Make no mistake, Bill Mazer was simply Amazin'
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Bill Mazer often lamented that he did not make it bigger, never quite breaking through as a nationally known figure rather than primarily as a New York-area sports broadcaster.
But he missed the point. Amazin', who died Wednesday two weeks shy of turning 93, was the right guy at the right time in the right place, becoming in his own very New York way an important figure in sports media history.
Mazer was born in Ukraine but grew up in Depression-era New York, rooting for the Dodgers -- especially pitcher Van Lingle Mungo -- before settling after World War II in Buffalo, a job he landed through a guy he met in the South Pacific named Marty Glickman.
Sixteen years later, he was back where he belonged, on WNBC, where in 1964 he began a talk show -- perhaps not the very first to host a sports call-in program but the first to use his kibitzing skills to popularize and perfect the art.
Naturally, Mazer claimed to be the very first, as would any self-respecting New York character with a healthy self-promotional streak, doing so as recently as June 2011 in an interview with Newsday at his Westchester County home.
Mazer later turned his remarkable recall for sports minutiae into a reputation as a trivia maven and helped pioneer the highlights show as a co-host of Channel 5's "Sports Extra.''
By the time I visited him two years ago, he was barely recognizable from his television days -- in failing health, severely hard of hearing and prone to repeating stories verbatim not five minutes apart.
Yet his ability to accurately recall long-ago events and facts remained unaffected -- no help from research materials needed.
"I went to Yeshiva for high school,'' he said. "To be in Yeshiva and say your prayers as we did and use a [prayer book], you would have been laughed at. I never thought I had a good or bad memory. It never dawned on me until I came to New York [in 1964]."
Mazer remembered an early caller who tried to test him by asking what he thought of "Zhabotynsky." Mazer said he liked him, prompting the caller to accuse him of faking his knowledge of the subject.
"I said, 'Actually, I like Vlasov better than I like Zhabotynsky.' Then I went down the whole list," Mazer said -- the list being that of the world's top weightlifters of the mid-1960s.
When Joe Girardi was working for YES, Mazer said, the future Yankees manager misstated the circumstances of Carl Hubbell's five consecutive strikeouts of future Hall of Famers in the 1934 All-Star Game.
Mazer confronted him at Yankee Stadium the next day and set him straight, because, after all, he was at the Polo Grounds for the game.
I could go on, because Mazer certainly did. But you get the point.
Mazer's legacy lacks the historical weight of his contemporary Glickman, a world-class athlete turned influential announcer who mentored a long list of broadcasting stars and who, by the way, preceded Mazer in talking sports on the radio.
But no matter. Mazer helped make and keep sports fun and connected in particular with a generation of teenage boys now turned men in their 60s with fond memories of calling WNBC on late afternoons and having their opinions taken seriously.
After that 2011 article, a reader named Marty Lieberman of Plainview wrote to share a story from 1964, when he was 16 and Mazer invited him and a friend -- on the air -- to visit after a show at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
"Bill soon joined us and bought us Cokes in the coffee shop in the lobby,'' Lieberman wrote Lieberman wrote in an email posted on my blog. "I have no idea what we spoke about but I clearly remember sitting there with our Cokes.''
Lieberman presumably recalled the scene accurately. If it had been Pepsi, I would have heard about it from Mazer.