Joe McDonnell, unapologetic in the way he created his larger-than-life persona in the Los Angeles sports media for the greater part of the last four decades, died Friday afternoon at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 58.
McDonnell may have worked at more than a dozen local radio stations in Southern California during his career — most importantly as one of the first hosts in 1991 at the inaugural all-sports station in L.A. when KMPC-AM (710) began the format — but loyal followers always knew where to find him during his career that included a return to 710 in 2000 when KSPN launched, also working as an assistant program director.
The longtime San Fernando Valley resident who started at the local KGIL-AM (1260) doing sports updates for the Dick Whittington show, McDonnell hustled to become a correspondent for Mutual Radio Sports as well as AP Radio and UPI Radio. He got involved in sports talk when Chris Roberts, the longtime UCLA broadcaster who is retiring this year, hired him to produce and report for his show on KFI-AM (640), eventually becoming a replacement host in the late ‘80s.
His career also took him to hirings, suspensions and dismissals from XTRA-AM (690), KMAX-FM (107.1), KWNK-AM (670), KTLK-AM (1150), KABC-AM (790) and KXTA-AM (1150). He also recently wrote for and did podcasts for FoxSportsWest.com. During his career, he was most proud of breaking the story of Magic Johnson’s return in 1994 to coach the Lakers, as well as Wayne Gretzky’s trade to the Kings in 1988.
“When I was at KFI, shortly after I arrived in L.A. to stay in 1988, Joe had the scoop that Wayne Gretzky was coming two days before it was announced and as a result, I got two killer seats on the ice at the Forum before the onslaught of new season ticketholders — Joe made that possible,” said Tom Leykis, the legendary syndicated radio show host. “He literally knew everyone in L.A. sports. People trusted him. It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”
Affectionately known as “Big Joe” but dubbed “The Big Nasty” by longtime broadcast partner and former Long Beach Press-Telegram columnist Doug Krikorian, McDonnell was asked in a 2004 Daily News story if he considered himself to be irascible, irrepressible or irrational, or whether he was simply bullheaded and played the part of a radio bully.
“I’m all of it,” he said “At one time or another, I’m all those things.”
McDonnell told AllAccess.com that he wanted to be a newspaper reporter and columnist and never thought of getting into radio because “I had one of the world’s truly bad voices – nasal and scratchy.”
But after his first day as an intern at KGIL – the day Los Angeles police tracked down and arrested heiress Patrica Hearst – McDonnell arrived at 5 a.m. stayed long after 10 p.m. answering phones, cutting wire copy and falling in love with the radio world process.
Lon Rosen, the Dodgers executive vice president and chief marketing officer, worked as McDonnell’s agent at points in his career.
“Joe was all about sports and loved the Dodgers,” he said in a statement. “He was a fixture at Dodger Stadium and will be terribly missed by players, management and fans.”
In a move that is somewhat extraordinary for someone who was not a staff employee, the Lakers sent out a statement that included reaction from team president Jeanie Buss: “For more than 35 years, Joe has been a regular at Lakers games and press events. Known for his quick wit and strong opinions, Joe’s love of and support of the Lakers has always been appreciated. Over all these years, our players, coaches and staff have enjoyed working with and knowing Joe. He will be sorely missed.”
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak added: “Although Joe was opinionated and brutally honest with his coverage, I always felt he was knowledgeable and fair. He … had a presence at every major sporting event. As both a player and executive I enjoyed working with Joe since I arrived in town in 1981. I will miss seeing him at our games, practices and press conferences.”
Mike Thompson, the current program director at 710-AM, once had to dismiss McDonnell from a job, but Friday he called him “an icon here in Southern California radio. This is very sad. Joe and Doug’s show was the show of record in the first sports incarnation on this frequency. Although I at one time contributed to his troubles — we made amends — I could relate to Joe on many levels. Forgotten was that Joe was not just confined to the sports pages – I thought some of his best moments were when he was doing talk on KFI.”
The cause of death was not officially given, although McDonnell’s wife, Elizabeth, said he had been hospitalized in the intensive care unit for the last two weeks.
McDonnell’s health had been an issue for years, some of it a direct result of his battle with obesity that began as a teenager at Alemany High in Mission Hills. McDonnell was born Aug. 30, 1956, in Upper Darby, Pa and also attended L.A. Valley College.
In 2004, McDonnell underwent gastric bypass surgery that eventually led to him losing about 400 pounds from his frame that at one time carried in excess of 700 pounds. He also had been in an out of hospitals in recent years to treat flesh-eating bacteria.
Funeral services are pending.
Our extended media column on McDonnell’s passing will be in Sunday’s editions of the LA News Group
== Please view or sign a memorial guest book
== Listen to Joe McDonnell during a 2013 podcast
== More Twitter reaction at LAObserved.com
== A remembrance from former Daily News columnist Steve Dilbeck