How Sports Phone helped launch some of broadcasting’s biggest names


Hard for some of us to forget that number. Some recall it with a thin, crooked smile and perhaps a short shake of the head, while others must awaken to it in a trembling sweat.

That was the number of Sports Phone — for better, worse, richer or poorer and in sickness and in health. It was the stop locals made to get the very latest — as in “incoming!” — news, scores, Sports Phone Quiz and, most significantly, to check their gambling action.

Sports Phone was pay radio, 10 cents a shot. The authors of a wonder-filled new book on the operation and the operators estimate that in 1979 Sports Phone was part of a system that received 271 million calls at an average revenue of 6 cents per call that netted the phone company over $16 million.

The authors of “976-1313: How Sports Phone Launched Careers and Broke New Ground,” (Press Pass Chronicles, 450 pages) are Sports Phone alum Howie Karpin, now a noted senior official scorer of local MLB games, and sportswriter/statistician Scott Orgera.

976-1313: How Sports Phone Launched Careers and Broke New Ground

Put simply, not until the cell phone explosion that began 35 years ago was there a more immediate option for immediate info than Sports Phone — oddly enough inspired in some part by the “Dial Santa” sell of the 1960s.

It seemed as if Sports Phone played a recurring role in my life on Saturday nights, when we were most likely to be dining out with close friends — two of whom I knew to be seriously afflicted with sports gambling mental disorders.

At these dinners, one or both of my friends would often excuse themselves then disappear. Urinary tract infections? “Where do they keep going?” was the frequent question from the wives.

I knew. They were headed for a pay phone to track their action, especially on Saturdays around 7 p.m., as late afternoon college football and basketball scores accumulated.

One of those close friends, on the verge of suicide having lost his business to gambling, sought help and is now in full recovery. He made it. The other is in the wind — his home, family, career and presumably his mind lost to missed free throws and goal line fumbles.

And I knew another — a kid fresh out of college — would make five-time or $25 bets then spend 2 bucks in dimes calling Sports Phone.

The book is replete with anecdotes, incidents and accidents. Sports Phone is where young, perspiring sports broadcasters and sports production gizmo savants made their entry-level premieres for entry-level peanuts.

Kenny Albert ‘owned’ the Quickie Quiz on Sports Phone,. Patrick Lewis/Starpix for The Paley Center for Media

John Giannone, now an MSG Network regular after sports-writing gigs at the Post and News, made his baby bones at Sports Phone. In the book he recalls this:

“I was volunteered for a Toys ‘R’ Us promo we were making because I had easily the highest-pitched voice.

“I went onto the booth and said, ‘Hi, boys and girls, this is Geoffrey the Giraffe from Toys ’R’ Us. Visit me at the Willowbrook Mall this coming Saturday!’

“And I’m like, wow, I’m getting paid $7 an hour to be Geoffrey the Giraffe.”

And Orgera and Karpin recall that a very young Kenny Albert “owned” the Sports Phone “Quickie Quiz” as he was so often correct.

The names that traveled to and through Sports Phone are a roster of those who hustled their ways in and then up:

Mets SNY broadcast team of Ron Darling, Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez

Nets radio voice Chris Carrino, Rich Ackerman, hockey savant Jim Cerny, ESPN’s Linda Cohn, radio regular Pat Harris, horse-racing maven Mike Farrell, Gordon Damer, Jack Curry, Don La Greca, SNY/Mets Gary Cohen, NYFD Captain Tony Matteo, Fox’s Brian Kilmeade, WFAN’s Peter Schwartz, Chris Russo’s SiriuxXM producer/sidekick Steve Torre and the ever-present “King Wally” — Mike Walczewski, soon to become the longtime courtside public announcer at Knicks games.

There’s even a chapter, including copies of legal documents, that led to the conviction of noted Lufthansa caper thief and mobster Henry Hill (portrayed by Ray Liotta in the 1990 classic movie “Goodfellas”) based in part on 1978 calls to Sports Phone.

Then there were the rude awakenings, such as the one told by Sports Phone alum Charlie DeNatale when dispatched to spring training to gather players’ sound bytes.

Linda Cohen once worked at Sports Phone Rich Arden/ESPN

Upon approaching Reggie Jackson and asking for a minute of his time, DeNatale took one for the Sports Phone team as he was treated to all the legendary sweetness in one of Jackson’s candy bars with, “Why the f— would I want to talk to you?”

“976-1313” — drop a few dimes to read it. Good stuff.

Serena to sully ESPYs

ESPN’s relentlessly antithetical grasp and presentation of sports continues to challenge intelligent fans to pander with the network from the discomfort of their own homes.

Last week the Disney network proudly announced this year’s ESPY’s — a sports awards show stuck in backward since its debut — will be hosted by Serena Williams.

That’s right, the easily disliked Serena Williams — known as a rotten winner, a worse loser; a vulgar, threatening tantrum-tosser and self-entitled presence whose departures from tournaments please those assigned to please her.

Serena Williams will host this year’s ESPY awards. Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

All of the above ESPN has for years ignored, excused, rationalized or even applauded as evidence of her admirable character, only evidence to the contrary available.

Thus she’s perfect for what ESPN is and what the ESPY’s have been allowed to become.

Perhaps she can present the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award — named for the humanitarian who publicly belittled gentleman champ Floyd Patterson, racially mocked Joe Frazier as a “gorilla” and popularized name-calling and trash talk for generations of kids to mimic.

Williams, also portrayed by ESPN as a courageous social activist, clammed up when ESPN fired Doug Adler for the hideous lie that he called her sister, Venus, “a gorilla” when he had so clearly admired her “guerilla” tactics.

The Williams Sisters allowed an innocent man to be ruined for life, destroyed as a racist based on an abundantly bogus claim. Small wonder the sleeping woke at ESPN have so transparently encouraged the network to become a paradise self-destroyed.

Clichés get old-school

Last week Mets’ radio man Keith Raad said Mets fans gave a “tongue-in-cheek” cheer to a reliever for finally throwing a strike.

Always in search of the derivation of expressions, I looked into tongue-in-cheek to find that it may have been first read in French, in the 1740s, as an expression of contempt and sarcasm.

In the next century it was taken as an act that “suppressed mirth or laughter.”

Best one of the week, though, was Bryce Harper, out as he’s “under the weather.” That came from the large wooden days when sickly sailors and passengers were sent below decks to recover, thus were placed “under the weather.”

Famous hippie days and beyond FM DJ Dick Summer died last week at 89. Anyone remember weekend nights playing Summer’s “Mouth vs. Ear,” a clean, pleasant and engrossing quiz show for the thoughtful?

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