This column is about Bill Pheiffer, and when I mention his name you either know exactly who I’m talking about or you have no idea. That’s because Pheiffer – who died on Saturday at the age of 90 – was one of the last of the local media giants who dominated Delaware for decades.
There was a time when most people in Delaware got their local sports news from a few newspapers and a couple of radio stations. And if you’re like me – old – then you know all about Bill Pheiffer. That’s because you grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s listening to Pheiffer’s resonant, no-nonsense voice coming from your radio as he covered everything under the sun, or at least that part of the sun that shined on Delaware. Maybe it was University of Delaware football or the Wilmington Blue Bombers or his updates from Phillies spring training or just the daily sports reports on WDEL, the station he called home for 30 years.
For me, it was mostly Salesianum School football. My father would usually take us to the Friday night games at Baynard Stadium (when and where all Sallies games should be played), but if the Sals were on the road or Dad was too tired to throw us into the station wagon and head down to 18th and Broom streets, we tuned into WDEL and listened to Pheiffer’s competent and comfortable broadcast. My father and I would sit in the living room with the radio on the mantel piece and I would lie back, close my eyes and let Bill Pheiffer take over my head.
Pheiffer was never flashy, but he was always professional. He was clear and concise and he knew football. And even though he was matter-of-fact when it came to calling the game, you still felt his emotion, especially if the Sals were driving for a late touchdown against a rival like Baltimore Poly. But he never let those emotions run away with him. He was, simply, the best.
And Bill Pheiffer wasn’t just the best broadcaster in the business — he was also the nicest guy in the business, and that’s a pretty good combination.
Over the years we’ve lost most of the giants who dominated that innocent age, when people got almost all of their information from just a few sources. In Delaware, that mostly meant people like Bob Kelley and Matt Zabitka and Izzy Katzman and George Frick and, of course, Bill Pheiffer. All of them are in the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame. And now there is only one left and he’s the biggest giant of all, former News Journal columnist Al Cartwright, who is in his late 90s.
We’ll never identify with today’s local media people like we did with those guys, who were such a big part of our lives, at least if you were into sports. Times have changed and sports staffs on newspapers and radio staffs have been cut drastically and most people rely on the internet now for their news and entertainment.
So, we mourn Bill Pheiffer, but we also mourn what he represented and that special low-tech world that is no more. Those giants weren’t here to pad their resumes so they could get jobs in the big city. They weren’t just passing through, like George Washington on his way to Philadelphia or New York. They were Delaware lifers who spent decades informing, entertaining and connecting with their audiences. They were either natives or came to Delaware at a young age, and they raised their families here and grew old here and now they’re almost all gone.