When taped highlights weren’t available, WCCO sportscaster Ralph Jon Fritz used to draw stick figures on a piece of paper to show viewers what had happened in a game.
“He never lost that folksy, homespun way of doing his work,” longtime colleague Mark Rosen said Wednesday. “Cornballish? Yeah, sometimes. But Fritz could pull it off. You can’t really teach that stuff.”
Fritz, 78, died Wednesday in Florida after a long struggle with stomach cancer.
In 2015, Fritz revealed his diagnosis. Last month, he signaled on his Caring Bridge page that the end was near.
“The most recent chemo treatment wreaked havoc on my body and I am too weak to continue with treatments,” he wrote. “I will be under the care of hospice to help with my transition to a better place.”
Besides providing scores from behind the desk, Fritz hosted the long-running series “Out ’N’ About With R.J. Fritz.”
Don Shelby, who worked alongside Fritz for decades, recalled the time the two of them went fishing for one of the series’ episodes.
“The whole segment was us not catching fish, just picking on each other,” Shelby said. “He had no fear of that. The rule at WCCO was that, even if you were the best of the best, you never took yourself seriously for a second. Ralph always took that to the extreme.”
Rosen said his friend never forgot the fact that he was a small-town kid from Sleepy Eye, Minn.
Fritz began his career in broadcasting when he was just 19, as an $85-a-week announcer on WAVN-AM radio in Stillwater.
Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse wrote a tribute to Fritz last January after a visit to his home in Florida, where he retired in 2008 after a 40-year run at WCCO. A few anecdotes from that column showed Fritz’s keen sense of humor.
There was his first night doing the 10 o’clock sports at WCCO. He was in the basement newsroom, gathering some final details for his report, when the producer bellowed over the intercom: “Fritz, you’re on in 15 seconds.”
“We had a freight elevator,” he said. “The only option was to run up the steps. Five flights.
“I sit down and [anchor] Dave Moore says, ‘We would like to introduce our viewers to Ralph Jon Fritz, our new sports reporter.’ And I say, ‘Thank you, gasp, Dave, gasp,’ and then start reading the script, with a gulp for air after every two words.
“Everybody watching that had to think, ‘This new kid is scared to death.’ ”
There was also a night when veteran sportscaster Hal Scott was taking his traditional nap between the 6 and 10 o’clock news on a couch in an unoccupied room.
“I sold the idea to everyone turning the clocks ahead of a couple of hours and then I’d wake up Hal,” Fritz said. “Which we did. I rushed in and said, ‘Hal, I forgot to wake you; they want you on set right now.’
“Hal goes stumbling in there, hair all messed up, and we have everyone in place like it’s a live 10 o’clock shoot. Skip Loescher’s the anchor that night, we do the newscast open and Skip says, ‘And now here’s Hal Scott with details on that big Twins trade involving Bob Allison [a star slugger during the 1960s].
“And Hal says, ‘So they made that trade today? All I can say is that Bob Allison won’t be missed as a baseball player but as a friend.’
“Then, everyone started laughing, and Hal knew he had been had.”
Fritz is survived by his wife, Deb, and children Brad, John and Shelly.
Rosen and Shelby are planning to deliver eulogies at a local tribute that will be open to the public. Details are pending.