Neil Best leaves no stone unturned in the world of sports media.
Marv Albert is No. 1 NY voice
I have newspaper duties that will keep me busy all day, so here is a post to keep you occupied until Friday.
It is a list of New York's all-time top 25 sports announcers, ranked and written by David Halberstam, a prominent sports broadcasting historian and former play-by-play voice of St. John's and Miami Heat basketball.
I don't agree with all of these picks or the order, and neither will you, but that's the fun of lists.
A couple of relevant notes, though:
Halberstam strongly considered in the rankings people's pioneering roles - i.e. "Mike and the Mad Dog" for sports talk and Warner Wolf for his use of videotape.
And Vin Scully's relatively low ranking is not meant to be a slight. It simply reflects that a relatively small percentage of his career was spent working in his home town.
Here goes. Feel free to comment here or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1) Marv Albert
No sports announcer in these parts has been so popular for so long. He surfaced in the early 1960’s and slowly dominated Gotham. In 1965, Marv was hired by WHN to do afternoon sports reports. He then convinced station management to interrupt its music format to broadcast Rangers games on Sunday nights. The station acceded but limited his play-by-play to the last five minutes of the first and second periods and the entire third period. Albert took advantage of the opportunity by bringing an unflinching flair to the microphone. Two years later he was assigned the Knicks radio broadcasts. It was at a time when the team started winning and home telecasts were limited to a small cable constituency. Marv’s radio calls proceeded to captivate New York through two NBA championships.
Marv’s popularity led to television where he became a local fixture on WNBC TV’s 6 and 11pm newscasts. He was later picked up by the NBC Television Network and assigned basketball and football play-by-play. Ask Mike Tirico, Howie Rose or so many others today, who in the business inspired them to pursue sportscasting. They’ll invariably tell you, Marv Albert. Ask Spike Lee, who on-air turned him on to the Knicks and he’ll also say Marv Albert.
In 1997, his misdemeanor plea on sexual assault charges revealed an unwholesome past and cost him what he loved most, his on-air work, all of it. He bounced back in an economy of time. Now 69 and in his fifth decade on-air, his passion hasn’t waned.
2) Marty Glickman
Like Albert later, Marty Glickman brought versatility to radio and was adored by New York sports fans for six decades.
In the 1940’s, radio’s golden years, Marty Glickman made the transition from Olympian athlete to sports announcer. He covered track meets, marble tournaments and the horses. He was the first to broadcast Knicks games when the NBA formed in 1946. As a former gridiron star at Syracuse, Glickman began broadcasting Giants football in 1949. When the NFL’s popularity ballooned in the 1960’s, home games were not yet seen on local television and fans swore by Marty’s colorful and captivating word picture.
After 19 years on the Giants broadcasts, Glickman shocked local football fans when he moved to the Jets in 1973. It was a stunning move, one equivalent to Red Barber going from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the Yankees in 1954 or Marv Albert bolting the Knicks for the Nets in 2005.
More than anything else, Glickman’s legacy is the influence he had on countless aspiring young announcers. He was the Lee Strasberg of sports. If Strasberg’s instructive fingerprints were on Al Pacino and James Dean, Glickman’s were on Albert, Frank Gifford, Spencer Ross and so many other broadcasting successes. If Louie Armstrong was a jazzman’s jazzman, Glickman was a New York sports announcer’s sports announcer.
3) Mel Allen
The post-war generation reaped the joys of prosperity and from the mid 1940’s to the mid 1960’s, no sports franchise was as successful as the New York Yankees. The team’s very name triggered thoughts of royalty, power, wealth and the name, Mel Allen.
Allen’s thick, southern bred voice brimmed with passion and bellowed an unrelenting enthusiasm for the Bronx Bombers. He delivered a pitch with spellbinding drama and spun yarns with compelling theater. From the end of the war until 1964 when he was rather mysteriously fired, there was no bigger sportscasting name in New York.
When he was introduced on Old Timers Day in the decades that followed, Allen was invariably given a thunderous and heartfelt reception by the Yankees’ faithful. It reinforced the enormous impact he had on New York broadcasting.
4) Red Barber
In 1939, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the first of the three New York baseball teams to broadcast their games on radio. Their announcer, Red Barber, mesmerized a generation of Dodgers fans (1939-53) with an enthralling yet easy-going drawl that wafted from radios and porches throughout the metropolitan area. Dulcet toned, Barber’s accent was unquestionably southern.
During the tumultuous war years, he nonchalantly diverted the attention of listeners, using his baseball mike as a pulpit for a much needed blood drive. After the war, during baseball’s golden years in New York, he presided over the integration of the game, epic Dodgers-Yankees confrontations and mentored Vin Scully who would later become the enduring voice of baseball. After a spat with Brooklyn’s owner Walter O’Malley, Barber joined the Yankees (1954-66) where he cohabitated with Mel Allen. He was fired by the Yankees after the 1966 season by then owners, CBS.
In 1978, Barber and Allen were the Hall of Fame’s first recipients of the Ford Frick Award honoring baseball broadcasting excellence.
5) Mike Francesa and Chris Russo
Yes, each brings enormous individual talent. Yet they’re best together. And together, from the 90’s through the millennium, Mike Francesa and Chris Russo were New York’s highest rated sports talk radio show.
While Russo would throw an entertaining fit about impassible traffic on the 59th Street Bridge, Francesa would calmly analyze the previous night’s games and together they would provide insight into the upcoming schedule or the hot topic of the day.
Russo got his New York start at WMCA in the late 1980’s. Before getting his own on-air break at WFAN, Francesa was the brains behind the scenes for network stars like Brent Musburger. Barnacles upon occasion, Russo and Francesa nonetheless teamed up symbiotically to produce high ratings and serve as the conscience of the New York sports fan.
Francesa and Russo helped make the station profitable, serving in the 1990’s as poster boys nationally for the burgeoning sports-talk format. Because of their enormous success, Mike and Chris probably helped spawn competition in New York when ESPN /1050 hit the airwaves as a rival all-sports radio station.
6) Warner Wolf
Wolf started in New York before the advent of ESPN. Fans then had no television choice but to fill their sports cravings through local newscasts. At the time, the night’s play-by-play highlights were also becoming conveniently and instantly available to television stations. Wolf put the highlights to entertaining use on the 11 o’clock news. He was the first to bring a welcomed irreverence to the news set.
Warner captioned the highlights flamboyantly, stabbing a finger in the air and hollering “Let’s go the video tape.” His comments were sprinkled with silly and trenchant cracks. The weatherman, Mr. G. was his usual foil. If there was a shot of a shirtless fan in the stands on a frigid night, Wolf would chuckle, “And Mr. G. was at the game.” The set chuckled harmoniously and viewers headed for bed with a smile.
Wolf started at WABC TV in 1976. By 1980, there was a war for his services and it resulted in a lawsuit when Warner took his shtick to WCBS TV. After a twelve year run there, he went to work in his native Washington before returning to WCBS TV in 1997. At 72, he still cracks one-liners while offering up sports news every morning on Don Imus’ show over WABC Radio.
7) Bob Murphy
The articulation was unmistakably Oklahoma, yet it was a voice that resonated popularly in New York for some four decades. It was a voice that emanated from St. Petersburg each March, a voice that was a precursor to summer. On radio, no announcer in history has broadcast more baseball games in New York than Bob Murphy.
Beginning with the Mets’ first at-bat ever in 1962 and right through the 1990’s he didn’t miss a beat. Through hopeless years, Murphy was the embodiment of encouragement and through the amazing championships of 1969 (“You got to believe.”) and 1986 (“Booted by Buckner!”), he was the author of “many happy recaps.” Through some four decades, his style hardly changed. It was simply Murphy and it’s was made him so charming. He became like an old pair of shoes. Step into them and feel comfortable. Presidents, mayors and Mets’ managers came and went, yet Murphy’s voice was always settling.
The Hall of Fame recognized Murphy’s contribution in 1994 when he was chosen for the coveted Ford Frick Award. His legacy is also etched into CitiField’s home radio booth which is named in his honor.
8) Phil Rizzuto
Loved and adored, Rizzuto broke a mold. Joining the cultured Mel Allen and Red Barber in 1957 at Yankee Stadium, the Scooter broke the sternness of the booth, ushering in a lasting era of 40 seasons of neighborly warmth, disarming dialogue and uninhibited humor. “Holy Cow, is he going to make another pitching change? I’ve got to get home. Cora’s got pasta on the stove.”
When he was appointed to the Yankees broadcasts, Allen and Barber, two taskmasters, showed him little love. They felt that Rizzuto represented an invasion of the booth by ex-athletes. So on the very first broadcast from spring training, Allen and Barber walked out of the booth during Rizzuto’s assigned innings, leaving Scooter to sink or swim.
Funny, Rizzuto would out-survive both and become somewhat of a broadcast icon in his own right. The Scooter will always be enshrined in the annals of baseball broadcasting for simply being himself and for giving announcers everywhere license to break convention and protocol.
9) Len Berman
A nightly New York television fixture for almost thirty years, Len was thoroughly prepared to deliver sports in a tightening economy of local television. Glickman said of him, “Len would have also been a tremendous producer.” Indeed, “Spanning the World,” was a highlight reel of snippets that blended zany and bizarre sports activity which Berman produced and narrated.
In an ever changing landscape, Berman became the victim of what station management perceived was waning relevance of sports reports in local newscasts. (We trust it was financial pragmatism as opposed to conviction. Berman says that he was a casualty of consultants.) Part of Len’s glittering skill set is his gift to write. So today, Berman sends email blasts daily. “This just in, the Giants finally register a sack,” a Berman missive said, “Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan is fired.”
10) Bill Mazer
Mazer started as a commercial reader on the William Shirer Newscast on CBS in the 1940’s, television’s embryonic years. He then trudged to Buffalo where he spent the first third of his career. In 1964, the Russian born broadcaster returned to New York where he fathered sports talk in afternoon drive on WNBC (660 – now WFAN). He quickly became a favorite of kids who were starved for any forum to talk about the demise of the Yankees and football Giants and poor performances of the Knicks and Rangers. Sports programming at the time of any sort was very limited.
By the early 1970’s, during more prosperous days of local television, Mazer pumped out sports news on Channel 5 which launched its primetime newscast at 10 o’clock. (“It’s 10 o’clock; Do you know where your children are?”) The Channel 5 news anchors would attempt to stump the A-Maz-in’s encyclopedic knowledge of sports trivia but Bill was pretty unbeatable.
Mazer’s score of years on Channel 5’s Sunday Night Sports Extra was must viewing. He, Lee Leonard and others would review the events of the past week, introducing fresh video and in depth local features otherwise unavailable. In the late 1980’s, Mazer hosted a midday talk show on WFAN where his strong pipes exuded warmth, memories and an historical perspective on sports.
11) Sal Marchiano
A New York television sports fixture for over forty years, Sal started at WCBS-TV in 1967. He moved to WABC TV in 1970 succeeding Howard Cosell. But by 1976, Marchiano was pushed down the depth chart by the arrival of the flamboyant Warner Wolf. So when the weekday gig opened at Channel 2 in 1979, Marchiano leaped. But a year later, there was Wolf again. WCBS signed Warner from Channel 7 and Sal was history.
Through the years, Marchiano ran the gamut; ten years at WNBC-TV and some fifteen at WPIX TV. He’s covered it all with style and aplomb or as Bob Raissman in the Daily News put it “for 41 years Marchiano provided highlights, wisecracks and sarcasm to those inclined to " ‘keep it where it is’."
12) Stan Lomax
When radio was indispensable so was Stan Lomax. His fifteen minute daily sportscast was the equivalent of today’s ESPN SportsCenter. Lomax was on highly rated WOR Radio from 1931-77 earning the moniker, “Dean of New York sports broadcasters.” Each evening, Lomax provided a detailed sports resume that became appointment listening. There were no play-by-play highlights or taped actualities. Lomax, a one time writer, delivered beautifully scripted sports news in a baritone. He was welcomed figuratively by families at their dinner tables each night when the internet was only a wild fantasy and even all-news radio was years away.
“The first time I ever went on the air was on Stan’s show,” broadcast legend Marty Glickman said. “He was a big name and you couldn’t help but love him.” Lomax did the last broadcast interview with a dying Babe Ruth.
13) Ralph Kiner
For 48 years, he’s been an official member of the Mets broadcasts, albeit in a diminishing cameo role the last decade or more. In his heyday of play-by-play, Kiner’s malaprops and incongruities became humorous if not legendary. “The Hall of Fame ceremonies are on the 31st and 32nd of July.” or “Tony Gwynn was named player of the year for the month of April.”
For many seasons, the former home run king and Hall of Famer hosted the popular, Kiner’s Korner after game telecasts on Channel 9 or as Ralph himself might say, “Welcome back to Kiner’s Korner with Ralph Korner.”
14) Lindsey Nelson
National League baseball returned to New York in 1962 and for their first seventeen years, the enthusiastic Nelson teamed with Kiner and Murphy to call all Mets games on television and radio. The three were an unshakeable trio. Like those with Southern drawls before him, Allen, Barber and Hodges, the Tennessee bred Nelson was embraced fondly in New York.
Lindsey also made his mark wearing gaudy sports jackets when the sale of colored television sets boomed in the 1960’s. “At one point, I owned 355 of those psychedelic sports coats,” he said. “People didn’t always recognize me but they knew my outfit.”
When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, spokesman Bob Guilfoyle said of the jackets, “They clashed with his soft southern drawl.”
15) Vin Scully
In 1953, when he was just a lad of 25, Dodgers’ announcer, Vin Scully was offered the loftiest of opportunities, partnering with Mel Allen on NBC’s coverage of the Yankees-Dodgers World Series. Brooklyn’s senior voice, Red Barber, had turned down the assignment because he felt that he was underpaid at $200 a game. Barber though was Scully’s mentor and Vin wanted Red’s approval before accepting the biggest of assignments. Barber not only blessed Scully, he also gave him his scorebook to use on the broadcasts.
It would be years later in Los Angeles (he is in his 61st year with the Dodgers) until Scully would be treated with iconic reverence. Yet Scully’s rich description, soothing voice and inexhaustible reservoir of anecdotes enriched the cultural vitality of baseball broadcasting during his eight formative years in New York. In Brooklyn (1950-57), he covered Ebetts Field immortals, Duke Snyder, Roy Campenella and rookie, Johnny Podres in game seven of the 1955 World Series. (“Ladies ‘n Gentleman, the Brooklyn Dodgers are world champions!,” he enthusiastically told a national television audience.)
16) Art Rust
The recently deceased Rust ruled the roost on powerful WABC in the 1980’s. Before WFAN was relevant and Russo and Francesa were household names, the pioneering African-American presided weeknights for almost a decade. He had previously done years of sports on Channel 4 and radio talk on WMCA and WWRL.
Rust recognized his strengths, which essentially were instant recall of old-time baseball and thorough knowledge of boxing when the sport still dominated. WABC’s 50,000 watts of power and its carriage of the New York Yankees gave Rust a powerful platform. His reference was never simply Yankee Stadium, it was rather “the big ball orchard in the Bronx.”
Because ESPN was still a fledgling TV entity and fulltime sports radio wasn’t born yet, most of the 80’s belonged to Rust. Often warm and embracing, Rust also had an occasional edge. He smartly deferred to his expert guests when discussing sports whose knowledge wasn’t his expertise.
17) Sam Rosen
It is sometimes said that there are 25,000 hockey fans in New York and they’re all watching the Rangers. Yet, 26 years on the same job says a lot. And doing it with style and with an inimitable flair fosters an indelible bond.
Rosen is a play-by-play addict. If he’s not doing the Rangers, he’s broadcasting football for Fox or hockey for the NHL Radio Network. He’s also done boxing, “Giants Journal” and has ably filled in on Knicks games. And if he’s doing neither, he’s calling someone for another gig. Rosen has had a cherished and glittering career.
But if you ask him about his most memorable interview, he’ll say it was with Jimmy Carter after he won the Oregon primary in 1976. Rosen was then working for the UPI Radio Network.
18) Russ Salzberg
In the economy of a local sportscast, “The Sweater,” Salzberg, merges feistiness, candor, humor and disdain. His frankness made him a provocative radio talk show host, too, on WFAN in the mid to late 1990’s, teamed with schmoozing Steve Somers.
Since 1988 when he arrived at Channel 9, Salzberg has had more than just one moment in the spotlight. He defended his employer, WWOR TV, in the1990’s when an ex colleague, the fired anchor Sara Lee Kessler, sued the station for sexism and anti-Semitism. “She’s full of crap,” he said. Russ also had a notorious confrontation with former Giants coach, Ray Handley, who walked out of a press conference after being peppered with questions by Salzberg.
19) Scott Clark
“You have to feel it in your blood,” Scott Clark said. He would know. Clark started hosting sports on Channel 7 news in 1986 and remained an institution there until recently when he announced that he’s leaving. Some might say Clark was ‘cut and dried’ but ‘time in grade’ says a lot more. For some 25 years, he was sports director of the winning Eyewitness 7 team, the market’s ratings leader at the 11 o’clock news hour.
Starting at a small radio station in Lima, Ohio, Clark might think of New York and say to himself, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” But as a recovering alcoholic, Clark appreciates the price of success. So the alcohol is gone and he’s turned his enjoyment to Canali suits, tasty lattes and good cigars!
For the tons of eyeballs that watched him every night, it probably looked easy. But in his later years, Clark would say, “My most challenging aspect is staying healthy while making long runs in sports like the Yankees playoff run in October/November and covering Spring training. They involve non-stop 16-hour days, mostly seven days per week. It used to be a lot easier, but I’m not 30, or 40, or 50 anymore.” Clark made this comment not all that long age. It harbingered his departure.
20) Walt Frazier
In 1989, sixteen years after leading the Knicks to their second NBA championship, Walt Frazier was asked to join the team’s radio broadcasts.
Frazier worked at his new craft. He carved his niche by studying the dictionary and using fancy words. It wasn’t just a ‘heady’ play. It was a ‘sagacious’ play. And there was also customized rhyming. “Oak had the stroke” and “It was a Ewing doing.” After years of success on radio, Frazier moved over to Knicks’ telecasts where his current partner, Mike Breen, says, “No one breaks down players’ strengths and weaknesses like Walt.”
Frazier and Phil Rizzuto will always be fan favorites, men who excelled as players and transitioned to the booth becoming colorful and stylized local announcers.
21) Jerry Girard
Girard was different. For 21 years beginning in 1974, Girard held court impishly on WPIX TV, Channel 11. He did so with deadpan humor. When it was reported that a star player didn’t have sex before games or after, Girard wisecracked bafflingly, “I guess that only leaves during the game.”
Girard was a reluctant performer. He was a happy behind-the-scenes writer before a WPIX executive talked him into auditioning for the anchor job at age 41. Mark Twain said, “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, the only earthly certainty is oblivion.”
Jerry was the only sportscaster on television to provide horse-racing results from area tracks and he limited game highlights to perhaps only one or two a sportscast. Girard will be remembered for his inscrutable face and sharp-tongued sarcasm.
22) John Sterling
A talk show host in the 1970’s, Sterling fashioned amusing diatribe and tantrums. John’s evening show on WMCA was the only place to tune in sports talk.
After leaving for a decade in Atlanta, Sterling was hired to do Yankees radio play-by-play in 1989. Despite a continuing avalanche of criticism in the years since and a call for his dismissal by longtime New York Post sports media critic, Phil Mushnick, Sterling has survived.
Sterling ‘s body of baseball work, a mix of stream of consciousness, tendentious judgments and knee-jerk reactions, smacks of a broadcaster whose roots are in talk, not a melodically trained play-by-play announcer. While he never developed the beat and cadence that have woven radio baseball into the American summertime fabric, there are those diehards who find him humorous and informative. Unfortunately, listeners who don’t like him and there are tons, cannot avoid him! Sterling is the first baseball announcer in the history of the game to do all nine innings, 162 games a year.
23) Russ Hodges
“The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant!” How many times did Russ shout these words into his radio microphone when Bobby Thomson hit the home run heard around the world? Seemingly countless, like the number of times the call has been replayed the last 59 years. It’s arguably the most widely heard play-by-play call of all-time. Hodges came to New York to serve as Mel Allen’s sidekick on Yankees broadcasts from 1946-49. He then moved over to the Polo Grounds where he told the story of Willie Mays and the Giants until they bolted for San Francisco at the end of the 1957 season.
Back in the day, baseball arguments on New York City street corners could have been over the best centerfielder in town, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Duke Snyder. Another familiar argument centered on the broadcasters. Who was the best, Allen of the Yankees, Barber of the Dodgers or the Giants’ Hodges?
24) Les Keiter
In his 1979 book Yess,! Marv Albert says “I could sit in front of a radio and listen to Marty Glickman and Les Keiter do play-by-play forever.” Today, Keiter might be ridiculed as a showman. Yet in the 1950’s and 60’s, his amusing manner was engaging. If you heard, “The arithmetic reads,” “He tickled the twine” or “In the air, in the bucket,” you knew that the gruff yet lovable voice belonged to Les Keiter.
While he also did Knicks and Giants broadcasts, Keiter might be best known for his popular baseball recreations of Giants games when the team moved to San Francisco. He did them vividly and dramatically on WINS from 1958-60, keeping National League baseball alive on the New York City airwaves. When the Western Union wire interrupted the flow of information from the California ballpark to New York the studio, Keiter created a mythical grounds-crew to explain the delay.
25) Spencer Ross
He’s been around forever and has done just about everything. It might be said that Ross is the most versatile play-by-play voice in New York history. On radio, he’s done play-by-play for the Jets, Yankees, Rangers, Knicks, Nets and Islanders. On television and/or cable, he’s done Jets, Yankees, Nets and Rangers. He’s facile at any sport and comfortable on either medium. Ross is the original voice of the New Jersey Nets which debuted in 1967 as the New Jersey Americans. The Brooklyn native also hosted a talk show on WFAN.