FORT MYERS, FLA. – Ralph Fritz was a 19-year-old graduate of Brown Institute in 1958 when he was hired to hold down the noon-to-5 p.m. slot on Stillwater’s 1220-AM, which then carried the call letters WAVN.
The boss didn’t like the idea of an on-air talent with two first names. He wanted Fritz to come up with a new name.
Grateful for the $85 per week he would be making, the young broadcaster could have been “Jonnie Magic” if he wasn’t fast to react.
“I didn’t want to change my name,” he said. “I said, ‘How about if I just use my middle name — Ralph Jon Fritz?’ The boss said, ‘That will work.’ ”
Ten years later, WCCO-TV was adding another on-air option to its 6 and 10 o’clock sportscasts. Rollie Johnson, still doing part-time work at WCCO, hired Fritz.
Rollie was introducing him in the newsroom and they came to Ron Handberg, the news director.
Fritz: “Rollie said, ‘This is Ralph Jon Fritz,’ and Handberg looked at me and said, ‘That’s a little pretentious, isn’t it?’ ”
Over the next 40 years, Twin Cities viewers came to appreciate Ralph Jon’s easy smile, and he offered it again this week in retelling the greeting from Handberg.
The wind was howling on this late morning at Miromar Lakes, a development of enormous status not far from the Fort Myers airport. Fritz and his wife, Deb, bought a house here in 2003, a couple of years before he semiretired from the Ch. 4 sports department.
The wind was one good reason for Ralph Jon to pass on hitting a few balls at the Miromar tennis courts. Another was that he was bouncing back from the latest round of chemotherapy.
“You walk around with the pump putting the chemicals into you for a couple of days, and then for the next two days, you’re wiped out,” said Fritz, 77. “Friday and Saturday, I wasn’t moving much, but I’m OK today.”
It was this time two years ago when Fritz found himself losing energy on the tennis court.
“One day we were leading a set 5-0 and I said to my partner, ‘I can’t move; we’re going to lose this set,’ ” Fritz said. “He said, ‘We’re up 5-0, we’re not losing.’ But we did, 7-5, and then the next set, I tossed the ball for a serve and collapsed to the court.”
Throw in the back pain he had been feeling and it was time for a doctor’s visit. His blood count was down to 7. Next came an appointment with Dr. Mark Rubin, a Fort Myers-area oncologist. The tests came back: stomach cancer.
“They first thought it was pancreatic,” Fritz said. “It turned out to be in the liver.”
The official diagnosis came on April 13, 2015, along with this warning: Start making plans. It could be two weeks, maybe two months.
What was that day like? “Deb and I didn’t go out and celebrate,” said Ralph Jon, smiling again.
Rubin sent Fritz to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, among the highest-rated in the United States, rather than starting an aggressive course of chemo. As it turned out, that’s what has Ralph Jon approaching two years of survival.
“If Dr. Rubin had gone to chemo right away, it would have caused me to go backward,” Fritz said. “We used radiation to attack the tumors, to shrink them. The one tumor that is most aggressive showed up as a problem again recently. They shrunk it with radiation by two-thirds, and now Moffitt has me on chemo for the first time.”
No smile this time. Ralph Jon shook his shoulders instead.
We talked for a couple of hours on Sunday and Fritz didn’t tell me more than two or three dozen stories that were wonderfully funny.
There was his first night doing the 10 o’clock sports at WCCO, when he was in the basement newsroom, getting last details for his 10:20 availability, 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 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 Hal Scott was taking his traditional nap on a couch in an unoccupied room between the 6 and 10 o’clock news.
“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 a 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.’
“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.”
It always has been outstanding to have a chance to laugh in the company of Ralph Jon Fritz, perhaps the least pretentious person to get camera time in the Twin Cities sports media in the past five decades.
And those laughs are better than ever right now.