Al Meltzer, 89, a congenial and enthusiastic voice for most of Philadelphia’s teams and TV stations in a lengthy career that spanned monumental changes in both broadcasting and the sports he covered, died Tuesday.
A Syracuse native who stumbled into broadcasting while a student at St. Lawrence University, Mr. Meltzer at one time or another worked for all three of the city’s network affiliates (Channels 3, 6 and 10) as well as for Channel 17 and Comcast SportsNet. Details of his death, as well as services and survivors, weren’t immediately available.
Best-known as the sports anchor on NBC10 for 20 years, he at various times did play-by-play for the 76ers, Eagles, Phillies and Big 5 basketball. Blessed with a powerful voice that matched his 6-foot-4 stature, “Big Al” was a ubiquitous presence on the city’s sports scene from the mid-1960s into the 21st century.
He was on the ice at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium minutes after the Flyers won their second consecutive Stanley Cup in 1975. After the 1980 World Series, he was in the victorious Phillies locker room getting doused with champagne by then-Mayor Bill Green. He broadcast Wilt Chamberlain’s first NBA title and, 32 years later, conducted the final TV interview with the basketball legend.
“Lots of guys have come through this town,” Mr. Meltzer said in 2001, “some memorable, some not so memorable. And over the long haul, I sit back and say to myself, `Hey, I’ve done pretty good.’ ”
Born in Syracuse in 1928, the lanky Mr. Meltzer was an all-city high school basketball star in his hometown. A chemistry major at St. Lawrence, he discovered broadcasting by chance when a roommate who worked at the campus radio station asked him to fill in one weekend night.
“I knew nothing at all about radio,” he said. “There were all these buttons, and you had a lot of time to fill. But after a while, I came to realize that this was a pretty nice job.”
Still, after graduating in 1950, he planned to become a dentist. That changed when a new TV station in Syracuse hired him — for $33 a week — to provide a brief sports roundup during its 11 p.m. news broadcast.
“I was hooked,” he said. “I said, `No, no, no, I’m not going to be a dentist.’ ”
He went on to work in Buffalo and in December 1964 came to Channel 6 in Philadelphia, where he was not immediately impressed by the city’s sports atmosphere.
“Things were dead here,” he recalled. “Everyone was walking around with a long face. I’m thinking, `What have I gotten myself into?’ And then someone told me that the Phillies had blown the pennant that fall and that the city was still experiencing a hangover.”
Things never worked out at Channel 6, but in 1966, Mr. Meltzer was lured to a new UHF station, Channel 17, that had just agreed to televise Big 5 doubleheaders from the Palestra. It was, for him, a fortuitous move.
He would be at the Palestra, in the crow’s-nest broadcast booth, during the Big 5’s glory days. Doing as many as three doubleheaders a week with such partners as Charlie Swift, Bob Vetrone and Harry Kalas, Mr. Meltzer quickly developed a following and a reputation.
Never one to rely on statistics or formula, he called the games with a fan’s passion and delight and knew when to keep quiet or raise his powerful tenor voice
“There wasn’t anything bigger or better in this city than those Palestra doubleheaders,” Mr. Meltzer once said. “I came here not knowing a thing about the Big 5. I really hit the jackpot with that.”
A rare low point during that time came in the aftermath of a St. Joseph’s-Providence game when he was supposed to interview Friars star Marvin “Bad News” Barnes.
“Marvin never showed up,” Mr. Meltzer remembered. “I ended up interviewing his sister, and it was some of the worst TV ever, believe me.”
He often did double- and sometimes triple-duty then, also serving as the TV voice for the 76ers from 1965 until 1972. In 1966-67, he did play-by-play as the Sixers went a then-record 68-13 and broke the Boston Celtics’ stranglehold on the NBA championship.
“That team was just phenomenal,” he said. “It was a thrill to call their games.”
Mr. Meltzer later became the sports director at KYW-TV, Channel 3, where he worked as part of the groundbreaking “Eyewitness News” team that also included Mort Crim, Vince Leonard, Jack Jones and Jessica Savitch. But in 1977, he left to work in Chicago.
“Biggest mistake I ever made,” he said. “That was the first and only time I ever chased a buck, and I’m sorry I did. … You’ve got to be a real homer in Chicago, and that never appealed to me.”
He returned to Philadelphia a year later and settled into a long and fruitful career at NBC10, his lean frame and silver hair as familiar in those days as any Philadelphia athlete. During that period, he briefly commuted to Buffalo to broadcast Bills radio games. Mr. Meltzer retired in 1998 and later performed various duties in the early days of Comcast SportsNet.
In 2011, he co-authored a biography with Bob Lyons, Big Al: 50 Years of Adventures in Sports Broadcasting. He was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, the Philadelphia Jewish Hall of Fame, and the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Hall of Fame.