Longtime Eagles announcer got start in A.C.

{child_byline}DAVID WEINBERG

Staff Writer

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Longtime Eagles announcer got start in A.C.

{child_byline}DAVID WEINBERG

Staff Writer

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More than 50 years later, Merrill Reese still can’t watch the Miss America Competition without laughing.

Before he became the Philadelphia Eagles’ legendary radio play-by-play announcer — the 74-year-old is in his 40th season and was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame at halftime of Monday night’s game with the Green Bay Packers — Reese spent his summers in Atlantic City, at the family vacation home on Delancy Place.

One of his many summer jobs included a brief stint as a busboy and waiter at the former Lafayette Hotel on North Carolina Avenue, a hotel made famous when the Beatles stayed there during an appearance at Boardwalk Hall in 1964.

Like most of the hotels back then, the Lafayette also hosted Miss America contestants.

“I was working dinner one day, and I dumped a tray of food all over Miss Arizona and Miss Illinois,” Reese said. “That ended my career as a busboy and waiter.”

That is just one of many vivid memories from his days in Atlantic City.

The town played a major role in his life, from his boyhood summers in the late 1950s and early 1960s working odd jobs on the Boardwalk, to learning how to play tennis at the courts at Bader Field, to getting his start as a radio announcer.

“I had a lot of jobs,” Reese said. “When I was a little kid, I was a junior lifeguard at the Bartram Avenue beach. I spent one summer working at an Acme market, where I was in charge of collecting the carts out of the parking lot.

“Another time I worked at a magic shop on the Boardwalk for a woman named Cassie. I did a lot of sleight-of-hand tricks with rings, hiding a ball under plastic cups and making it look like I could pull a quarter out of my ear. Believe me, I was no Jon Dorenbos (the Eagles’ long snapper who is an accomplished magician).”

The famed Steel Pier was where he got his first radio gig.

In the late 1960s, after he graduated from Temple University and before he entered the U.S. Navy, Reese had no luck finding a job in Philadelphia, so he decided to spend one more summer at the shore.

He spent his days playing tennis at Bader Field and then ventured over to the Boardwalk, where fellow Temple alumnus Steve Berger was hosting a radio show on WOND.

“It was called ‘Steve Berger from Steel Pier,’” Berger, a 72-year-old Atlantic City native and 1962 Atlantic City High School graduate, said in a phone interview from his home in Long Island, New York. “I’d play records in this booth in front of the pier and people would walk by and throw stuff at the booth and things.

“I was on the air from midnight to 2 a.m., and Merrill would always stop by. One night, I asked him if he would read the scores from the baseball games that night. Merrill would listen to the Phillies game at his home, then lean out the window (with his radio) to try to get the scores from the other games, and then would come over and read them on the air. We had a lot of fun.”

After Berger finished his show, the two would walk over to Sambo’s on New York Avenue for a sandwich.

Once in a while, they’d be joined by a Pleasantville High School graduate who was playing classical music on a local FM station while his wife, Sarah, was making 40-foot plunges on a diving horse at Steel Pier.

“Every night, I’d get a roast beef sandwich with coleslaw and Russian dressing,” Reese said with a smile. “And Gene Hart would join us. I used to dream about being a football announcer, and he was dreaming about being a hockey announcer.”

Both eventually realized their dreams.

Hart, who died in 1999, began his long and distinguished career with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1967. A few years later, Reese landed a job in Philadelphia as a backup for WIP sports director Charlie Swift, who was also the Eagles’ play-by-play announcer.

Reese was hired as the Eagles’ color commentator for the start of the 1977 season. With two games remaining in that season, a friend of Swift’s called him at 2 a.m. to tell him that Swift had committed suicide.

“I was stunned,” Reese said. “A few hours after that, WIP called me and told me to do the play-by-play for the next game.”

His first game was on Dec. 10, 1977, a 17-14 victory over the New York Giants. Sunday’s contest against Atlanta was his 644th consecutive regular-season and playoff game.

He’s thrilled Eagles fans for 40 seasons with his colorful, animated descriptions of touchdowns, victories and his famous “It’s gooood!” field goal call.

And he has no intention of stopping.

Not while he’s still able to live the dream he created on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

“This is the job I’ve always wanted,” Reese said. “I’ve got no plans to retire. They’re going to have to remove me with a crane.”

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Twitter @pressacweinberg

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Member of The Press sports staff since 1986, starting my 25th season as The Press Eagles' beat writer. Also cover boxing, MMA, golf, high school sports and everything else.

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