“When I was a kid, I opened the daily newspaper, turned to the sports page, and read the columns by Sandy Grady, Larry Merchant, and Stan Hochman,” writes Ray Didinger in his new memoir on covering Philadelphia sports. “When we went to Eagles training camp, I saw the Bulletin’s Hugh Brown watching practice and taking notes. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Didinger would succeed both Brown and Grady at the Bulletin, becoming the Eagles beat reporter in 1970, at just 23; at 31, he became the youngest sports columnist in the nation. He would move to the Daily News in 1980. Though most closely identified with football, Didinger has covered the Olympics and most major sports, interviewing luminaries such as Hank Aaron, Julius Erving, Jack Nicklaus, and Muhammad Ali. He has been a beat reporter, columnist, broadcast commentator, analyst, film writer and producer, and in 2018 a playwright, bringing to the stage Tommy and Me, about his friendship with Eagles halfback Tommy McDonald.
Tell your statistics to shut up
The early 1970s were not the easiest time in Philadelphia sports. The Sixers won nine games in 1972-73. The 1972 Phillies won 59 games, 27 of those due to the strong pitching of Steve Carlton. The Flyers were still new and ice hockey still foreign to the city, and Didinger writes that the Eagles in that period were “pitiful.”
Growing up in Delaware County, immersed in a family of sports fans, Didinger took disappointment in stride. He spent hours listening to discussions about teams, players, and strategies in his grandfather Ray’s bar on Woodland Avenue. His parents, Marie and Ray, typically vacationed at Eagles training camp, and were season ticket holders at a time when seats for the whole season cost just $18.
Didinger learned to read by paging through game programs, becoming so proficient at memorizing player names and jersey numbers that Ray’s Tavern patrons bet on him. “I was the only six-year-old in America who could spell Alex Wojciechowicz,” he writes.
The stories behind the stats
A history of athletic struggle forces writers to look beyond win-loss totals for material. It’s a good situation for a skilled observer who has a way with a story, as Didinger does. “Scores and statistics fade over time, but the people stay with you,” he says. Finished Business is full of small, telling incidents captured like snapshots in an old album that you had forgotten, but are glad that someone noticed and saved.
Didinger compares the Eagles locker room to Mark Twain’s Mississippi River: “a bottomless well of material,” and describes an incident from his first year covering the team. The Eagles in 1970 took a chance on John Carlos, one of the Olympic sprinters vilified for protesting racial injustice on the medal stand at the 1968 games in Mexico City.
On the first day of practice, shunned by his teammates, Carlos stood at his locker in confusion as Didinger and another reporter, Bill Shefski, were about to leave.
“Most of the players were on the field, but Carlos was standing there in a T-shirt and socks. ‘You got a problem?’ Shefski asked. ‘I don’t know how to put this stuff on,’ he said,” Didinger writes. “Helping players dress for practice wasn’t part of our job description, but we felt sorry for the guy.” So the two writers and Ed Hayes, the only player who’d stopped, dressed the bronze medalist-turned-receiver.
Behind-the-scenes details like these, and descriptions of journalism before instantaneous and incessant communication, are especially interesting to other writers, but will enthrall any reader because they are so human.
Though steeped in the city’s on-field frustration—the 1964 Phillies collapse ruined his first semester at Temple University—Didinger’s career has also given him a front-row seat at its greatest triumphs.
Helping cover the Flyers in 1973, he saw them win the first of two Stanley Cups and was in the press bus for the victory parade that drew an ocean of two million newly minted hockey fans into the streets. When the Phillies won their first World Series in 1980, instead of rushing to the clubhouse celebration, Didinger paused in Veterans Stadium’s deserted press box: “I wanted to take in the whole scene. I wanted to hear it and feel it the way the other fans did. I wanted to wrap myself in the moment. Most of all, I wanted to share that feeling with my grandfather. On the final out, he turned and looked up to the press box. I looked down. Our eyes met. He smiled up at me and flashed the thumbs-up sign.”
That was the feeling Didinger experienced in 2017, hugging his son on live TV after the Eagles won Super Bowl LII. If the team won, David Didinger, a cameraman covering the game for NFL Films, had promised to find his father, analyzing the game for NBC Sports. It was the same feeling Didinger had had in 1998, presenting his childhood hero Tommy McDonald at the Hall of Fame, 40 years after he’d carried the halfback’s helmet as a 12-year-old.
It’s a feeling shared among generations of sports fans at unforgettable moments they wait a lifetime to witness, one strong enough to connect past and present, one that binds them to teams through thick and thin, one that keeps hopes with long odds alive.
The Free Library of Philadelphia will present an author event with Ray Didinger in conversation with Michael Smerconish On Wednesday, May 26, at 7:30pm. Register here.
Image description: The cover of Finished Business by Ray Didinger. In the cover photo, author stands in a packed nighttime stadium, smiling and giving a thumbs-up.
What, When, Where
Finished Business: My Fifty Years of Headlines, Heroes, and Heartaches. By Ray Didinger. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2021. 360 pages, hardcover; $30. Get it from Temple University Press.
The Free Library of Philadelphia will present a free livestreamed conversation between Ray Didinger and Michael Smerconish on May 26, 2021, at 7:30pm. Register online.