Takeaways from The Athletic's oral history of the Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon

Sara Civian
August 20, 2018 - 11:35 am

“It was very bold, and it seemed almost impossible, and now it’s a regular thing.”

That’s how Gerry Callahan recalls the formation of the Jimmy Fund spring training trip, inspired by Todd Schwartz.

Schwartz passed away at 19 years old from a rare form of cancer, but not before he created a lasting legacy. He fought for a better focus on the teenagers of the Jimmy Fund, including the 45-person trip to spring training in Florida to see the Red Sox for a long weekend.

His story kicks off The Athletic’s oral history of the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon. 16 years later and $50 million raised, it's still going strong.

Very bold. Some of it seems almost impossible. Now a regular thing.

From The Athletic’s Chad Jennings, here are just a few of the oral history's inspiring, heartbreaking, behind-the-scenes stories ahead of 2018’s radio-telethon, held Aug. 21-22.

•The Jimmy Fund started in 1948, at the bedside of a child whose name wasn’t actually Jimmy.

“They just did a radio-telethon broadcast on the radio, raising money to get a TV for Jimmy. And Jimmy wasn’t even his real name. It was to protect his anonymity,” said Suzanne Fountain, the Jimmy Fund associate vice president.

• Former Red Sox infielder and Jimmy Fund chairman Mike Andrews spoke of how the unique connection Red Sox players have with the Jimmy Fund started:

“I first became acquainted with the Jimmy Fund when I started playing for the Red Sox because that was [owners] Tom Yawkey and Jean Yawkey’s charity. … All the players on the Red Sox at that time — my rookie year was ’67 — we all knew what the Jimmy Fund was, and we all knew how important it was to Mr. Yawkey and Mrs. Yawkey...We gave a full share of our World Series [bonus in 1967] to the Jimmy Fund in honor of the Yawkeys. And we weren’t making that much money then, so every dime counted, but it was that important to us.”

On the first year of the radio-telethon:

• Dale Arnold:  “I remember the first year I was scared to death we wouldn’t make any money. I was afraid we would not do a good job of adequately telling the story and we wouldn’t get people to respond. … And don’t misunderstand my point. It’s not that any of us didn’t want to do it. I was just afraid it wouldn’t succeed.”

Callahan: “I remember us sitting in the corner of a room at Fenway and doing a one-day thing where we were hoping to raise, I think, $50,000 or $100,000.”

Fountain: “And we raised [just over] $300,000 in year one, which I think was the most we had ever raised at a first-time event. We’re all sitting there going, ‘Oh my God, this is awesome.’ The phones were ringing off the hook.”

Arnold: “Thankfully, I was wrong.”

Joe Castiglione (Red Sox radio play-by-play broadcaster): “And, of course, the great story about the original Jimmy:  Everyone thought he passed away because in 1948, there was no cure for leukemia. Then, maybe 20 years ago, his sister went to the Jimmy Fund, had all the medical records, and we found that he survived! He didn’t want any publicity. His name was Einar Gustafson, and he’s a truck driver from Maine. He turned out to be the perfect guy. He was a wonderful guy. Great sense of generosity. Just a great, low-key personality and did so much for the Jimmy Fund until he passed away [in 2001], but that was like a miracle to find him.”

Callahan: “If everyone can see it and feel it, they wouldn’t need a radiothon. People would just write a check. People would just give.”

Avalanna Routh and Gerry’s nails

• Callahan: “My personal memory is, I don’t know if anyone had mentioned Avalanna [Routh]...

It was bizarre because she was one of those kids, you looked in her eyes, and you’re like, ‘You’re 3! You’re not supposed to be this old soul. You’re just a kid.

While we’re on the air, we’re talking to her parents — Cam and Aileen were sitting there — and she said, ‘I want to paint your nails.’ Live. We were on NESN, we were on radio, and she broke out the nail polish, and she started painting my nails while we talked to her parents.”

John Dennis: “Everybody remembers her painting Gerry’s fingernails, I think it was purple or pink, but a year later we went and saw her in the hospital, and she was in bed, and the subject of the nails came up again. And Gerry put his hand out and said, ‘Are you going to paint my nails again?’ And you know what she said to him? ‘Where’s your wedding ring? Why don’t you have your wedding ring on?’ Here’s a 5-year-old busting Gerry’s balls!”

Joe Zarbano (current WEEI program director): “Avalanna Routh painting Gerry Callahan’s nails, it’s absolutely adorable. And I think people have a certain perception of Gerry. You watch that video, and that perception is completely changed, and you get to see the real Gerry Callahan.”

Lisa Scherber: “I love seeing these sports [talk radio] guys that everyone gives so much crap to, you know? They have the biggest hearts, and this impacts them, and this touches them. To see them in this world, and to allow their listeners to see them in a more human form, I think it’s also a benefit. … So, it always bothers me when I hear negative stories [about them]. I’m like, ‘Oh gosh, you just don’t know them.’”

“We all feel the same about this thing”

• Zarbano: “Glenn [Ordway] was treated [at Dana-Farber]. They found a tumor in Glenn back in 2015, and he was treated there. Callahan’s father was treated there. [Kirk] Minihane’s mother was treated there. My father was treated there.”

Tom Caron (NESN studio and sideline reporter): “I’m walking out the door at home to go into NESN to go to the studio [in 2015], and I get the call that [tests were positive for] lymphoma. So, my doctor here says, ‘I’ve got a great oncologist in Natick. You should go see him next week.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to go to Natick, I’m going to go right to Dana-Farber.’”

Ordway: “I had a very rare cancer, and I spent three days in one of the major hospitals in this town, and they couldn’t figure out what it was. But over there [at Dana-Farber], there was research, and they were able to figure it out. This is where the money’s going.”

Arnold: “I think people know when they hear us — from Kirk and Gerry to Glenn and Lou [Merloni] and Christian [Fauria] and me and Rich [Keefe] and all the people in between who have been with us, John Dennis and Michael Holley — I think everybody has understood that we mean this. We care about this.”

Lisa Scherber (Dana Farber director of patient and family programs): “I love the guys [at WEEI]. I’m so protective of them, which, I don’t think they need my protection, but I know they can be real assholes sometimes. I just look at a person, their heart, and they have good hearts. They might be stupid sometimes, but the heart’s there. That’s the important thing, right?”

Arnold: “I think sincerity matters. We may talk a lot of crap stuff the other 363 days a year, but those two days [of the radio-telethon], it’s real.”

Dennis: “Whether you agree with our take on sports of politics or whatever the case may be, the one thing I think 100 percent of us agree on … is that this is a devastating thing that is in our midst and we need to figure out a way to unite and do everything we possibly can to deal with it and battle it.”

Arnold: “We all feel the same about this thing. This is one thing where we don’t have any disagreements.”

Callahan: “Every year, I make [the doctors] tell this statistic. It’s childhood leukemia, and a lot of the kids have one kind of leukemia or another. But, in general, childhood leukemia 40 years ago — when I was a kid and my next-door neighbor got it and died — I believe the cure rate was 8 or 10 percent. Now it’s 85 [to 90] percent. It literally was a death sentence two generations ago...To go from 10 percent to [90] percent is why we beg for money every year.”

Donald Trump

• Ordway: “We got a call one day from Donald Trump. We could tell by listening to him that it was the real Donald Trump, or it was a damn good impersonator. And at that time [in 2008], who was doing Donald Trump impersonations, you know? … So, he gave us $50 grand. Right there. Just like that. He goes, ‘Put me down for $50 grand. Send me the bill, and I’ll pay it right away.’ Like we were going to have to chase him down with bill collectors! ‘I’ll pay it right away.’ I remember that vividly.”

Jason Wolfe (former WEEI program director): “We had him come out [previously in 2006] and throw out the first pitch. And when he was on the air doing an interview, someone had passed me a note from the clinic that we were $60,000 away from the previous year’s total. So, I gave that to Joe Castiglione, and he kind of intimated on the air …”

Castiglione: “’We’re $60,000 short of our goal,’ and [play-by-play broadcaster Jerry] Trupiano said, ‘Do you know anyone with that kind of money?’ It was a great line.”

Donald Trump (on the air in 2005): “I think I do. I think I might give you that $60,000. So, what is it now? What are you trying to get to?”

Castiglione: “Well, we’re trying to get to $2.6 million.”

Trump: “And you’re $60,000 shy?”

Castiglione: “Of the record.”

Trump: “Well, I’m going to give you $60,000 so you break the record.”

Wolfe: “He donated the money on the air, and then for three years after that, he donated his place at Mar-a-Lago for a huge fundraising dinner. He’s obviously a polarizing character now, but he was really supportive of that event for the few years that we had him involved.”

Brock Holt and Maddie LeClair

• Arnold: “There are moments, too, that out of nowhere will just knock you over. (Red Sox infielder) Brock Holt, who is another guy I will never say anything bad about for the time and effort he puts in over [at the Jimmy Fund Clinic], he came last year because a mom of a kid who passed away was on the radiothon.”

Holt: “She asked for my phone number [the first time I met her]...She didn’t have hair [when we met], but she was so beautiful that I was kind of taken aback a little bit. But from that moment, it was every time I went to the Jimmy Fund or something [at Fenway Park] when they came to the field or anything, we were always kind of drawn to each other.”

Dawn LeClair (Maddie’s mother): “My daughter was clueless about baseball. … It wasn’t about that he was on the Red Sox. She just connected with him. … She always found the good in people, and she knew Brock was a good person. She did. She knew it from her core.”

Holt: “I was actually rehabbing with Pawtucket [in May 2017] and I got a message on Instagram from some random person and it said, ‘Hey, hit a home run for Maddie today.’ And that’s all it said. And I was like, I hope that doesn’t mean what I think it means.”

LeClair: “She was 13 [when she was diagnosed], and she was in treatment for two years and nine months and three days.”

Holt: “I hadn’t seen her since Maddie had passed away. … I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s like as a parent. So, just being there for her and being able to give her a big hug and telling her that we love her and that we’re praying for her — her and her whole family — was pretty special.”

Arnold: “He could be in an 0-for-40 slump, and I’m never going to rip him.”

Roger Clemens

• Ordway: “One year, Roger Clemens was scheduled to be on the radio-telethon and the whole steroid issue pops up with him and the trainer and claiming that they were shooting up his wife and him. I said, ‘Oh shit, there we go. We’re losing Roger tomorrow.’ Not only did Roger come on, but we told Roger in advance [that there would be questions about steroids]. … He said, ask me the questions. I was shocked. Shocked! And we did. It was the first question. We probably did five questions on it, and I was shocked that he answered them.”

Wolfe: “[Another time] we reached out to [Clemens] was actually during the trial, the steroid trial, and he still gave us $21,000.”

Castiglione: “Roger would go over to the clinic [when he was still a player]. A little girl didn’t believe it was Roger, so he ran back to the ballpark, put his uniform on, and came back. Then she believed it was really Roger. … What he does today, it was strictly his idea to (auction off) batting practice to you and 10 of your closest friends.”

Ordway: “Did you see how much money he raised [this year]? $95,000. He did it twice. First person bid $50,000, somebody [else] came in at $44,000, and he didn’t want to leave $44,000 on the table so he said, ‘I’m going to give two of them.’”

Read the full oral history here. Donate to this year’s radio-telethon here

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