It’s a slow Monday in mid-September on the metro-area sports beat. The Yankees, still clinging to their playoff hopes, have the day off. The Mets, as is their habit, are a million miles from contending. The football Giants’ dismantling the day before by the Denver Broncos is old news; the Jets’ sloppy Thursday-night loss is fish wrap. Hockey and basketball won’t start for weeks.
This lull in the action will not do for Russ Salzberg. Not at all.
“Sitting at a job and just being bored, that’s why you want to retire,” says the Fox 5 sports anchor. “It’s a very good feeling to wake up every day and want to go to work, and at the end of the day, it’s great to feel like you’re really satisfied and fulfilled.”
Most days, the longtime Wayne resident has plenty to keep him satisfied. In addition to his Monday-to-Friday Fox gig, Salzberg hosts postgame coverage of the Giants for sister station My9; contributes nightly highlights and commentary to My9’s magazine-style Chasing New Jersey; and hosts Fox 5’s Super Football Friday, a preview show leading up to February’s Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium.
A 12-hour workday is Salzberg’s idea of fun. He craves action. Even after 25 years of recapping results in an engaging Guys and Dolls accent that betrays his Brooklyn roots, the 62-year-old loves the perpetual motion that—usually—is New York sports.
When he made his New York debut on October 3, 1988, on WWOR/Channel 9, each local station laid claim to its own sports guy. Warner Wolf went to the videotape on Channel 2, while Len Berman spanned the world on 4, where Sal Marchiano was a weekend presence. Scott Clark’s lengthy reign at Channel 7 was under way.
The aforementioned anchors all were saluted last year, when veteran New York sports PR agent Marty Appel helped produce a “sort of farewell to those days” panel discussion at the 21 Club in Manhattan. Salzberg was not among those featured.
“Russ wasn’t eligible because he’s still at it,” Appel says. “That in itself is remarkable.”
Salzberg—the last of the old guard—is uncertain of the future of local news and sports. All he can do is stay honest, passionate and hell-bent on not deifying the ballplayers.
“The easiest thing…is to say just what everyone wants to hear,” says Salzberg. “Well, that’s not me.”
But Salzberg is more than his colorful TV persona. He and Vikki, his wife of 34 years, have raised two daughters, now 28 and 31. To stay game-ready, he picks up five metro-area newspapers every morning to prepare for his day’s work and then runs six miles at Packanack Lake in Wayne.
Sports has always been a passion, but it was not Salzberg’s original occupation. After attending Loyola College in Montreal, where he majored in sociology and psychology, Salzberg headed to Toronto and sold real estate from 1977 to 1983. He was good at it—but it wasn’t him. “I come in the house one day and announce that I don’t want to do this anymore. So my wife says, ‘What do you want to do?’” The answer was obvious. With Vikki’s blessing, Salzberg spent a year in training, grabbing whatever sportscasting work he could get.
In 1983, he won a Toronto radio contest with the prize of three hours of airtime daily at $1.07 an hour for three months; he stayed on for seven. The following year, he landed his first mainstream job on Toronto’s CITY-TV. To stand out, he started wearing multihued sweaters on camera. A sartorial trademark was born.
Salzberg says his employers have always allowed him to be himself. So when New York beckoned in 1988, he packed up his Technicolor-dreamcoat sweaters and took to the air, a bold character breaking into a crowded market. By the mid-’90s, however, Salzberg decided the casual look had run its course.
“The sweaters served me well for a long time,” he says. “In fact some people still call me ‘The Sweater.’ But you know what? To me it looked a little disjointed sitting at an anchor desk with everyone else in a suit and tie, dressed up. I thought, OK, if this is the avenue you’re going to go, it’s time to change.”
From the start, Salzberg didn’t pull punches. He asked George Steinbrenner if he had “brought shame to the Yankees.” His persistent inquiries into quarterback Jeff Hofstetler’s health caused hapless Giants coach Ray Handley to storm out of a 1991 press conference. In 1999, Salzberg grabbed a one-on-one interview with Mike Tyson before the former heavyweight champ went into the ring with the forgettable Frans Botha. The anchor asked the once-great fighter if his much-publicized rage helped or hindered him.
Tyson, already an irritated mess, unraveled into a cursing rant. Salzberg remained unflappable.
Salzberg: “Have a nice fight, Mike.”
Tyson: [“Expletive deleted.”]
“I never liked to be a guy who just goes on the air counting on what other people give me,” Salzberg says. “If you’ve watched me over the years, I’ve made my bones in the business being involved. I like the action. When I’m talking to the viewer, they don’t have to agree with me, they don’t even have to like me….But I want them to understand that at least I know what I’m talking about. And I’m talking from the heart.”
Brenda Blackmon, the multi-Emmy-winning news anchor who worked with Salzberg for 23 years on Channel 9 (now My9), appreciates Salzberg’s candor. “I quickly learned that the words that I would hear come out of his mouth, though oftentimes shocking, were just from someone who had love beneath it all and was a character unlike any other.”
What Salzberg represents, she adds, rarely makes the air nowadays. “Russ can get in there and talk about anything in sports, and you know you can trust him and believe him,” says Blackmon of her longtime friend.
Len Berman doubts the professional climate that spawned strong personalities like Salzberg will ever return. “It would take a station management to think outside the box,” he says. “I once tried to explain to a general manager that not all sportscasters were the same—that there were nuances. He had no idea what I was talking about.”
Salzberg sees people pursuing television as a career these days not because they love the subject they cover, but because they want to be on TV. On his scorecard, that’s all wrong. Luckily for viewers, Salzberg’s love of sports hasn’t diminished.
Rich Bagala, Salzberg’s producer at WWOR and Fox for almost 25 years, laughs when asked if the anchor’s passion for the job has waned. Bagala plans to hit the golf course as soon as he retires. But Salzberg? That’s as likely as Yankee fans lining up to hug Alex Rodriguez. “If you were to ask him, ‘Is there an end in sight?,’ I can absolutely guarantee he has no plans of giving up the microphone or going off camera,” Bagala says.
Pete Croatto has written about sports for the New York Times, Philadelphia and Grantland, as well as New Jersey Monthly.