Sports Broadcaster Al Meltzer Dies at 89

Al Meltzer | Photo provided

Al Meltzer, the legendary broadcaster whose voice was synonymous with Philadelphia sports for decades, died June 12. He was 89.

Known as “Big Al,” Meltzer stood 6 feet, 4 inches tall, and his presence in Philadelphia matched his stature. He most memorably served as the sports anchor on NBC10 for 20 years, but he also did play-by-play for the 76ers, Eagles, Phillies and Big 5 basketball.

“He had a booming voice,” said Vai Sikahema, Meltzer’s former colleague at NBC10. “When he walked into a room, you knew Al Meltzer was in the room.”

A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Meltzer initially planned on becoming a dentist before happening on sports broadcasting as an undergraduate at St. Lawrence University. It proved a fortuitous career shift  for Meltzer, sports fans and people with toothaches.

“I would have been a terrible dentist!” Meltzer told the Exponent in November 2011.  

Meltzer’s broadcasting career was documented in his 2011 biography, Big Al: 50 Years of Adventures in Sports Broadcasting, which he co-authored with Bob Lyons.

One particularly amusing anecdote featured Meltzer finding himself alone in a room with the Stanley Cup in 1975, after the Flyers had won the championship.

“I was somehow left alone in the room with the Stanley Cup. Just me and the Cup. And it still had some champagne in it. I thought, ‘Why not?’ … So I took a sip out of the Stanley Cup,” he said.

It was hardly his only brush with the big stage. He broadcast Wilt Chamberlain’s first NBA title in 1967, when the 76ers defeated the San Francisco Warriors, and years later conducted the final on-camera interview with Chamberlain before the legend’s death in 1999.

Lou Scheinfeld, former president of the 76ers, said that when Chamberlain came to the team office for an interview with Meltzer, the former center insisted that he was shorter than his billed height of 7 feet 3 inches. Some critics said Chamberlain’s dominance was mostly a product of his height.

So Meltzer obtained a tape measure. Chamberlain stretched out on the boardroom table. He was 7 feet tall.

“That was a fun day,” Scheinfeld said. “Al had a sense of humor. He didn’t take himself too seriously.”

It was his adept people skills and disarming nature that endeared him to the athletes he covered, Sikahema said. Before Sikahema joined Meltzer at NBC10, he enjoyed an eight-year NFL career that ended with the Eagles in 1993 and got a front row seat observing Meltzer work a locker room.

“He was not just one of the guys who sat at a TV station and waited for the press release or for someone to send him information,” Scheinfeld said “He went out to every practice, every event, every game. He was a working reporter.

“We didn’t call other broadcasters ‘reporters.’ But he was a reporter.”

Some days Meltzer was more smooth than others. Sikahema recalled Meltzer approaching a player for a live shot after a game, slapping him on the back, booming: “Hey, welcome!” The player crumbled to the ground.

Perhaps Meltzer had forgotten the player had just been diagnosed with a separated shoulder. The press corps erupted in laughter.

When Sikahema joined the NBC10 staff as a colleague of Meltzer’s in the sports department, he was struck by Meltzer’s humility and generosity. The newsroom was invited when Meltzer’s daughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah.

“Al’s got family and tons of friends, and his Jewish synagogue. They all could have celebrated, but no — he reached out to Christians like me in the work community to celebrate with him,” Sikahema said. “I felt thrilled and honored he invited me and my family to come be a part of it.”

Meltzer retired from full-time broadcasting in 1998 but stayed involved in the local sports community and did some work for the early Comcast SportsNet.

His legacy was honored with inductions into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Stephen Frishberg, chairman of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, said Meltzer was so popular because he resonated with listeners without talking down to them.

“He had a powerful voice. He seemed bigger than life,” Frishberg said. “At the same time, he connected to the everyday sports person.”; 215-832-0737


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