Top Broadcasters In New York Sports History

Mike Francesa and Chris Russo. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

David J. Halberstam, author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History (McGraw Hill) 1999, has graciously offered SB Nation New York the opportunity to run his rankings of the top broadcasters in New York sports history. In this two-part series, we look at the rankings of the Top 25 of all time, according to Halberstam. Wednesday, Halberstam looks at the Top 5 on a category-by-category basis.

[First of two parts]

Sports announcers have been with us for a long time and we've shared many precious moments with them; big calls on the car radio or talkies barking something so incongruous that it infuriated.

Local announcers have been our sports lifeblood. There have been those whose voices comfort and others whose voices repel. There were voices of our youth and voices of summer, those who soothe and those who anger. Some talk too much and others talk too little. Some are like an old comfortable pair of shoes even while they age.

So David J. Halberstam, a noted sports broadcast historian, has identified New York's top 25 sportscasters of all-time, spanning the birth of radio in 1921, the growth of television after World War II, and the eruption of endless sports on cable and satellite. We've also selected the top five announcers by sport; baseball, football, basketball and hockey and by medium; sports-talk on radio and local sports on television. Be mindful that these rankings only grade announcers' contributions to New York sports.

Who belongs and precisely how they stack up is an issue of benign debate. Yet it would be difficult to argue who's been the most influential of the lot in these parts through the years.

Top 25

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, Marvwas 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 1940s, 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 1940s to the mid 1960s, 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 1990s 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 1990s 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, Berman was never at a loss for words except once when appearing on the Howard

Stern Show. Asked by the shock-jock if he had a bigger penis than Marv Albert, Berman was speechless. Otherwise, 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 e-mail 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 1970s, 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 1980s, Mazer hosted a midday talk show on WFAN where his strong pipes exuded warmth, memories and an historical perspective on sports.

11) Sal Marchiano

The dean of New York television sports reporters, Sal started on Channel 2 in 1967 and spanned a couple of generations through separate stints reporting sports at Channels 2, 7, 4 and 11.

12) Stan Lomax

For some 45 years beginning in 1931, the avuncular Lomax delivered the ESPN SportsCenter of the day on WOR Radio. In many of those early years, families listened to Lomax over dinner catching up on "the day's doings in the world of sports."

13) Ralph Kiner

Lovable Ralph triggers thoughts of the bumbling 1962 Mets and almost fifty years of the humorous malaprop and non sequitur. "Tony Gwynn was named player of the year for the month of April."

14) Lindsey Nelson

Nelson and his gaudy sports jackets embodied the first seventeen years of Mets play-by-play, Casey Stengel, Tom Seaver and more innocent times.

15) Vin Scully

Gave Dodgers diehards eight years of golden throated play-by-play before he and the club bolted Ebbets Field for the baseball riches of California

16) Art Rust

Rust owned the sports talk landscape in New York for much of the 1980's. Before WFAN was relevant and Russo and Francesa were household names, Rust was appointment listening at 6 each evening for almost a decade

17) Sam Rosen

For a quarter of a century the distinctive and raspy voice of New York hockey. "It's a power-play goal!"

18) Russ Salzberg

For years on Channel 9, now occasionally on both Channels 9 and 5, Russ opines, can be wry and is unmistakably "The Sweater."

19) Scott Clark

Solid hits and tackles and 24 years of sound, unobtrusive nightly sports on Channel 7

20) Walt Frazier

To an older generation, Frazier's identified with the Knicks' only two NBA championships. As an announcer to a younger generation, he's identified with "swishing and dishing" at a time when the Knicks' were a "Ewing doing!"

21) Jerry Girard

For 20 years, he distilled quips, wisecracks, witticisms and frank sports reports on WPIX, Channel 11

22) John Sterling

A cutting-edged New York talk-show host in the early 1970s, Sterling has come under an avalanche of criticism during all his 21 seasons as the principal play-by-play announcer on Yankees radio.

23) Russ Hodges

"The Giants win the pennant!" might just be the most replayed and memorable radio call in sports history. Russ Hodges was the voice of the baseball Giants for nine animated years

24) Les Keiter

Colorful personality of the 1950s and 1960s. He did play-by-play stylishly, most notably radio recreations of the baseball Giants when the team moved west in 1958. With a makeshift crack of the bat and manufactured crowd noise, "Willy swings, ‘boom,' it hit the wall!"

25) Spencer Ross

One of the more versatile sports announcers in New York over the last forty years. Ross has called Yankees, Nets, Jets and other teams and has served as a visible sports anchor on WCBS and WINS and as a sports talkie on WFAN.

[Wednesday: The Top 5 in a variety of categories, including sports, talk, and TV anchors. You can e-mail Halberstam at halby@halbygroup.com.]

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