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Swinging for the fences: The life and legend of Dick Crippen

Bill DeYoung

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Despite a resume longer than the tri-oval track at Daytona after 200 laps, the dean of Tampa Bay sportscasting swears his career was a combination of luck, timing and a willingness to try new things. “I always loved sports,” Dick Crippen says. “I played some sports but I never intended to go into it. But once I got into it, I just got immersed. And I couldn’t have been happier.”

Crippen, 80, retired last week as Senior Advisor to the Tampa Bay Rays. A combination of community relations, PR, consulting, charity work, voiceover recording and lots of rubber-chicken dinners, it’s essentially the same job he signed on for in 1999, he says, only back then his title was Executive Director of Community Development (the “senior” designation, he likes to joke, is merely a reference to his grey hair).

Crippen holds the record for the most contiguous years on local television in West Central Florida. From 1966 to 1981, he was sports director for WLCY-TV, through its transition into present-day WTSP. He jumped ship for WFLA, where he was sports director, and one of the area’s most recognized and trusted TV personalities, until the Rays lured him away in 1999. He was inducted into the Sports Club of Tampa Bay’s Hall of Fame, and the University of Tampa Athletics Hall of Fame.

He was named Florida Sportscaster of the Year four times by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Assocition.

Penny, his wife of 54 years, first broached the subject of scaling things back. “She said good gravy, you’ve done over 50 years in broadcasting, and 21 with the Rays. Don’t you think it’s about time?” Crippen chuckles.

“I’m retiring, but I’ll stay with my charity work, the boards I’m on, and maybe some consulting will come along, I don’t know.”

The longtime resident of St. Petersburg has the perfect sports broadcasting voice – quick, clear, pointed, a little snarky and always, always in command of whatever subject he happens to be talking about.

“I had the opportunity when I was in television, both at WLCY and WFLA, to go to every Top Ten market in the country,” Crippen recalls. “But even though the money was absolutely fantastic, and the perks and all that, it was about the lifestyle. Because of the lifestyle, we decided to stay here. We had two kids, and we just said ‘We don’t want to raise the kids in the city.’”

Dick Crippen grew up in Tenafly, N.J. just across the Hudson River from the biggest city of them all, New York. At Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, he studied psychology, then advertising – one of his first jobs was operating the film projectors in the “commercial review” room at J. Walter Thompson in Manhattan.

A part-time saxophone player, he launched a jazz program on WJHU, his college’s closed-circuit campus radio station.

But it was while working as a page at NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters that Crippen’s interest in broadcasting began in earnest. In the mornings, his job was to seat audiences for The Price is Right; in the early evening, he worked Jack Paar’s Tonight Show.

During the hours in between, he hung around the national and local radio floors, ingratiating himself and watching how things were done.

In 1960, Crippen transferred to the University of Tampa. “I got off the plane on a beautiful day and wondered, having left snowy midtown Manhattan, where has this been all of my life?” he recalls. “I have never looked back and never left.”

WFLA weatherman, 1964

With all his “experience” in the Big Apple, he was made program director of WTUN, the campus station. This led to various on-air shifts at WDAE (“The Towering Sound Around the Bay”), then to WFLA-TV as a booth announcer, reciting the call letters at the top of the hour. “It was,” Crippen says, “ideal for a guy going to college.” In time, he was offered an on-camera gig, as a fill-in weekend weatherman.

His superlative work doing the Saturday-night track announcements at Sunshine Speedway led to announcing the boat races at Lake Maggiore, which boasted the world’s fastest course for inboard hydroplanes. He also freelanced whatever miniscule radio jobs came his way. “At this point, I’m adding anything I can to my resume,” he says. “Back then, it was whatever you could do to make it happen.”

Television was well past its infancy in the early 1960s, but the Tampa-St. Petersburg market had a lot of catching up to do. There were two VHF stations – WTVT, the local CBS affiliate, on Channel 13 and the NBC-affiliated WFLA, on Channel 8. On the harder-to-tune-in UHF band was city-owned WSUN, broadcasting from the Million Dollar Pier. WSUN carried most of the national programming from ABC, the red-headed stepchild of TV networks.

Everything changed in 1965 when the owners of WLCY, the top AM station in the market, applied for and were granted a license for a new television station. WLCY-TV had a stronger signal than WSUN, and the ABC affiliation was also transferred. The new arrival was designated Channel 10 on the VHF dial.

Dick Crippen was hired as WLCY’s first weatherman.

Commander Astro with guest Johnny Weissmuller, 1965

“The morning guy on WLCY radio was a guy named Don Jones,” Crippen recalls. “In 1965, which is when the TV went on the air, Don was coming down to the studios on Central Avenue and doing a kids’ show called Submarine 10. Unfortunately, Don was killed in a motorcycle accident later that year. They wanted a kids’ show on. And they said to me ‘How about you do a kids’ show?’ Space was big at that time, so they decided I’m Commander Astro, and there I was.”

Commander Astro was the host of Space Station 10, which broadcast old Roger Ramjet cartoons and early TV serials like Flash Gordon. “We didn’t really have any script – I’d just get in there and start doing this show, and guys from the radio would all of a sudden show up. They would come in and we’d do a bit. All adlib and just a lot of fun for everybody that was involved.”

He was tapped to make personal appearances in costume, meeting his young audience and spreading goodwill for the fledgling Channel 10.

“It was quite an experience, and it was also good training for me as far as adlib was concerned,” Crippen says.

A year into the station’s existence, sports director Vince Malloy announced his departure to enter local politics. Crippen was offered the job, which came with a five-dollar-a-week raise. He and WLCY bookkeeper Penny Mosher had been dating for a while by then, and the extra money sounded good to him. So he took it. He and Penny married that same year, 1966.

As the third-place station in a market of three, WLCY initially had no muscles to flex. WTVT sports director “Salty” Sol Fleischman and WFLA’s Guy Bagli and Milt Spencer were well-established by the time Crippen entered the fray.

“It took some work to get that station recognized,” Crippen remembers. “There were times when, honestly, I wasn’t invited to the same press conferences, because they didn’t even recognize the station. But I constantly worked at it. I did a lot of charity work to just get the name out there and promote the station. And eventually it turned around and I got included in everything.”

Tampa Bay had no professional sports teams in those days. “It was ‘dig for stories,’ Crippen says. “A lot of high school sports. I kind of got my signature out of the high school sports, because I really paid attention to them. I started a Friday night show on Channel 10. I’d send a camera out to the game, and they’d shoot maybe the first half. They’d come back to the station, process the film, edit it real fast, and then we’d have the two coaches come in and sit down with me on the show at night. And talk about the game.”

His competitors, he explains, “did the scores, but I took it a step further by actually putting the coaches on the air every Friday night. And that drew a pretty big audience.

“There was one point in my career where I just rode around on a Saturday with my camera guy, and we’d see people playing softball in a park, and we’d stop and do a piece on them – who are they? Well, what happens when you do that is all of those guys who we did the story on are going to tune in. And then they’d tell all the people they know, so they would tune in.

“During those early times, I really had to search for sports.”

His station manager from WTUN, Gordon Solie, became the voice of the popular Championship Wrestling From Florida, which taped every week in Tampa and provided fodder for local sportscasts. Crippen announced Rowdies home games from Tampa Stadium, and continued to freelance with Unlimited Hydroplane, Offshore Power Boat and Drag Boat television shows.

The 1975 arrival of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a game-changer. “I’ve always maintained that when the Buccaneers came in, this area became recognized,” Crippen says. “Because there’s only a limited number of NFL teams, and this area had one of them.”

Crippen, at the time, was announcing weekend NASCAR races from Daytona and Talladega. But his hometown having its own NFL team was too important; he left the Motor Racing Network to do play-by-play and color for the Bucs’ first two years; he was the team’s official radio announcer for 15 more.

In 1978, WLCY-TV was purchased, and re-assigned the call letters WTSP; Crippen remained as director of sports – and the station’s most-recognized air personality – for three years.

With no “non-compete” clause in his contract with the ABC station, Crippen was free to accept a generous offer from rival WFLA.

“You’re at a point in life where you’re looking forward,” he says. “Channel 8 had three or four people in the sports department; I had two, myself and one guy. And they had a fulltime camera assigned to sports – I had to beg and borrow from the news department. Salary entered into it also.

“It was a step up, because no matter what, 8 and 13 were always the predominant stations. Channel 10 was working up, and it was getting bigger and bigger. But it was hard for people to pick up until cable came in. Cable helped out tremendously on that.”

Crippen served as WFLA’s sports director until New Year’s Eve, 1999. By then, he was the most respected name in bay area sportscasting. An early champion of the Tampa Bay Rays, he covered every aspect of Major League Baseball in the area, from the earliest site negotiations to the last inning of the last game of the 20th century. He covered the debut of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992.

March 31, 1998: Opening Day for the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays

His final WFLA broadcast was on New Year’s Eve, 1999, a Friday. The following Monday, he moved into the Rays front office as Executive Director of Community Development.

“I was very honored to have that title,” Crippen says, “because Don Zimmer had an identical title. He did the baseball side, I was more on the business side. Actually, what it enabled me to do was to be available to any of the departments – so I was able to help out sales, tickets, community relations … in other words I didn’t really have a specific launch pad. I was able to move around the company and get involved in a lot of different things.”

With Wade Boggs

Crippen’s list of charity and public service work is staggering, almost as long as his broadcast sports C.V. Among those for whom he has labored tirelessly: Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Suncoast Ronald McDonald Houses, the Chi Chi Rodriguez Foundation, PARC, St. Petersburg YMCA, Blossom School and the Salvation Army. He is on the advisory board of Charity Works, which unites business interests with philanthropic efforts.

“I think I can sum it up by saying I love this area,” Crippen declares. “I really do. My wife and I were married in St. Petersburg and we still live here. I just really support the area, but I love kids. And I love working with kids.”

He helped launch the Rays of Hope Foundation, which became the Rays Baseball Foundation.

Organization president Brian Auld praised Crippen in a statement. “In his time with the Rays, he has done anything and everything asked of him – promoting our community outreach efforts, keeping our fans informed, and even honing his comedic skills as a regular contributor to Raysvision.

“Perhaps most influentially, he has also served as a friend and mentor to so many of us within the organization. The Rays and the region are better for having had Dick Crippen in our lives.”

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    Vivian Stowelll

    January 4, 2021at10:13 pm

    I admire the charity work you’re involved in and greatly appreciate it. I’ve seen you at the O2BFun fundraisers over the years. Thank you so much for your generous help with all the charities you’ve been involved in. God bless you!

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