Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Bill Mazer, 1920-2013

Before us bloggers...

Before the Internet with its message boards and chat rooms...

Before ESPN...

Before WFAN and other all-sports radio stations...

There was Bill Mazer.  "The Amazin'."

I probably wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for him.

Please don't hold that against him.


Morris Mazer -- I'm not sure how he became "William" or "Bill" -- was born on November 2, 1920, in what was then known as Zaslav, in the Soviet Union, now Izyaslav, Ukraine.  His parents moved the family to Brooklyn, the only home he knew growing up.

His mother took him to Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers.  His father, who worked in a kosher poultry market, didn't know a baseball from a kumquat: "When I brought my baseball talk back home, my father invariably reacted as if I were discussing the manufacture of plutonium."

This was the immigrant experience, especially among urban Jews.  A story repeated in Ken Burns' Baseball miniseries tells of a man writing to the Jewish Daily Forward -- which is still published in New York but was far more influential back then -- in 1903: "I want my son to be a mensch, not running around like a wild American.  But he cries for baseball." And the editor wrote back: "Dear Sir: Let your son play baseball, so long as it does not interfere with his studies.  Do not let him become a foreigner in his own country."

Translation: You chose to come to America -- he didn't.  This is the only homeland he's ever known.  Teach him your culture and your traditions, but let him be an American kid, so he can be an American man.

Bill Mazer went to Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan, and then the University of Michigan.  In Ann Arbor, he played freshman basketball and wrote about sports for the student newspaper.  Michigan, then as now, was a superb academic school that's a bit nuts about sports, feeding Bill's hunger for competition.

He stayed in Michigan to get a job announcing at a radio station in Grand Rapids, and then came what people of his generation invariably called "The War" -- Capital T, Capital W.  Bill became an officer in the Army Air Force, where he met Marty Glickman, the first great New York-born sports announcer.  (Mel Allen and Red Barber preceded him, but both were Southerners.)

Through Glickman's contacts, Mazer got a job at a station in Buffalo, and hosting a show and broadcasting for the Triple-A baseball team, the Buffalo Bisons, staying there until 1964.  That's when he was hired by WNBC, 660 on your AM dial -- 23 years before that frequency switched over to all-sports WFAN.

At the time, WNBC was not prepared to compete with the great rock and roll stations of New York, led by WABC 770 (whose disc jockeys were known as the All-Americans) and WMCA 570 (the Good Guys).  So they didn't play music, going to a news and talk format that lasted a few years, and Mazer got the 4:30 to 6:00 PM time slot.

There, he invented New York sports-talk radio.  His shtick was that he was the trivia maven.  He knew everything, or so it seemed.  Call up Bill Mazer, try to stump him.  Very few ever did.

It was, to borrow a word, an Amazin' time to be a New York sports fan.  Although the Yankees collapsed in 1965, the Mets had a brand-new ballpark, the Jets moved into it as well with an exciting iconoclastic quarterback, the Knicks were on the rise, the Rangers were getting good, and then it all came together over a year and a half: The Jets won the AFL Championship and Super Bowl III in 1968-69, the Mets won the 1969 World Series, and the Knicks won the 1970 NBA Championship.  And, just as Mike and the Mad Dog (Mike Francesa and Chris Russo) were the guys to call up and talk about it with in the 1990s and 2000s, Bill Mazer was that guy in the 1960s and '70s.

In 1971, with WMCA having fallen by the wayside, WNBC decided to challenge WABC for the top spot in local music radio, although it took them until 1980 to get it.  So in 1971, Mazer moved over to WNEW (now WNYW), Channel 5, and became their sports anchor.  It was co-anchor John Roland who took his name of Mazer, and made it "The Amazin'," to tie in with "the Amazin' Mets." Instead of introducing him the way most anchors would introduce their sportscasters ("Well, it's time for sports, now, here's Bill Mazer"), Roland simply said, "All right, Amazin', go get 'em!"

The Amazin' went and got 'em.  In 1972, the Knicks and Rangers both reached the Finals of their sports, and Madison Square Garden was the place to be -- or, at least, to talk about.  But both lost.  The Islanders started up the next fall.  In 1973, the Knicks won another title, the Mets won another Pennant, the Nets got Julius "Doctor J" Erving, and the Yankees were bought by George Steinbrenner. 

Just as Glickman had once been the guy to teach New York's aspiring sportscasters how to do it on radio, Mazer became the guy who showed them how to do it on TV, inspiring Marv Albert on WNBC-Channel 4, Sal Marchiano and then Warner Wolf on WABC-Channel 7, and Len Berman and then Warner on WCBS-Channel 2, with Len then backing up and finally replacing Marv on 4.

Mazer also invented the Sunday late-night sports show for New York TV, now mainly the province of Francesa on 4 with Mike'd Up.  Mazer teamed with former Jet defensive back John Dockery.  He continued his career on WEVD, 1050 AM, before it became ESPN radio, and finally retired after being on New Rochelle, New York station WVOX.

When I was a kid, I was a baseball trivia nut, and people used to compare me to Mazer.  I had to find out who he was.  When I did, I couldn't get enough of him.  He was as cool as anybody he covered, from the 1976-81 Pennant-winning Yankees to the 1979 Stanley Cup Finalist Rangers to the Jets' "New York Sack Exchange" to Bill Parcells' Giants to those brash, drug-fueled, overhyped 1980s Mets.  In their case, Mazer was a lot cooler.

He made the all-sports-radio formats that developed in the 1980s possible.  Whether he was proud of that, I don't know.  As far as New York sports is concerned, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, he WAS the World Wide Web.

Bill Mazer died today, essentially from old age, at a retirement home in Danbury, Connecticut.  He was just short of 93.

Bill Mazer was a mensch.  If there's a Yiddish word for "cool cat," he was that, too.  If there's a Yiddish word for "badass," he was also that.

He wasn't just a legend, he was a prophet with honor in his own time.


charles r said...

Beautifully written...

charles r said...

Beautifully written....I always enjoyed Bill when I was growing up in NY..unfortunately I didn't remember how much until today.

charles r said...

Beautifully written...

William Cooper said...

Beautiful piece. Just one thing I would like to add (and hope you don't mind). When Mazer launched Sports Extra it was with Lee Leonard. John Dockery would replace Leonard. The departure of Leonard is significant because he got the opportunity to be the first anchor on ESPN. No doubt from Mazer's tutelage...