Remembering New York sports broadcasting legend Bill Mazer, dead at 92

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

The Boston Red Sox won their ninth consecutive World Series game last night.  Who was the last team to do that? 

Today, you can just call up the answer on your smartphone.  But in an era before information became as ubiquitous as tap water, there was a far more authoritative way to get a reliable answer:  just ask Bill Mazer.

 Bill Mazer (left) with Steve Dunlop on the Challenge Round on New York's Ten O'Clock News, 1990.  Image courtesy WNYW-TV. 

Bill Mazer (left) with Steve Dunlop on the Challenge Round on New York's Ten O'Clock News, 1990.  Image courtesy WNYW-TV. 

I had the privilege of working with the man they called "The A-Maz-in'" for the better part of a decade in New York at The Ten O'Clock News on Channel 5.  He was a genial, avuncular conversationalist who sang opera in the newsroom (although he actually preferred the acoustics in the men's room)  and who would yell out "Stevie!  Boychik!"  with a smile when he passed me in the hallway.   I never knew what that Yiddishism meant until Mazer taught me the term. 

But for members of my generation, Bill Mazer and sports trivia were virtually synonymous.  He might as well have invented the field.   He certainly invented the sports radio call-in show. 

I first encountered him as a kid of about 9, on our kitchen radio, listening to his afternoon call-in program on WNBC called "The Challenge Round."   My parents, both transplants from the Buffalo area where Mazer had spent 16 prior years as a sportscaster, were already well acquainted with his near-photographic recall. 

"The first call was a kid," Mazer told Newsday in 2011, reflecting on how it all began.  "And he said, 'I just want to ask you one question.' I said, 'OK, go ahead.'  He said, 'Who's better: Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle?" 

 The Sports Answer Book, authored by Bill Mazer in the 1960's.   

The Sports Answer Book, authored by Bill Mazer in the 1960's.   

That's asking for an opinion, of course, not a fact.  But Mazer's knowledge of sports facts was so encyclopedic that he wrote a book on the subject that you can still find on Amazon.   (Sorry, my copy is not for sale.) 

Mazer was no sports geek, however.  In the late 1960's, he moved to WOR Radio, where he hosted a nightly interview program from The Steer Palace, an upscale steakhouse near Madison Square Garden.   On WOR, Mazer and his guest would entertain subject matter ranging from the arts to politics to music to popular culture.  

Mazer was a radio producer's dream.  Just wind him up and point him toward the microphone.  But unlike most of today's non-stop talkers, Mazer was a Renaissance man.  He could address virtually any topic with intelligence, civility, and depth.  He was a sports guy for people who didn't necessarily care for sports.  

And it was that ability to cast a wider net that led to his hiring at Channel 5, as my longtime Ten O'Clock News colleague Christopher Jones told me. 

"Mark Monsky was the news director and he was looking for a sports guy," Jones said, "but Monsky was a news guy with little interest in sports." Jones, who listened to Mazer on the radio, was deeply impressed by how he handled stumper questions live, and suggested that Monsky hire him. 

"I told Monsky that Mazer could keep viewers watching the sports segment, even when they didn't particularly care about sports - and that included Monsky," Jones told me.  "Monsky called Mazer.  The rest is history." 

One night in the summer of 1990, I was anchoring the Ten O'Clock News alongside Bill Mazer.  Sports was the last segment.  Mazer was running long, as he usually did, and floor manager Donna Hayes was waving frantically at him to wrap so we would have time for the Challenge Round. 

Mazer brushed Donna off with a wave of his hand, and just kept reading his script at his normal pace, as though nothing had happened.   No one at home saw it - and probably not even any one in the control room.  

The question I read to the A-Maz-in was from a Joe Niehardt in Middle Village, Queens.  "When Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941," I asked him, "Joe DiMaggio hit .357 to finish third in batting that year.  Who finished second?" 

"I know the guy," Mazer responded without hesitation.  "I saw him play shortstop for Washington.  His name was Cecil Travis.  He batted, what?  .359?"

Bill Mazer got it right, of course.  Even the batting average.  That didn't surprise me.  What surprised me was how he could handle both an unexpected question and the pressure of the clock - just by staying focused, doing his unique thing, and by being as warm and engaging on-camera as he was in person. 

You can't do that by pretending to be someone else - which is what too many people on TV do these days.  "What you see is what you get," Mazer once told me about his delivery style. 

By the way… we got off the air on time.