is to say it was not the place where you went to listen to the jukebox or sing opera,” Didinger wrote in October 1980. “Anyone who tried to punch up a Frankie Laine record when the Phillies were on TV usually wound up being heaved onto Simpson Street by several burly regulars.”
“Ray’s was a place for guys who loved sports. If you wanted to discuss politics, go to the Union League. If you wanted tips on the stock market, go to the Warwick. But if you wanted to know what pitch Del Ennis hit in the ninth last night, Ray’s was the place.”
Didinger’s grandfather was a diehard who chartered bus trips every Sunday to Franklin Field and was at the ballpark watching his Phils if he wasn’t tending bar at Ray’s Tavern on Woodland Avenue.
“My grandfather is a typical Philadelphia fan in that he likes players who get their uniform dirty, guys with modest ability who get the job done with hustle and desire,” Didinger wrote.
Didinger, too, was a fanatic, but he tucked his fanhood away as he covered the city’s sports scene for more than 50 years. But the time spent at Ray’s Tavern listening to the patrons talk about Robin Roberts and Steve Van Buren shaped the way he worked.
He understood the passion of the city’s fans, and Didinger said he shared many of the same scars. He knew what it meant to be a fan, knowing how great it was when the home team won and how crushing a loss could feel. It came across in everything he wrote or said.
“A guy came up to me one time and said, ‘You know what I like about you, you’re a home boy but you’re not a homer,’” Didinger said. “Which I thought, ‘You know what, I’ll take that.’ That’s a pretty apt description.
“My whole life has been here doing this. So yeah you don’t get any more of a home boy than me. But I think at the same point, I wasn’t a homer. When I got into this business, I managed to not be a homer.”
The moments that stay with you
The Bulletin had four writers at the Spectrum the night the Flyers won their first Stanley Cup. Didinger, who was the paper’s Eagles beat guy, was No. 4.
“I was like the fourth sidebar guy covering it,” Didinger said. “I’m the deep, deep sidebar guy, so I got sent to the Bruins locker room. It is what it is. I got stuck with the losing locker room and had my grumpy quotes from Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.”
By the time he returned to write his story, word had begun to spread that the city would be honoring the champs the next day with a parade. Didinger’s editor asked him to check in on the rumors.
“OK. Good luck on a Sunday afternoon trying to find someone from city government to comment on stuff,” Didinger said. “But, I finally tracked down the city representative, a guy named Harry Bellinger. He said, ‘Yeah, yeah. We’re having a parade tomorrow,’ and I still remember him saying, ‘We don’t think it’s going to be much, but we’re preparing for 100,000 people but don’t even think it will be that much.’”
Each Flyers player paraded down Broad Street in a convertible with his significant other while his parents and siblings were in a bus with the press. Didinger sat next to Joe Watson, whose sons — Jimmy and Joe — were Flyers defensemen.
“He was a butcher from Smithers, British Columbia, with a population of maybe 350,” Didinger said. “Here he is on this bus, looking out at this sea of people, two million people, and I’ll always remember this. Joe Watson Sr. is looking out the window and up at these buildings and the confetti is falling everywhere and he said, ‘My God, I didn’t know there were this many people in the world.’ Moments like that, they just stay with you.”
Tell us your story
Macnow and Didinger became radio partners in 2001 after Macnow was given his choice of weekend shifts to work, browsed the lists of hosts, and picked Didinger.
The two knew each other only in passing before they teamed up — they sat next to each other once in an NFL press box during their newspaper days — but they quickly became more than just weekend radio partners.
“It clicked pretty early,” said Macnow, an Inquirer sportswriter before moving to WIP. “I had an instinct it would just because of knowing Ray from the extent I did and from listening to him, I just felt like he was never a performer. He was a real guy talking on the radio, and to me that was really attractive.”
Their first show was at a car dealership and they have since held remote shows everywhere from an Acme to the Super Bowl.
“Traveling with Ray is like traveling with Mick Jagger,” said Macnow, who will continue hosting on the weekends after Didinger’s final show on Sunday. “Ray has his groupies of all ages, gender, ethnic background, whatever. Ray is a freaking rock star and often my biggest job is to pull Ray away from people to get him to the show on time because Ray is too damn polite to say to someone, ‘Hey, I’m on the air in 30 seconds.’”
Their show found a way to connect with both the kind of guys who would have filled Ray’s Tavern and the casuals who were skimming the radio while driving to soccer practice or mowing the lawn. If any radio audience could be gripped by an hour-long interview, it would be theirs.
They started “Tell Us Your Story” with Phillies radio broadcaster Scott Franzke and the show became so popular among listeners that they kept doing them even when the games returned. Their interview with Ron Jaworski earlier this month was No. 108.
They spent all week researching their subjects, even the ones they knew well. For Didinger, it felt like old times.
“I felt like I was a newspaper man, again,” Didinger said. “To do the interview right, I went back and re-read a lot of the stuff I had written, a lot of stuff I had on file about them, just to see if there was something I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. Just come into the interview prepared to do a good interview. I prepared, Glen prepared, and we didn’t wing any of them. I think that’s one of the reasons it was really good.”
Every interview seemed to have something that caught the hosts by surprise. An innocuous question to Larry Andersen led the former Phillies pitcher to talk about how his father’s death as an airplane pilot shaped his life. Bobby Clarke, reserved when Didinger covered him during those Stanley Cup years, was an open book.
Like Macnow predicted, everyone had a story to tell. And the man interviewing them — the one who almost flunked out of college because of the greatest sports collapse in city history before launching a career that drove through championship parades — had a pretty good one, too.
“I always wanted to have that sense of gratitude of how thankful and grateful I am that everything went the way that it did for me,” Didinger said. “My father wasn’t someone who gave advice a lot, but the one thing he told me was, ‘In this world, you can make a living doing anything. But the people who are happy are the people who are doing something they love. So do that.’
“This was when I was going to college and thinking about studying law because I knew I wanted to do this, but I knew there was the chance that I would knock on the door and it would never open. So I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I can be a teacher or be a coach or do this.’
“My father said, ‘No, don’t do that. You know what you want to do. If that’s what’s going to make you happy, go do it.’ That sense of gratitude is very real for me. I’ve loved what I’ve done and I had the chance to do it for 53 years in the city that I love. It doesn’t get any better than that. It really doesn’t.”