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May 26, 2022

Ray Didinger, the prince of the city, calls it quits after 53 years

The smoky place on Woodland Avenue near 65th Street in Southwest Philadelphia was his castle, and he was the little prince. The seven-year-old from the tiny apartment above the shoe store a block away would stride into Ray’s Tavern like he owned the joint. He would slide his way by everyone, until he found his spot. Then he would push up off the bar footrail and plop down, feet dangling from a stool in the corner, and sip soda. With an impish grin, he would absorb the stories from the grizzled patrons with starry eyes like a huge sponge.

Sitting in the corner of his grandfather’s bar is where young Raymond Reede Didinger first heard about the legends. It’s where his love and passion for Philadelphia sports was cultivated. A few decades later, his stories on the legends they spoke about in the bar and the players and teams he covered would be festooned to the tap room mirrors behind the bar.

On Sunday, the little prince who eventually would become the prince of the city will say goodbye.

Ray Didinger is 75 and still has the vitality of someone half his age. The award-winning former columnist for the Philadelphia Bulletin and Daily News, Pro Football Hall of Famer, Reds Bagnell Award winner and longtime WIP talk show host was a trustworthy, reliable conduit to Philadelphia sports fans for 53 years.

Sunday will be his last broadcast. Didinger has decided to retire from both WIP and NBC Sports Philadelphia, where he was one of the original hosts of the longtime go-to standard Eagles Postgame Live show.

Writing and reporting about sports has been a part of Didinger, almost like an appendage. Deciding to leave was like loping off a limb.

“That’s true, it’s why it was such a tough decision, because I still love what I do,” said Didinger, the author of 12 books, including his most recent, Finished Business: My Fifty Years of Headlines, Heroes and Heartaches. “I really do believe that it’s the right decision, but it doesn’t mean it was an easy decision. This has been my life for over half a century. To close the book now and put it back on the shelf was not easy, it really wasn’t. I just felt the time was right after 53 years and being 75 years old, I felt like it had gone its course. I recognize the fact that the business has changed tremendously.

Ray Didinger on Eagles Postgame Live.

“The games that we watch and talk about have changed tremendously. In some ways, I wasn’t sure whether I was keeping up with it. I could do it. If I had another year on my contract, I probably would have ridden that out. I just felt like being where I am in life, my oldest granddaughter being a senior in college, I felt like an awful lot of stuff has gone by that I haven’t really devoted the time to that as I probably should have. It was more family considerations than professional considerations. I thought about this for a very, very long time.

“I wasn’t pushed by my family one way or the other, and I wasn’t about to do this piecemeal, with doing a little here and a little there. If the time came to step away, I wanted to step away completely.”

Didinger wanted to make something known: WIP/Audacy Radio nor NBC Philadelphia forced him out. His contract is up this month with Audacy, and he began to feel the ache last football season when he wasn’t filled with the vigor that possessed him for over 50 years on autumn Sunday mornings.

“I would wake up, get showered and get dressed, and it wasn’t every week, but there were a few Sundays last year when I felt like I was going to work,” Didinger said. “I never felt like that before. All those other years, whether I was going to write or broadcast, or whatever I was doing, those Sunday mornings were always like Christmas morning to me. Whether the Eagles were 10-2 or 2-10, it always felt like I couldn’t wait to get there. There were a couple of times last year when I would roll out to bed, put my feet on the floor, and said, ‘Aw, I gotta go to work today.’ When you start feeling like that, something has changed.”

Didinger let his family know about his decision last Christmas.

These last few weeks on WIP have been a celebration of Didinger’s fabled career. Though they have come with a quivering lower lip. Walking away comes with an underlying gut punch. Ray can’t help it. His voice cracks with emotion over the adulation. It cracks with emotion when he contemplates the myriad good times he had. And it will no doubt crack on Sunday.

Sports was what connected him with his father, Raymond George Didinger, who was in the Eighth Air Force during World War II and his grandfather, Raymond Eugene, the proud owner of Ray’s Tavern, through many chilly Sundays at Franklin Field in Section EE.

Raymond Reede was a baby boomer born in September 1946 to a father who left a piece of himself in the skies over Europe. He had his own bartender in the tender bar of Raymond Eugene’s Ray’s Tavern.

“It’s where my love of sports started, sitting there, seven, eight, nine years old, literally this little kid sitting at the end of my grandfather’s bar in Southwest Philadelphia, listening to the men talk day after day,” Ray recalled. “I listened to these guys talk about last night’s Phillies game or last Sunday’s Eagles game. Even at that age, that’s where I learned that these weren’t just games. This was a real important part of people’s lives.

“It started with my grandfather, but you can work your way down the whole length of the bar, these were guys who defined themselves and defined their lives by the last Phillies or Eagles game. If the Phillies won last night, it was a good day. And if the Eagles lost last Sunday, it was a bad week. They didn’t define themselves by what they did 9-to-5 at Westinghouse or General Electric, they really defined themselves, good or bad, by what the Eagles or Phillies were doing. What that taught me was there were more than just games that these teams were playing. They were affecting people’s lives. It’s when I realized this is really important.”

Didinger leaves a vacuum for the many, many in the sports media and fervent Philadelphia fanbase who will miss him.

Everyone hates someone in this city. Whether it’s media, social media, fans, or teams and players.

No one hates Ray.

It’s a rare quality.

“What struck me about Ray when we first started working together is how much people respected him, of course, but how Ray handled that with dignity, and despite the fact that Ray is a respected and endearing figure in this town, it never went to his head,” said Glen Macnow, who has co-hosted WIP weekends with Didinger for 20 years and have done 2,500 shows together. “He’s modest, accommodating and extraordinarily polite, to the point where it sometimes drives me crazy (laughs), and for all he’s accomplished and all of the adoration he receives, he’s surprised that he’s even allowed to work in the field sometimes.

“It really is true someone has everyone who someone doesn’t like for whatever reason. Ray is somebody who nobody ever has a bad word about, from the fans in the stadium to the most powerful people in town. I attribute that to Ray’s expertise and unbiased opinion that commands respect. He has credibility beyond any journalist I’ve ever known. He accompanies that with a nature that’s fun and funny, he’s nice to people and he’s interesting. You put all of that together and you have a pretty extraordinary media character.”

Didinger had been speaking to Macnow for months about retiring. They had tried to keep a lid on the announcement. One of the things Macnow suggested to Didinger was staying on with WIP and pare his time down. But Macnow knew Didinger does not do things halfway. Didinger told Macnow in February about the move. Macnow knew the decision had been building for a while.

“I’m happy for Ray and he’s going to enjoy his free time, but for me personally, I’m really sad that I’m not going to be able to spend nearly as much time with one of my best friends, after hanging around with him constantly for the past 20 years,” Macnow said. “I’m sure we’ll get together for lunches, and talk on the phone, but I’m going to lose hanging around with one of my best friends. Ray doesn’t sound or look like he’s 75. What’s amazing is his mental retention. He’s very sharp. I’m nine years younger than him, and I might have trouble remembering some player’s name, Ray has a steel trap for a mind and will remember it.

“I think his upbringing was a great advantage for him. He hung around a sports bar, and sports is one of those things that you can talk to anyone about. When you’re a kid, you can hold your own talking to adults about sports. I think young Ray more than held his own talking to those guys at the bar. Ray was trained for this better than anybody. He’s certainly going to be missed my me, the station and thousands and thousands of listeners.

“We’re in a business where it’s easy to get a big head. I’m a schmo (laughs) who happens to have a very cool job, and because I have that cool job, people are very nice to me. I try not to let it get to my head; maybe it does sometimes. Ray, on the other hand, never realizes how much people like him and are touched by him. I travel with Ray and it’s like traveling with Mick Jagger, and he never realizes that. It’s one of the parts that make him a singular person.”

And someone who will be missed.

NBC Philadelphia sports host Michael Barkann, a local legend himself, goes back with Didinger for 35 years. Barkann was there when Didinger experienced a personal pinnacle moment, hugging his son David after the Eagles won Super Bowl LII in U.S. Bank Stadium on February 4, 2018, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“Ray has a good heart, and I honestly never heard Ray say a bad word about anybody,” Barkann said. “In the business that we are in, there are bad words whispered all of the time about everyone. The way Ray carries himself is so wonderful. WWRD, which is what I think about in tough moments — what would Ray do? He’s devoid of anger or temper. After Ray hugged David on the air, he was concerned. We were on the air, and we were running interviews, and Ray asked if we were taking a break anytime soon.

“I asked Ray if he needed to use the restroom. Ray said, ‘No, I’d like to hug my son.’ I turned to my right and there was David Didinger standing there in the doorway of our broadcast suite. We came back on the air, I waved David over. I did it for a few reasons, and I couldn’t stop the show, because I didn’t know when we would have a break. This was an opportunity to show how deep this meant to Ray. I thought I wouldn’t be surprised to see tears. There was pent-up emotion across the Delaware Valley over this moment, and I remember Ray saying to David through Ray’s tears as they hugged, ‘This is for pop,’ meaning Ray’s dad.

“It was a beautiful moment and I’m glad we were able to facilitate that for everyone to see. It showed Ray’s warmth and his decency, though he tries to keep it bottled up (voice cracking). See, I still get emotional thinking about that moment. I don’t know what the future holds for Eagles Postgame Live, because Ray is irreplaceable, but we do need someone to fill his role. I’ll miss trying to make Ray laugh—and he has a great laugh. We would have this little mantra that we would say to each other if the Eagles played poorly, ‘It’s a disgrace.’ Sometimes, right before we would go on the air, Ray would say under his breath, ‘It’s a disgrace, Mike, it’s a disgrace.’ I’ll miss that (laughs).”

In the summer of 2006, local radio icon Jody McDonald had an assignment: Get Ray Didinger. McDonald had just made the move from WIP to 950 AM. In August 2005, WPEN announced that it was transitioning to a sports talk format, which became effective on October 3, 2005. In 2007, the station started calling itself “Sports Radio 950” and in 2008 was renamed “950 ESPN Philadelphia,” which evolved into today’s 97.5 The Fanatic.

McDonald had known Didinger and was asked by Bob DeBlois, a former WIP employee and then 950 program director, to kick the Didinger tires and see if he was interested in jumping the WIP ship to join 950 prior to the Eagles’ 2006 season. McDonald and DeBlois had a mutual respect for Didinger. McDonald reached out to Didinger, and they spoke a few times. Shortly after, Didinger called McDonald back. He politely thanked McDonald for the offer, but he had to turn it down. He wouldn’t leave Glen Macnow.

“Being the class individual that Ray is, he wouldn’t leave Glen, and that’s who Ray is,” said McDonald, who does a national radio show and is back at WIP. “It’s not Ray Diddy. Everyone else would have jumped at the offer for more opportunity and more money. Not Ray. It’s what makes Ray different. Ray is the last of a special breed. Today, this is a word over used, ‘brand.’ Now individual media has brands, and they play themselves up as celebrities. If you asked Ray Didinger about his brand, he would probably look at you as if you had three heads.

“Ray does his job, he does it exceptionally well and he doesn’t look for any adoration. It’s why Ray gets it. He is the exception and not the rule. He goes about doing his job. Having done sports talk for over 30 years, I’ve learned you’re never going to please all the people all the time. You want to be on the right side of the 50 percent. If you’re at 60 percent, 70 percent, you’re doing really well. Ray’s at about 99 percent.”

Didinger admits he’ll miss the camaraderie of the press box. He’s going to miss the relationships and busting chops regularly with Macnow, Barkann, Seth Joyner and Barrett Brooks on the Eagles Postgame Live set. That was the fun part for him. He says he plans on being around. He’s not going to be one of those retired baseball writers who retreats to Clearwater, Florida. He’s still going to go to games and be able to cheer.

His more pressing goals, however, are learning the rules of field hockey by the fall, so he could watch his granddaughter Haley Didinger co-captain her senior year at Gwynedd Mercy and trying to beat his grandson at Madden.

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.