“I knew, or at least I believed, that this is probably the last thing I’m ever going to write,” Ray Didinger told me over Zoom as we discussed his memoir, Finished Business: My Fifty Years of Headlines, Heroes, and Heartaches. The longtime Philly sports scribe and Eagles analyst may not own a cell phone, but he didn’t mind communicating with me through a virtual medium that has exploded in popularity during the pandemic.
Didinger looked relaxed and at peace as he’s taken the first steps in his new post-professional world. Behind him on a shelf were arrayed a row of Emmy Awards, undoubtedly won for his work on various NFL Films projects, as well as numerous photos and paraphernalia from a life devoted to covering sports. I spoke with Didinger a little more than a month after he announced his retirement. He mentioned that his schedule was still quite packed. In addition to five book signings, a couple of charity events, and multiple podcast interviews, he recently threw out the first pitch at a Phillies game.
Not too shabby for a Philly kid from Woodland Avenue who grew up attending Phillies games at Connie Mack Stadium.
At the time he wrote Finished Business, published in May of last year, Didinger was still employed with NBC Sports Philadelphia and WIP, where he co-hosted a popular weekend show with the inimitable Glen Macnow. Both Macnow and Didinger are so popular with the Crossing Broad community that they found themselves going head-to-head in the finals of the April Madness sports talk radio bracket.
Didinger has left the field at the top of his game. Before he parted ways with the Philly sports scene — as a media member, anyway — he compiled a compelling memoir documenting his memories and experiences. The project took him around nine months to complete.
“I wanted to take my time with it,” Didinger said. “I wanted to make sure I said what I wanted to say.”
The result of his efforts was a 326-page book that even a slow reader like me finished in a few days. Didinger writes in an accessible style that locks you into a story and makes you want to read to the end. It’s easy to forget for those of us who think of him as a TV and radio talker, but for roughly the first three decades of his career Didinger established himself as one of the premier sports writers in the city, starting at the Bulletin before shifting to the Daily News.
The talent shines through on every page. It’s easy to see why the Bulletin entrusted Didinger with the Eagles beat when he was just 23 and had only two years of professional journalism experience. He has two qualities every writer needs: he knows how to tell a story, and he knows his audience.
“I had an advantage by growing up in Philadelphia,” Didinger acknowledges in the book.
For Didinger, Philly sports fandom was as much of a birthright as his name, which was passed down to him from his father and his grandfather. Young Ray spent his days going with his parents to Phillies, Eagles, and Warriors games. He was a big-time hockey fan, too. Coming of age in the period before the Flyers were born, Ray settled for watching the Ramblers, a minor-league outfit that played in the city.
Summers were devoted to watching Eagles training camp with his parents. “We checked into the Cocoa Inn,” Didinger writes, “and spent two weeks watching the team practice. Our neighbors all went to the Jersey Shore. I felt sorry for them. Who wants to sit on the beach when you can watch the Eagles practice?”
Didinger carried Tommy McDonald’s helmet to the practice field during those summer days in Hershey. He was in the stands at Franklin Field when the Eagles won the NFL Championship in 1960. He lived and died with the 1964 Phillies, whose epic collapse drove Didinger into a depression.
He understood us because he was one of us. He is one of us.
It certainly explains why Didinger, on the few occasions when he has lost his temper, has done so in defense of the Philly fans. There hasn’t been anyone who has beaten back the lazy narratives about snowballs and Santa Claus as convincingly as R. Diddy.
😡 Ray Didinger got juiced up on our Philly vs. Boston special defending the honor of Eagles fans to NBC Sports Boston's Mike Felger.
Be sure to join us after the game for Eagles Postgame Live because you’ll wanna see Ray’s reaction to the game. pic.twitter.com/wQLpnsn6LD
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) February 4, 2018
“If Philadelphia was really the ugly, hateful place that critics would tell you that it was, then why would so many athletes, when their careers are over, choose to live here?” Didinger rhetorically asked me during our conversation.
Finished Business unfolds as a series of stories, with each chapter loosely built around a specific topic. There are plenty of tales from the Eagles beat, including run-ins with Dick Vermeil and Leonard Tose, as well as accounts of the exploits of Wilbert Montgomery and Harold Carmichael. Didinger documents the challenges of covering the Mike Schmidt-era Phillies, who seemed to be at war with the media covering them, and the joys of watching the Broad Street Bullies dominate the NHL.
He also has a knack for getting at the humanity of the subjects he covers, whether it’s Bobby Clarke struggling to acclimate to Philadelphia after a life spent on the Canadian prairie or Sergeant Slaughter handling the heat he generates as a heel on the professional wrestling circuit.
“I never lost sight of the fact of how hard it was to do what they did,” Didinger explained to me. “I never got personal in my criticisms. I never belittled them. I never made fun. I never took cheap shots — tried not to, at least.”
That didn’t mean there weren’t tensions and conflicts. Among the most challenging to engage were the aforementioned Phillies teams, featuring a number of prickly personalities that Didinger alternately describes as aloof and confrontational.
“There is a big difference between being allowed in a room, which we were” Didinger notes in his memoir, “and being welcome in that room, which we certainly were not.”
He mentions an altercation with Larry Bowa in the clubhouse after coming to the defense of another reporter who wrote something that Bowa didn’t appreciate. Even in that instance, Didinger was able to develop a nuanced understanding of the mercurial shortstop.
“His competitive fire got him to the big leagues, but the flip side was that the same fire made him hard to live with,” Didinger opines in Finished Business.
The book is filled with more fascinating anecdotes, including a memorable interview with Muhammad Ali in which Didinger bravely tells The Champ that he rooted for Joe Frazier during their first fight at the Garden.
I also liked Didinger’s chapter on the Miracle on Ice team and his stories about covering their successors in the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo. That 1984 U.S. hockey squad labored under the shadow of their 1980 counterparts and learned better than most athletes the fickle nature of the American attention span. It’s a delicate dance, this business of capturing the national imagination, and most athletes don’t pull it off, as Didinger highlights through the Olympic journey of Carl Lewis.
As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think that Didinger, for all his talent as a writer, was also incredibly lucky. Some of his best scoops, including an exclusive with Flyers owner Ed Snider after the 1980 Stanley Cup Final during which Snider blasted the officiating, were a product of good fortune. Didinger was late getting to the dressing room after the game, got lost in the crowd as he made his way down from the press box, opened a random door, walked down the steps, and found Snider in full fury.
Right place, right time.
You could make the same case that Didinger entered the print journalism world at just the right time as well. He certainly does.
“I feel lucky a thousand different ways in terms of my career, but one of the things that I do feel real strongly about, I really do feel like I kind of, in surfing terms, I kind of caught the last really great wave,” Didinger asserted to me. He mentioned that he was fortunate to work with legendary colleagues at a time when his industry had a monopoly on sports information. Over time, that market space slowly eroded, first with the advent of TV networks like ESPN and local all-sports radio stations like WIP, and then with the democratization of the media that the Internet Era has created.
There are lots of voices now, and it’s very easy to get lost in the cacophony. But I think Didinger’s book offers a valuable way forward for those of us in the writing business.
No matter what the media landscape looks like, there will be an audience for a good story well told. If you’re in the mood for a number of them, you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of Finished Business and surveying the last fifty years of the sports world through the eyes of Ray Didinger.
You’ll enjoy the book and learn a lesson or two if you’re an aspiring or recovering reporter. I certainly did.