Remembering Sports Phone and 976-1313: When sports info was a phone call away
Most of the millions of numbers uttered on Sports Phone are long forgotten -- scores of games no one cares about now, results that led to ill-fated wagers and shaped standings from another millennium and another world.
But for many New York-area sports fans of a certain age, seven digits are seared in memory, a phone number that resonates still: 976-1313.
"Everyone 45 and over can recite '976-1313,''' MSG Rangers reporter John Giannone said. "If you were a sports fan -- especially a gambling sports fan -- that number was embedded."
Said Steve Cangialosi, MSG's Devils announcer, "Only a couple of years ago, I was sitting in a friend's Italian restaurant and was introduced to somebody who . . . knew my name right away and he said, '1313!'''
So it goes for the alumni of Sports Phone, a New York institution that lasted for a quarter century, faded into history a mere 15 years ago and yet today seems as plausible as getting a Mets score via smoke signals.
To summarize for youngish readers: In a time before results were accessible anytime, anywhere, most fans desperate for information had nowhere to turn other than brief updates at 15 and 45 minutes after each hour on all-news radio stations.
Enter Sports Phone, which after a failed earlier effort, began in 1975 to offer updated roundups -- in 58 seconds -- for a small fee (originally a dime).
At first, the call-in number was 999-1313 and later there was an alternate at 976-2525, but fans knew where to look, and found young, eager announcers bound for bigger things.
(Don't bother calling now, the numbers are no longer in service.)
YOU KNOW THEM NOW
The alumni list includes -- and this just scratches the surface -- the current TV voices of the Yankees, Mets, Islanders and Devils, the radio voices of the Giants and Mets, the Knicks' public address announcer and the primary official scorer for Mets and Yankees games.
"There were a lot of young, enthusiastic, aggressive guys," said Knicks P.A. voice Mike Walczewski, 59, forever "King Wally" to Sports Phone callers and an original from '75. "It's just amazing when you look at the roster of people we had there."
Take Mets and Islanders announcer Howie Rose, 61, who worked on the original staff while still attending Queens College -- and after being recommended by Marv Albert. Rose was president of Albert's fan club at the time.
"For me it was like anchoring the 'CBS Evening News,''' said Rose, who said he earned $5 an hour. "When you're 21 and want more than anything to be on the air and someone says, 'I heard you,' that is the same sort of tonic a comedian must get when he gets on stage and hears a roar."
SNY's Gary Cohen, 57, was on in the early years, as was MSG's Al Trautwig, who still was a student at Adelphi when a key early executive named Mike Farrell brought him aboard.
"In college I remember hearing an ad for it," said Trautwig, 59. "What a concept! You can actually get the scores whenever you wantt"
Initially the results came in via an old-fashioned ticker. "You lived to hear that sound when you were waiting for the final score of the final West Coast game," Rose said.
But eventually the service had stringers in press boxes, which was faster. Sports Phone also sent staffers into the field to gather audio, providing invaluable interviewing experience for a generation of journalists.
SPORTS PHONE IS CALLING
Sometimes the interviews did not even require leaving the building at 919 Third Avenue in Manhattan. Rose recalled the night in 1976 when he spoke to the Maple Leafs' Darryl Sittler after he had totaled 10 points in one game.
He simply called the Maple Leaf Gardens switchboard. "I would say in as deep a voice as I could muster up, 'Could I have the locker room, pleasee' And damn if they didn't ring the phone," Rose said.
Five years later, Wayne Gretzky scored his 50th in his 39th game. "We called Edmonton and tried to get Gretzky on the phone," said Howie Karpin, 61, now of SiriusXM Satellite Radio and an official scorer at Mets and Yankees games. "Two hours later we get a collect call from Wayne Gretzky, and we interviewed him on the phone."
By the early 1980s, Sports Phone was a force, bringing in four million calls a month, with branches in Detroit and Chicago.
The New York crew had a pipeline to Fordham that delivered in addition to Walczewski and Giannone, future Yankees announcer Michael Kay, future Giants announcer Bob Papa, future YES analyst Jack Curry and future Washington Nationals announcer Charlie Slowes.
The non-Fordham roster included future Dallas Mavericks voice Chuck Cooperstein, out of Friends Academy in Locust Valley.
The New York office also provided updates to markets in the South, which led some announcers to use pseudonyms to sound less ethnic. Papa was Scott Randolph. Giannone was John Gannon. Karpin was Johnny Lee. Slowes was "Peachtree Pete" in Atlanta.
Cangialosi often did the Atlanta updates. "I was a 20-year-old kid, and I probably knew more about [the Braves'] Biff Pocoroba than any man should," he said.
"We did the Tampa fishing phone from New York," Trautwig said. "You called this guy Bob who talked about Buoy 17 and the causeway."
In addition to scores and interviews, there were other features, including "Quickie Quiz," to keep callers interested during slow times. The quizzes would bring in 400 to 500 calls. One of the most avid contestants was a young Kenny Albert, now the Rangers' radio voice.
"He was always the first or second person to call," said Charlie DeNatale, 61, who began at Sports Phone as an announcer and later was a marketing executive. Kenny Albert! So there's another Sports Phone alum, of a sort.
The service was big business, but for the young (mostly) men in the offices, there was plenty of time for fun, too. P.J. Clarke's was downstairs. So was Michael's Pub, where Woody Allen appeared regularly on the clarinet. Runyon's was nearby, too. Ken Samelson, a longtime staffer who later helped edit the Baseball Encyclopedia, recalled colleague Bob Grochowski -- a/k/a Bobby G -- dumping a bottle of Champagne on him during a raucous night at P.J. Clarke's after the Mets won the 1986 World Series.
"Fordham didn't have frats, so as close as we got to a frat is we'd go to Sports Phone and watch games and watch other things that maybe were unmentionable when you were waiting for the West Coast games to end," Giannone said.
Kay, 54, recalled once bringing sisters to the office on a double date with Giannone. "We made out with them at Sports Phone at like one in the morning," he said. "We had the codes to get in. We didn't have apartments or anything, so that's what we did."
Women staffers were few and far between, but ESPN's Linda Cohn was among them. She recalled in her autobiography that one of the TVs usually was tuned to the Playboy Channel.
Veterans credit the job for teaching them accuracy and succinctness. One category of callers required accuracy more than others.
"For years, fans would come up to me and say, 'When you were on Sports Phone, you always gave me good scores; I hate when so-and-so is on because I always lose when he gives the scores,''' said Papa, 50. "As if it actually mattered. But the gamblers are superstitious by nature."
Usually updates were freshened every 10 minutes or so. On NFL Sundays, it was every two minutes.
"It was overwhelming," Kay said. "I mean, the pressure was enormous. You had to knock it out in a minute and if you didn't the last words didn't get on, and that didn't help anybody. You had to get it right. I was 19 or 20. It was not easy."
DeNatale recalled Kay as a novice whom the veterans would send out for coffee. "Nobody wanted to put him on the air because he had a really awkward sounding voice," DeNatale said.
Said Samelson, "They used to order him around: Go to the deli! And look at him now. It's great."
Some of the resident grown-ups were memorable characters, too, such as Guy LeBow, a veteran radio man whom more than one alum compared to the fictional anchorman Ted Baxter from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
In short, it was an adventure.
"There was an air of zeal for sports and the people around you," said John Cirillo, who went on to be the Knicks' public relations man and now has his own P.R. firm. "You knew that they had such passion and were such outstanding broadcasters that they were going to be big time."
But that was not foremost on the workers' minds as they were doing it. "The concept of getting paid to talk sports was otherworldly for me at the time," Giannone said.
What could be betterr "I distinctly remember Gary Cohen walking out the door (when he left the job) and thinking, 'Wow, good luck with that!''' Trautwig said.
During the baseball strike in 1981, "we were dying," Walczewski said.
So Sports Phone decided to have the 1969 Mets face the 1961 Yankees in a seven-game Strat-O-Matic series. "Calls went up 400 percent," King Wally said. "The Mets won the series in seven games. That was typical of the entrepreneurial spirit."
The beginning of the end was WFAN's debut in 1987, complete with an ad campaign that specifically targeted Sports Phone. Gamblers' access to beepers hurt. So did companies blocking access to such phone numbers during work hours. So did ESPN2's bottom line.
The World Wide Web was the final blow.
By the end, at which point the offices had moved to Elmont and later Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, announcers simply were getting scores off the Internet and reading them for the phone.
"All you had left were people on the road or people who had dial-up and were too lazy to boot up the computer," said Don La Greca, 47, of ESPN New York Radio, who oversaw the final days of the service.
DeNatale is trying to organize a reunion of alums for next summer, perhaps during the All-Star break.
Some are celebrities now, others less so. But to some they always will be King Wally -- or Peachtree Pete.
"Early on it was so much fun to get paid to watch sports and goof around," La Greca said. "With all the things I have done, it was probably the most fun I had in the business."
Said Cangialosi, "Young men and women ask, how did you get started in the businesss and my story just isn't tangible to them anymore. All of us had this avenue back then and we all worked tremendously long, crazy hours, but it was such a blessing for a lot of us, too."
Trautwig said he still thinks about those days whenever he is driving on Third Avenue and passes 919. For those of us who did not work there, another series of figures lives on.
Said Karpin, "Everybody remembers the phone number."