First time, long time for Bill Mazer

Bill Mazer, 90, the host of the first

Bill Mazer, 90, the host of the first sports talk radio show in history that launched in March of 1964 on WNBC, talks about his life in broadcasting and his family at his Scarsdale home. (June 15, 2011) (Credit: Craig Ruttle)

Neil Best

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Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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The first-time caller, first-time listener would be a man in his 60s now, presumably still a fan with a phone. Perhaps he even weighed in this week on Jose Reyes' contract or Derek Jeter's calf.

But on March 30, 1964, he picked up a telephone receiver with no precedent and no expectations, only a question elegant in its simplicity and obviousness.

"The first call was a kid, and he said, 'I just want to ask you one question,' " Bill Mazer recalled nearly a half-century later. "I said, 'OK, go ahead.' He said, 'Who's better: Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle?' "

And that was that, an inquiry both unanswerable and endlessly debatable, a blueprint for the decades of idle chatter to come. At least that is how Mazer remembers it, and he is as good a source as any.

The father of New York sports talk radio is 90, but his memory for historical detail remains as sharp as ever. Sports discussion and interviews always had been part of radio. But in 1964 WNBC executive Mike Joseph unveiled a "Talk-Back" format, in which hosts would interact with callers, and he wanted to include sports.

He invited Mazer, who grew up in Brooklyn but had spent 16 years in Buffalo, back home to host a show from 4:30 to 6 p.m.

"I said, 'What do you want me to do?' " Mazer said. "He said, 'It's going to be sports talk.' I said, 'Are you kidding?' "

Billboard magazine called it "an attempt to capitalize on the traditionally vociferous New York area sports fan, who rarely is at a loss for words when it comes to expostulating on the Mets, Yankees, etc."

In other words, nothing has changed.

Mazer said the concept was a hit.

"It caught on like wildfire," he said during a two-hour conversation at the Westchester County home he bought that year and where he lives with his daughter, Beverly. Mazer's wife, Dora, nicknamed "Dutch," died in 1996. He has been retired since 2009 after leaving WVOX in New Rochelle, where he hosted a general interest talk show.

One early caller tested him by asking what he thought of "Zhabotinsky." When Mazer said he liked him, the caller accused Mazer of faking it and not knowing who that was.

"I said, 'Actually, I like Vlasov better than I like Zhabotinsky,' then I went down the whole list," Mazer said. That would be the list of the world's top weightlifters of the mid-1960s.

Listening to all this was NBC president Robert Kintner, who announced that henceforth three times an hour Mazer would take trivia questions from callers. "I told them, 'You've got to be out of your mind,' " he said.

It turned out to be a good career move. Mazer would become one of the 20th century's most prominent sports trivia mavens -- earning the nickname Amazin'. And he still has it after all these years.

Whatever you do, don't doubt him. Joe Girardi made that mistake while working for YES a few years back.

On the telecast, the announcers misstated the precise circumstances of Carl Hubbell's five consecutive strikeouts of future Hall of Famers in the 1934 All-Star Game. Mazer went to Yankee Stadium to confront Girardi, who wondered why Mazer was so sure of himself.

"I'll let you in on a little secret: I was at the game," Mazer told him.

After hearing that story, I asked Mazer what really happened that day, and he soon was reciting in correct order the entire American League lineup and what each man did against Hubbell.

That first WNBC show lasted several years at 660 on the AM dial, future home of WFAN. But it only was a tiny slice of Mazer's long, varied career, which began in 1941 when he replaced fellow Michigan alum Mike Wallace at WOOD in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Among many other things, he hosted a game show, was Ch. 5's longtime sports anchor (and co-host of "Sports Extra") and hosted other sports talk shows, including in the early days of WFAN.

Mazer doesn't listen to talk radio anymore, but he does watch the simulcast of Mike Francesa's show on YES. He said he mostly likes Francesa and respects his knowledge; when Mazer first heard him with Chris Russo, Mazer thought Francesa was a high school basketball coach.

Mazer's own time at WFAN included a show from Mickey Mantle's restaurant on Central Park South. Once he had Mantle himself on and told him the story of that first caller in '64. Mantle laughed.

"Then I said, 'Let me ask you something: Who's better, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle?' " Mazer said. "He said, 'Truly, Willie on an everyday basis was better. But the year I won the Triple Crown [1956], I was just as good.' "

There's your answer. Thanks for calling.