Jerusalem — When I heard that Bill Mazer died, my first thought was about my father. Dad and Bill were born two months apart, and they died four months apart. They met as seniors at Yeshiva University High School, class of ’36. While my father stayed on at YU for college and semicha, Bill went off to college at the University of Michigan, then to the Army, and after that, 16 years in Buffalo, where he began his sports broadcasting career.
The two men lost contact for 27 years, but when Bill moved to New York to take a job at WNBC, they renewed their relationship. I was 10 years old, all I cared about was sports, and suddenly I had the sports media god — the very Jewish sports media God — sitting at our dining table.
And Bill was the sports God. All of the obituaries last week about Mazer made note of his place in sports history, how 23 years before WFAN became the first all-sports radio station, before an entire industry rose up, Bill was doing the unheard-of: hosting an afternoon sports-talk radio show from 4:30-6 p.m. — drive time! — on WNBC, the same 660 on your AM dial. (Mazur died on Oct. 23 in Danbury, Conn. He was 92.)
In 1971, he moved over to WNEW (now WNYW), Channel 5, and became the sports anchor. It was co-anchor John Roland who took the name Mazer and spun it in to “The Amazin.’” Bill also hosted the pioneering highlights show “Sports Extra,” which ran late on Sunday nights, and where he developed his signature closing line, “Good night, my friends, it’s been a pleasure.”
Bill was a huge success because he was the most personable of hosts, never talking down to his callers or guests, and of course, because of his unparalleled memory.
Steve Powers, who worked with Bill at Channel 5, said: “In Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps,’ the music hall announcer says ‘Ladies and Gentleman, with your kind attention and permission, I have the honor of presenting to you one of the most remarkable men in the world.’ He was referring to the main act, an extraordinary memory expert.
“Bill Mazer put him to shame.”
Powers continued: “Bill once reminded me about some party we had been to a few years before, mentioning a conversation we’d had then. While I couldn’t even remember the party, Bill totally recalled our discussion, and recounted it. In short, a steel trap. He was one of a kind.”
Bill said his remarkable recollection skill came from memorizing his thrice-daily prayers when he was young; but every religious boy in Brooklyn knew how to daven by heart. No, Bill had a gift, a photographic memory that he combined with his passion for sports to become one of New York’s premier sports figures.
Ahhh, but memories play tricks on all of us, don’t they? In what is said be his final interview, with Newsday in 2011 at age 90, Mazer told reporter Neil Best about his first baseball game, at Ebbets Field in 1928:
“My cousin Red from Canada was staying at our house. We were in the synagogue and he said, ‘This is going to take all day, c’mon, I want to take you somewhere.’ He took me to the baseball game — on Yom Kippur! I remember Dazzy Vance pitching.”
If you knew Bill Mazer, that story doesn’t make sense. He was born Nov. 2, 1920, in Zaslav, then the Volhynia province of western Russia, now Ukraine. His parents first moved to Montreal when Bill was 4 months old, but after his father was offered a job working at a kosher poultry market on Fort Hamilton Parkway, the family immediately moved to Minna Street in Borough Park.
His parents were religious immigrants; the language at home Yiddish. Would they really have let their son leave shul on Yom Kippur? Bill remembered leaving shul, and he remembered seeing Dazzy Vance pitch. But a check of baseball-reference.com shows that Vance didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur that year.
Could the records have been wrong?
A further investigation reveals that Vance pitched two days before Yom Kippur, and two days after. No, it was Bill’s memory conflating two Holy Days: Vance pitched the second day of Rosh HaShanah in 1928. And if that was Bill’s first game, he picked a dandy: the Dodgers lost in 10 innings, after tying it with two runs in the bottom of the ninth.
But as great as his memory was, that’s not what defined Bill Mazer. He was not a one-dimensional sports jock, but was well read, as adept at discussing the Dead Sea Scrolls as he was dissecting St. John’s basketball. My father loved to talk sports — having been an outstanding amateur shortstop himself growing up in Toronto — and so with Bill, he could really talk inside baseball about baseball, and, being Canadian, hockey, of course. But Bill wanted to talk English literature, my father’s field, and so the two would discuss the importance of James Joyce with the same passion as they did the greatness of Carl Hubbell.
But that’s not who Bill was either. I worked with him at WNEW as well, and, of course, he was nice to me. But what was really impressive was how he always treated me as a colleague, not as the kid whose bar mitzvah he had attended.
He was like that with everyone. Burt Kearns was a 20something non-Jew from the Connecticut suburbs when he landed his first TV news job at WNEW: “I was new to New York City, and he was a giant, a local legend, the most recognizable star in the newsroom — he was ‘The Amazin’! The surprise was how approachable he turned out to be. He always had time to help out and teach ‘the kids.’ Once he signed a book to me, ‘I’m proud of you. I hope you’re proud of me.’ The first time I learned the word ‘mensch’ was when someone used it to describe him.”
Thank you, my friend; it’s always been a pleasure.
Elli Wohlgelernter is a writer living in Jerusalem.