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Howard Eskin's Sportin' Life
No, he’s not mean or arrogant in person.
Instead, Howard Eskin is cordial and gracious, but after 30-plus years of going to games, talking to coaches and working sources, he’s got his opinions and he’s not afraid to share them.
While some love it and some can’t stand it, Eskin is among sports journalism elite in Philadelphia. His brash, combative style with callers made him a hit on WIP sports radio for 25 years — even though at times the debates he engaged in must have had listeners wondering if Eskin travels with a bodyguard. (He doesn’t.)
“To this day, people come up to me and say, ‘You hung up on me.’ And it’s a badge of honor to them,” said Eskin, who gave up the afternoon radio gig in 2011 and now serves as sportscaster for Fox 29.
“If I hung up on someone on the radio, they’ll tell people about it for the next 15 to 20 years.”
And if someone he deemed a “genius” or “nitwit” spots him around town, they hardly go after him with the vigor they would when calling into his show. “They walk up to me like I’m their buddy,” said Eskin, clad in an impeccably tailored grey suit, striped shirt, purple tie and a few silver bracelets. “I don’t know what it is. I’m the one who’s been tough on the air but they feel so comfortable. It’s like they know me.”
Say what you will about his abrasive style (he prefers to call it “opinionated”), nobody can question Eskin’s work ethic. He’s a constant figure at news conferences and games, and still does WIP radio on his days off from Fox. Always working sources. Always asking questions. Always staying in the spotlight.
In his three-plus decades in the business, he’s “broken more stories than anyone else in this market,” he said.
Perhaps the most famous story Eskin broke was in 1982 when he found out Philadelphia Eagles owner Leonard Tose was broke and looking to move the team out of town. Of course in this football-crazed town, the news led to borderline bedlam. Although reprimanded by his boss at the time, it turned out that Eskin was right, and the outpouring of public support may have just kept the team in Philly.
Another of his news-breaking accomplishments changed baseball history in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. Before the 1982 season, he broke the story that the Phillies were trading shortstop Larry Bowa to the Chicago Cubs for Ivan DeJesus. Cubs fans rebelled and the deal was squashed. It was re-worked a couple of weeks later and the Phillies were forced to throw in a young second baseman — none other than future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg.
“If I hadn’t made that call to check out what was going on, Ryne Sandberg never would have been a Chicago Cub,” said Eskin. Phillies general manager Paul Owens “was so mad at me.”
So how does he keep sources cool after he’s just broken news that hurts their team? Or just blasted them on the air for poor play? “People know I have to do my job. Sometimes I will hold a story and wait with a promise that” I get the scoop.
Some may say that his combative style ultimately lost him his afternoon time slot on WIP, but Eskin said it was his decision and that it was simply time for a change. “In the end, I was still successful,” he said. “It was after 25 years on the radio. I’d done more sports talk shows than anyone in the country, a trade magazine told me that.”
When he got the chance to work at Fox 29 — and be his normal opinionated self in the process — he jumped at the opportunity. At Fox, “they want the edge. It creates emotion,” he said.
Although he’s covered Philadelphia sports for more than 30 years, Eskin still doesn’t get sick of it. In the end, he’s a fan like the rest of us. That said, his interests are widespread, and he wouldn’t mind delving into other topics from time to time.
The failure of the Senate to pass the background check gun law “is a real serious issue in our country. Would I like to talk about it? Yes,” said Eskin. He also used his radio show to campaign for the ban of smoking in bars and restaurants — and the law was enacted in 2007. “That’s a life issue. Sports is fun and part of people’s lives but that is a simple health issue and I felt passionate about it so I talked about it on the radio.”
A common criticism of Eskin — and almost all sports writers — is that he can’t have a deep understanding of sports because he didn’t play in the pros. To that, Eskin retorts that Ned Colletti, the current general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was a sports writer in Philadelphia who covered hockey in the early 1980s. “You don’t have to play to understand the game. I understand it better because growing up I played everything except hockey,” said Eskin. “I’m always learning and talking to people and talking to coaches to get an understanding.”
And he’s used that knowledge base to formulate those heartfelt opinions. When he blasted former Phillies outfielder Bobby Abreu for his lack of production in the 8th and 9th innings of games, he did so because coaches and managers around the league told him that Abreu didn’t want to rise to those pressure-filled occasions.
Eskin’s also convinced that he’ll ultimately be proven right about the ineffectiveness of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel —even after Manuel won back-to-back National League pennants and a World Series title. “I will be right about Charlie Manuel in the end. In 2008, he had five players playing for contracts. Charlie is a nice guy but this team has gone down steadily ever since. Now I hear people complaining about him all the time — about the things that I’ve talked about. He doesn’t play the kind of baseball they need to play.”
Another criticism of Eskin is that he purposely stood next to Andy Reid on the sideline during Eagles games so he — and his puffy fur coat — would get on TV during the games. Eskin vehemently denies that it was self-serving. In fact, he said it was good sideline reporting. “I stood near him because I was sideline reporter for WIP. I wanted to hear what he said to players. I wanted to hear what he said to officials so I could relay it on the air. That’s what sideline reporters are for,” he said. “If you look at network people, their sideline reports are usually something they had before the game. That’s a waste of time. In the pre-game show I want to hear how the guy grew up, but during the game, I want some informational stuff and that’s what I’m hanging around down there for.”
Over the years, he’s also watched the ever-evolving Philly fan, which has undoubtedly grown into a more rabid, sports-crazed beast than ever before. Eskin attributes it to the heightened coverage of sports with more websites and blogs, and increased TV coverage. “We’re absolutely deeper” than in years past “because there’s more media now. Every little thing is emphasized,” he said.
During “mini-camp at Eagles there must have been 30 or 40” news outlets “there to cover a mini-camp. A mini-camp!”
“It’s a rabid city. It’s a fanatic fan base.”
Another change he’s seen over the years has been the reluctance of players and coaches to talk candidly. “The world is different. I covered sports when the players would talk about other things. That doesn’t happen in today’s world because everything is so business-like,” he said.
Eskin is part of a long line of Jewish sportscasters and media figures in Philadelphia, including Eagles play-by-play announcer Merril Reese; Daily News writer Stan Hochman; 76ers announcer Marc Zumoff; and Friday Night Lights writer Buzz Bissinger. Eskin went to Hebrew School, had a Bar Mitzvah, graduated from Northeast High School and raised his five children Jewish. “I respect it and I understand it,” he said. “My religion is very important to me.”
Of all the sports media figures in Philadelphia history, Eskin said that nobody ranks higher than longtime Phillies announcer Harry Kalas. “Harry befriended me when he came to Philadelphia in the ’70s,” he said. “Harry was such a fixture. … When the radio is on, people are just right there with you and that was Harry Kalas” and on-air sidekick Richie Ashburn.
Whether on radio or TV, Eskin never waivers — making sure to be himself and not succumb to on-air gimmicks. What he considers most important in what he does “is inform and entertain. And I think I’ve been doing that for all those years.”
Jared Shelly is a writer and web editor with an affinity for the sports world. This article first appeared in "The Good Life" special section.