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Fennelly: Still fabulous, the Babe reflects on her Hall trail

Nanci Donnellan ‘Fabulous Sports Babe,’ was voted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in June 2018. (MONICA HERNDON   |   Times)
Nanci Donnellan ‘Fabulous Sports Babe,’ was voted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in June 2018. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)

ST. PETERSBURG — The Fabulous Sports Babe, the one and only, sat in a restaurant booth Thursday. She was on a rant, just like old times, a dock riot going on in her head before coming out of her mouth. The Babe can still bring it.

Topic: Fashion.

"What the hell am I going to wear?" Nanci Donnellan asked. "This is a fancy deal. What the hell am I going to wear? … I'm going to have to go shopping. T-shirts and shorts. That's me. What the hell am I going to do?"

The Babe smiled.

"I'm completely honored. It's pretty flabbergasting, really. … Is there no one else? Did they run out of people? I still loved doing it, all of it."

In November in New York City, Donnellan (age: ageless) will be inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. Among her fellow inductees: Dr. Laura, Mike and Mike. Among previous inductees: Jack Benny, Alan Freed, Paul Harvey, Orson Welles.

You belong, Babe.

Donnellan has made St. Pete Beach her on-off home for 30 years.
"I always felt this was my place," said the Babe, who decided on her working name in 1989 while doing her show from there for WFNS-AM 910. She had wrenched her back.

"Spend the day with … the Fabulous Sports Babe."

It stuck. The Babe stuck. Donnellan was a true pioneer, one of the first women to do sports-talk radio and the first one to go national. She blazed trails that still need blazing.

"Oh, God, yes, Nanci mattered," said Donnellan's friend Suzyn Waldman, a longtime New York broadcaster and Yankees radio analyst. "She was one of the first, and as far I'm concerned, the best. She had that magnificent voice, low, gorgeous. Even when she was yelling, it didn't leave her. Before or since, there's not been anyone like the Babe. None of us are doing what we do without her."

Today's screamers have nothing on the Babe, whether she was in Tampa Bay, at any number of stations, nationally syndicated out of Seattle, or during her showtime at ESPN, 1994-2001.

"I ranted and raged," Donnellan said.

If she didn't like a caller, BANG, she'd hit a button and it was on to the next one. The Babe had the fastest fingers in radio. Her catch phrases remain hers alone.

"Talk to me, Bubba."

"Doofus alert!"

"Get a job, get a haircut, get a life!"

The Babe was a phenomenon, a rock star. She is a little more than 5 feet tall, but back then they stacked dynamite that high. No one else sounded like her. The Babe went off. She had attitude. The Babe had the best guests, stars. The Babe, in some of her ESPN days, earned a salary near seven figures and lived in a Manhattan high-rise overlooking Central Park.

Her show was on 300 stations across the nation, 200,000 callers a week, all dying to get through to the Babe's rat-a-tat-tat. Always she carried the banner for women.

"I was about the only woman out there, so I couldn't screw up," Donnellan said.

She didn't.

"I loved the excitement of being there, talking back and forth, bam, bam, bam. I loved listening to what people said. But I've always been a talker. I'm coming at you."

The Babe always gave as good as she got. I'd take the Babe over President Trump, two out of the three calls.

And the Babe never forgot Tampa Bay. She is back on St. Pete Beach, still at it after health scares and fights. She does two podcasts a week, reaching about 30,000 subscribers, and sometimes does radio locally and nationally on weekends. She enjoys her coffee in the morning and her sunsets at night.

To those of us who grew up in this town and in the media, the Babe was always kind, nurturing, a lioness protecting her cubs. She was the Babe and Nanci at once. Today, the Babe is Nanci almost all the time.

"I think this is maybe the Babe at rest," Donnellan said. "I'm not that person anymore."

A fight with cancer 20 years ago turned her on to her mortality. Then there was a stroke in 2012. The Babe had to learn to walk again. She had to learn to — wait for it — talk again.

"Me not being able to talk. Can you imagine?" Donnellan said, laughing.

Her Hall induction has made her think all the way back to growing up in New England, when as a 5- or 6-year-old, she would tell her parents exactly what was wrong with the Celtics.

"They were one hundred percent not interested," Donnellan said. "I sure think they wanted me to be a secretary somewhere. That really wasn't me."

She spent a life doing what she wanted to do, pushing against the radio glass ceiling as she did, fighting for women without voices, and jobs, even if she didn't know it at the time. That's the lesson she now shares with aspiring broadcast talents. She remembers when everyone at her sports stations thought they (and their best friends) were better than the Babe.

"What I tell people is that anywhere you go in life, there are going to be people who don't want you there," Donnellan said. "I always believed in myself."

It won't be a long induction speech in New York, two minutes tops. The Babe can do that in her sleep. But Nanci Donnellan has no idea where she'll find something to wear. Nanci at rest. Loves her coffee and sunsets. But don't be fooled. The Babe is still there. Don't mention the World Cup, because the Babe still hates soccer. Don't dare bring up the Rays' proposed Ybor City stadium.

Move over, Nanci.

"Do you believe that thing ever gets built. NO WAY. I will jump off the roof of that thing if it ever opens. They're crazy! They're dreaming! I mean it! I'll jump right off!"

The Babe can still bring it.

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