I owe my longtime radio career to the Philadelphia Bulldogs. If the Continental Pro Football League hadn’t placed a franchise in Philly in 1965 (home games at Temple Stadium), chances are I wouldn’t be on the air today.
Let me explain.
I never worked for the Bulldogs, but Hatboro’s Tom Russo did.
Tom took the job as PR director of the new club and to do so quit his job as play-by-play sportscaster on WIFI Radio (92.5 FM). Buzz Allen, the impresario of such broadcasts, needed a play-by-play guy in a hurry (Russo quit on a Monday; the WIFI season began that coming Friday night), and he and I ran in to each other at a Hatboro Rotary Club meeting. I was managing editor of the Hatboro paper and was the guest speaker that day.
At the close of the meeting, Allen told me I had “a good voice” and asked if I ever did radio. I was honest I told him that I hadn’t but always wanted to. I also mentioned that I had turned down a job as all-night deejay at WSBA in York while in college.
That was enough for Buzz, and that weekend I did play-by-play on three games — and the for the next dozen years. A kid named Merrill Reese once worked with me as my “color” man.
The Bulldogs were just one in a number of would-be pro teams competing for the hearts (and money) of local fans. The first NFL franchise in town, the Frankford Yellow Jackets, played in the ’30s and then folded.
The Eagles were next, but they were not the Yellow Jackets with a new name. During World War II, the Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers actually merged and, for a season, played as the Steagles.
One cannot forget the USFL Philadelphia Stars (I enjoyed them, saw many games) and the Pottstown Firebirds (actually they were the transplanted Bulldogs in second-hand Eagles uniforms).
It needs to be noted that until the late ’50s/early ’60s, the NFL wasn’t all that big a deal. Fans loved the college game, and as a kid, we went to Franklin Field to see my dad’s alma mater, Penn, take on the best teams in the nation. Crowds of 65,000 or more were the norm. Most weekends, Temple and Villanova football also outdrew the NFL. I’m told the NFL played on Sundays because they knew that they couldn’t outdraw the collegians on Saturdays and the high schools on Fridays.
When the Ivy League de-emphasized football in the early ’50s, the door was opened locally for the NFL. The Eagles moved from Connie Mack Stadium to Franklin Field and then, for good measure, won the NFL title there in 1960. National TV coverage of the pros helped move the sport to the front of the line as well.
The first NHL team in Philadelphia, The Quakers, were a disaster and lasted just one year — and it was a long time before the NHL gave the city another chance and expanded here with the Flyers.
In between the Quakers and the Flyers, a team called the Philadelphia Ramblers played rock 'em, sock 'em minor league hockey at the Arena. The World Hockey League made a failed run at Philadelphia, but minor league hockey did OK here for years — first with the Firebirds, later with the Phantoms.
The first soccer game I ever saw in my life was a pro game featuring the upstart Philadelphia Spartans. The game was held at Temple Stadium, and I was the play-by-play guy. Allen found an ex-soccer player to do “color” with me. Allen (and WIFI) would broadcast anything he could sell sponsorships for. So there I was in a press box calling a game I didn’t understand — never mind that I didn’t like it either. The Spartans went away, others followed and, today, we have the Union.
During my WIFI career, I also did play-by-play on swim meets, track meets and even a high school wrestling match. We also did Drexel University football and even handled play-by-play for an upstate New York college (Alfred University) that had a football game in town and didn’t want to send their own announcers. Over the 12 years I did sports on that station and, later, WIBF in Jenkintown, I estimated that I called over 1,000 athletic contests on the air. I even broadcast two indoor football games from Atlantic City’s Convention Hall.
Philadelphia’s first pro basketball team was the SPHAS (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association). They morphed into the Philadelphia Warriors when Eddie Gottlieb realized that, after college, there were some really good players looking for work and there were people who would pay to see them play. Of course, Gottlieb eventually sold the Warriors out from under his fan base (to San Francisco).
The town had to make do for a season with something called The Tuck Tapers that moved here from Pittsburgh in a rival league, and later, the city’s attention turned to the minor league Camden Bullets starring Paul Arizin. And, yes, we broadcast some Bullets games from a quite dumpy convention center in Camden.
To bring pro hoops back to Philly, the locals kidnapped the NBA’s Syracuse Nationals (Dolph Schayes and all) and renamed them the Sixers.
Next time, just as the season is underway, we’ll consider the most stable sport in Philadelphia history: baseball. There were teams here in the mid-1860s, and the Phillies arrived, for keeps, in 1883. We’ll also review a couple of recent books about the Phillies along the way.