“You know, in retrospect, that whole thing at WIP was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Missanelli says between sips of the day’s special house blend. “It got me to look within myself.”
That’s a big admission for Missanelli, who isn’t the most introspective guy. He’d really rather put all that behind him, anyway. The fights, getting fired — it’s embarrassing. He wasn’t always known as a hothead, and he’s no dope; in the early ’80s, he faced a tough decision when he landed a job as a sportswriter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and was accepted to Widener’s law school, all at once. He chose to take on both, putting himself through Widener’s law program at night when his newsroom shift ended. “I grew up with a certain work ethic,” he says, crediting his parents, neither of whom was college-educated, and his upbringing in working-class Bristol. “We had to battle to achieve.”
Missanelli’s need to prove himself pushed him to become a three-sport jock in high school and a varsity second baseman at Penn State, making him one of the few on the Inquirer sports desk with an athletic résumé. Whatever aggression was left over from those locker rooms never carried into the newsroom, says Angelo Cataldi, who would eventually convince Missanelli to follow his lead — and the money — from print journalism to talk radio. “I never saw anything like that [at the Inquirer],” says Cataldi of the blowups that would later haunt Missanelli. “He’s a very smart guy. Very opinionated and very talented.”
After Missanelli joined WIP, though, his competitive nature took over. Discussing the miserable state of Philly sports for four hours a day can be stressful, but the rookie host was a quick study, says Steve Fredericks, his first partner. He also began to reveal a darker side, which Fredericks first witnessed during a live broadcast on the steps of the Spectrum as a heckler began taunting the pair with relentless shouts of “Eskin!” On a commercial break, Missanelli lost his cool. “He threw his headset down, leaped over the table, chased the kid down Pattison Avenue, caught him by the bushes that spelled ‘Phillies,’ and beat the shit out of him,” says Fredericks. “Then he came back, straightened his shirt, and went back on the air.” (Missanelli insists he simply gave the wiseguy a lecture and never touched him.)
Over the next decade, Missanelli became one of the station’s most popular hosts, thanks in part to his ability to engage in a thoughtful, informed conversation one minute, then explode in a hate-fueled tirade the next. Bombs were also dropping away from the microphone: First came the loss of his father, followed by a divorce from his wife of nine years, and the collateral damage to his young daughter, Keira. Then, in 1998, the sudden death of his mother hit Missanelli particularly hard. WIP gave him a week off to recover, and he vanished completely, leaving even his siblings to wonder where he’d gone.