The 16 years that Bill Mazer spent working in Buffalo amounted to just a fraction of his 60-plus years in broadcasting, but that time left a deep imprint not only on Mazer but on a generation or two of sportscasters that came after him.
Mazer, who died at age 92 on Oct. 23 in Danbury, Conn., came to Buffalo in 1946 after getting out of the military. He had stints with WKBW and WGR Radio, and was the original sportscaster for Channel 2 when WGR-TV debuted in 1954.
By the time he left for a radio job in New York, he had also done play-by-play for the Buffalo Bisons baseball and hockey teams, for the Buffalo Bills in the All-American Football Conference, and for Little 3 basketball.
“Mazer was the voice of Canisius basketball when Canisius basketball was the biggest sport in town,” said Steve Cichon, the former WBEN Radio announcer who has written several books about Buffalo broadcasting history.
“A lot of guys have come and gone in Buffalo since 1955,” Cichon said. “Yet many people remember the name Bill Mazer” more than others. “He had a flashiness about him, but he backed up that flashiness with an incredible, vast amount of knowledge.”
Mazer worked for some 20 years as a sportscaster on WNEW Channel 5 in New York, where news anchor John Roland tried to stump him with sports trivia questions. Mazer rarely faltered, which led Roland to refer to him as “The Amazing.”
Rick Azar, the longtime sportscaster on WKBW Channel 7, was both a friend and competitor of Mazer. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, they worked on competing stations, but they also socialized together with their wives.
“He had a facility about facts,” Azar recalled last week from his home in North Carolina. “He would remember those kind of things. I couldn’t nearly do that. He was very knowledgeable in sports.”
Pete Weber first saw Mazer on TV when “The Amazing” was working as a color analyst on CBS-TV broadcasts of the National Hockey League’s game of the week in the ’60s. Weber, a former announcer for the Buffalo Bills, Bisons and Sabres who is now the voice of the NHL’s Nashville Predators, remembers watching Mazer when Weber was in college at Notre Dame.
“When CBS had the NHL package, Mazer would be on during intermissions,” Weber said. “One day he was going to interview Bobby Hull, but Hull got delayed between periods. As a broadcaster you’ve got to fill the time. So Bill interviewed himself. It was such a creative use of the time.”
Weber said he keeps in touch with Van Miller, “who always talked about how Bill had the most amazing mind he’s ever seen. We all thought Clip Smith had a photographic memory. But maybe it was more like Polaroids, which can sometimes get destroyed.”
Cichon used to produce radio shows with Larry Felser, the late News sports columnist.
“Larry always talked about Bill Mazer, he had a deep respect for him,” Cichon said. “Van Miller, Rick Azar – people half a generation after him looked to Mazer as the gold standard in Buffalo.”
“He was a top-notch broadcaster, no question about that,” Azar said. “He was a very bright guy, very incisive, things didn’t go by him. By that I mean in the process of conversation if more than just two people were talking, he noticed everything that everybody said.”
Mazer was born in Ukraine and moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was an infant. He attended Yeshiva University High School in Manhattan, then the University of Michigan. Perhaps “the city” never quite left the Brooklyn boy as he grew up.
Some friends and colleagues talk of Mazer has having “an edge,” one that didn’t always make for warm and fuzzy relationships with every colleague.
Azar recalled a story that took place on a golf course that he said was revealing. Azar was playing with Mazer and another sportscasting colleague named Frank Dill at a course across the border in Canada.
“Bill had a penchant for picking up the ball if it’s inside of 3 feet,” instead of putting it out, Azar said. “That day we’re playing the 11th hole and sure enough – Frank Dill and I putt out for par. Bill goes to pick up his ball but Dill says, ‘Putt it out.’ Bill misses the putt and he is furious.
“Now we get up on the 12th tee, it’s a long par 3, over 200 yards. He hits last because he missed that putt. He gets up and – in those days if you hit a driver 200 yards, it’s a pretty good shot – he pulls out a 3 or 4 iron and knocks his shot into a bunker. Bill then got so angry, he snapped that iron right in half. And Dill says, ‘That’s bush!’ Bill didn’t speak to us the rest of the day.
“At 11 o’clock that night, soon as I’m off the air, I go into my office and the phone rings. It was Bill. ‘You two shouldn’t have said that to me,’ he said, then hung up.
“That was Bill. He was a bright guy, a very good broadcaster, but personally he was kind of an enigma sometimes. I liked him, though some people thought he was arrogant. He was always a friend, though, and it’s unusual to stay friends with someone who is a competitor.”
In 1964, Mazer left Buffalo for a job with WNBC-AM in New York, which was pioneering a format known as talk radio. Mazer was one of the country’s first sports talk hosts. He later did a daily interview show from Mickey Mantle’s restaurant for WFAN, the New York all-sports station that started in 1987. In the later part of his career, he did general talk shows on smaller New York-area stations that allowed Mazer to talk about many topics besides sports.
“You talk to any sportscaster of a certain age, as I have through the years, and they all did the ticker-tape baseball games,” Cichon said. “That’s where they got the play-by-play, the balls and strikes, off a ticker-tape from the game. But those don’t make a broadcast, so the game on radio became a theater of the mind, which is what radio has always been.
“And Mazer was able to do ticker-tape baseball games because he was a student of anything he talked about. He wasn’t just a sports guy – I think that’s important. He had a full breadth of knowledge and was able to talk about everything.”
Some of Mazer’s radio and TV listeners in New York grew tired of his many references to athletes he covered in Western New York. Some called him “Buffalo Bill,” and didn’t mean it as a compliment. But Mazer obviously had great affection for the region.
“I never got to work with Mazer,” Weber said. “But between 1978 and ’82, whenever my teams went to New York, I made a point of seeing him. On a Bills broadcast in ’83, in fact it was the last Bills-Jets game played at Shea Stadium, we had a pretty good get-together at Shea with Bill and Van.”
“I’m not sure that he craved” celebrity and public recognition, Azar said of Mazer, “but he liked it. And that’s true of all of us in this business.”