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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: May 28, 2024 12:44 pm PDT

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Sports Phone was first. And fast.

Long before the MLB Network, the NFL RedZone, Sports Radio and even ESPN, there was Sports Phone. You called a number and got your sports scores. There was no Internet, either, to check the scores. No Google.

You called a phone number to get your scores. Yes, Gen Z, you really did.

This was long before cell phones too. You had to find a phone and dial the number – 976-1313. And it cost money to call that number.

For sports fans, it was The Number.

For gamblers, it was The Number; called over and over for updates on all scores. Pete Rose knew the number, so did the real Goodfellas.

It was the number that launched many broadcasting careers like Mets aces Gary Cohen and Howie Rose. It was the number that provided a spark for youngsters wanting to get into broadcasting like young Kenny Albert, who became a master at the daily “Quickie Quiz.’’ Don La Greca of the Michael Kay Show worked there as well as did Brian Kilmeade of Fox News. So did Tommy Tighe, Peter Schwartz, David Schuster, agent Alan Sanders, editor Ken Samelson, program director Steve Torre of Mad Dog Sports Radio, Mike Walczewski, public address announcer for the Knicks, the New York Giants’ Bob Papa and so many more.

It is a number that has quite the story to tell. And now this number talks again thanks to the storytelling efforts and deep research of two of my New York friends Scott Orgera and Howie Karpin. Their book: “976-1313’’ is like Sports Phone itself, once you dial the number, you are hooked.

Sports Phone print ad. Credit: Charlie DeNatale

This is such a great idea for a book because it touches generations of sports fans and the stories collected from a wide cast of characters are nothing short of remarkable. As the subtitle says: How Sports Phone Launched Careers and Broke New Ground.

In a world today that often tries to beat you down, this is a fun read and brings you back to a simpler time in sports when the score was what mattered.

“How is my team doing?’’

For 10 cents you got instant update information you couldn’t get anywhere else. Call it too often though, and when the family phone bill arrived, you got the call from your parents.

For gamblers, it was success or the grim reaper.

Sports Phone was a group of passionate sports fans. This was life on the fly, a new business endeavor where there were no rules. Hire young broadcast people, hire stringers, get the score or the story anyway you could by any means even if it meant finding sources at P.J. Clarke’s.

One of those means was by calling press boxes – and I remember my time in San Diego as a Padres beat writer, sitting in the open air press box of Jack Murphy Stadium and getting that call often from New York.

Every sport was covered, even Strat-O-Matic Baseball. There is a heavy dose of baseball and wonderful stories in the book, including bringing Phil Rizzuto into the Sports Phone world through a mutual friend, to get The Scooter in the Sports Phone lineup to promote the business. After a lunch with executives and a look at the New York offices where 100,000 calls a day would come in, Rizzuto could not quite grasp the new technology and said, “How am I going to answer 40,000 calls at the same time?’’

Cora!

Sports Phone found a way to get it done after a bumpy start in its original launch in 1972 and in 1975 the service was reloaded and relaunched.

 “It was kind of chaotic, but it was certainly entertaining for the people that worked at Sports Phone … It was kind of a disaster, but it worked.’’

This is a story that needed to be told.

“We thought at first that maybe we’d have 30 or 40 people who worked there and we’d talk to them and that would be the book,’’ Orgera said of his original concept of the book. “But what happened is we started interviewing folks and we kept being taken down other paths and I started talking to people who used to call into Sports Phone and they became a big part of the book  – and before you know it we were interviewing over 100 people.’’

And each one had a story or two or three.

Orgera never worked at Sports Phone but Howie Karpin, the king of official scorers in Major League Baseball did, and the two proved to be great teammates in gathering information. “It was a team effort,’’ Orgera told me.

Much like Sports Phone, which became a proving ground for young people interested in broadcasting and sports. You see Sports Phone didn’t just announce scores, Sports Phone covered events as well. Sports Phone did interviews. Sports Phone also offered a chat line called Sports Phone Live that featured like 30 gamblers all looking for scores at the same time. Sports Phone seemed to be in every city.

NYC-based broadcaster Gordon Damer recalled of Sports Phone Live, “It was kind of chaotic, but it was certainly entertaining for the people that worked at Sports Phone … It was kind of a disaster, but it worked.’’

The longer you stayed on the call, the larger the phone bill.

Noted Rich Coutinho, “I wanted to make sure I got all the stuff in, but I also wanted to make sure whatever market I was on, whether it was New York, Chicago or Detroit, you had to tailor the reports.’’

The caller became part of the Sports Phone family. Coutinho once told a desperate gambler who had big money on underdog Notre Dame that his bet was not lost and that maybe, just maybe, the point spread would change in his favor in the last seconds if the team leading the Irish by six took a safety.

That’s exactly what happened and about a week later a case of Stoli vodka arrived at Sports Phone’s door as a thank you to Coutinho for talking the gambler off the ledge.

Mike Walczewski (left), Charlie DeNatale, and Cory Eisner in Eisner’s Sports Phone office. Credit: Charlie DeNatale

“I was surprised how much Sports Phone meant in each of the caller’s lives,’’ Orgera told me. “Everyone remembered the number. Everyone had stories to tell about getting in trouble when the phone bill came and Kenny Albert, who called in to try to win the quiz, he was actually on the Michael Kay Show on Friday talking about it. He was a young kid at the time beating adults.

“The gamblers were the ones who had the most interesting stories, not to disparage them, but some of them were degenerates at the time and Sports Phone was a key part of their lives.’’

This was all untapped territory.

During his research Orgera found a small dispatch from a court reporter on the trial of Jimmy Burke, who inspired the character “Jimmy The Gent’’ Conway from the 1990 film classic, Goodfellas. This was the trial concerning the Boston College point-shaving scandal. In the dispatch it was mentioned that phone records were entered into evidence by the prosecution. Orgera searched far and wide and finally got those records. “It’s public record but because it was so long ago, none of it was digitized,’’ Orgera explained. “Finally, I found this National Archive in Kansas City, Missouri and for eight bucks a guy dug out the records out of a box and scanned them for me and it shows these guys calling 976-1313 in the midst of calling each other as they were basically working on the point-shaving scheme.’’

Funny how? What’s funny about it?

Orgera, who has authored over 1,500 computing and technology articles and graduated summa cum laude in Analytics from Purdue University, went one step further and tracked down Ed McDonald, the prosecutor in the case, and talked to him for two hours. After another call to the FBI, “We wound up getting a full chapter out of it,’’ Orgera said. “When we started this book, I had no idea that we would be writing about Henry Hill and Jimmy Burke when we are talking about Sports Phone. It took us down some weird paths.’’

BallNine’s Rocco Constantino is in the book because of his deep love for the Mets.

In 1985 the Mets were battling the Cardinals for the NL East title in the days of only two divisions in each league. Rocco’s home phone was near the back door that led to the back yard so there was a lot of commotion around that area. “I had to be laser-focused on the scores as they were being read,’’ Constantino said in the book. “976-1313, that number remains one of the few numbers from my childhood I won’t forget. For a kid who loved the Mets and baseball it may as well have been the bat phone to me.’’

Holy Cow Batman, unfortunately the Mets landed three games out of first, another Mets disappointment.

Then, of course, 1986 happened, a great year for the Mets and New York Sports Phone.

Sports Phone softball team; Fred Weiner (holding clipboard), Bob Meyer (looking at clipboard), Howie Rose, and others (background). Credit: Charlie DeNatale

Sports Phone also did reporting. On a good day back then, you could call clubhouses and hotels and even hospitals and you might get lucky with an interview. The night in 1981 when Wayne Gretzky scored five goals, giving him an NHL record 50 goals in his 39th game, Pat Harris from Sports Phone made the call to Northlands Coliseum. Gretzky, who was surrounded by reporters, didn’t pick up but Coach Glen Sather did. He promised to pass the number to Gretzky. Amazingly, Gretzky eventually called back and the interview took place. Three years later at the NHL All-Star Game Harris introduced himself to Gretzky and the superstar said, “Hey, you’re the guy that called me the night of the 50 goals.’’

If you had the late shift you had to wait until games ended. Harris was on Rochester Sports Phone that night in 1981 of the everlasting minor league baseball game between Rochester and Pawtucket that was suspended after the 32nd inning at 4:07 in the morning at McCoy Stadium. Future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. of Rochester and Wade Boggs of Pawtucket went a combined 6-25.

Jim Memolo, now of SiriusXM, was the one working the Rick Camp game between the Mets and Braves in 1985 on July 4th that ended with a Mets win when Ron Darling fanned the pitcher Camp, who homered earlier, at 3:55 in the morning at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. “I know my girlfriend at that time was very suspicious that I showed up at her place in Manhattan five hours later than expected,’’ Memolo recalled. “I said, Well, there was a ballgame.’ ’’

John Sterling was the Braves broadcaster and his call of the Camp home run was one for the ages.

Sports Phone was also there for Disco Demolition Night in Chicago and reporter David Schuster launched his radio career because everyone else went to the field and clubhouse and he was all alone in the press box, feeding information to the Associated Press and other major outlets.

Orgera interviewed legendary football agent Leigh Steinberg, the real-life Jerry Maguire, and he said Sports Phone inspired him in several business ventures, including something I remember, Frank Cooney’s Pro Sports xChange, a daily briefing on every baseball and football team.

Again, Sports Phone was first. And fast.

Cuba Gooding Jr. (left), Leigh Steinberg, and Tom Cruise on the set of Jerry Maguire; This scene was shot at a Los Angeles hotel decorated to look like the site of the NFL Draft. Credit: Leigh Steinberg

Steinberg had many quarterback clients so he would get constant updates on his guys from Sports Phone on an NFL Sunday, again, there was no NFL RedZone. He had to find a way to stay connected.

Sports Phone helped create a new sports model.

“From my perspective, if we were going to do this, we have to do it right,’’ Orgera said of the book. “This is kind of a key piece of sports reporting history. We have to do it justice. I wanted to make sure we covered as much as we possibly could. We had so many anecdotes we could sprinkle in throughout the book.’’

Orgera and Karpin, who have a combined 75 years of covering sports, did just that. Check out the website 9761313.com.

When Sports Phone’s Steve Cangialosi went up to Pete Rose in Shea Stadium after a tough loss and introduced himself, Rose responded: “Oh, I know you, Sports Phone.’’

Pete Rose knew and needed that number 976-1313.

New York Giants broadcaster Bob Papa worked there, too. Jack Curry, now of YES, used to call Sports Phone and then worked there for a short time. The names go on and on and are listed early in the book.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing between print media and Sports Phone. “You just didn’t want to be known as a tape head, somebody who just stuck their microphone in, got sound bites, sent it back to the office, and called it a night,’’ Jim Cerny said. “There were times they would try and turn off my tape recorder.’’

Times have changed. Now electronic media, and those having the broadcasting rights to baseball games, are allowed to ask a series of questions to open every postgame baseball interview. It was the Sports Phone reporters and stringers who paid those dues. The first woman on air at Sports Phone was Shelley Adler. “I remember it was fun being under that kind of pressure and having it all come out perfectly, and getting that ‘Sports Phone, first and fast’ at the end,’ ’’ she said of the live reports.

Yes, Sports Phone was first. And fast.

Sports Phone keychain, button, and magnets. Credit: Scott Orgera

Linda Cohn of ESPN fame worked for Sports Phone and loved the experience, saying it was “a comforting workplace … I wanted them to know that I was just like them, and then they felt comfortable around me because they knew I didn’t have another agenda.’’

There was work to be done. In 1981 Sports Phone received 50 million calls. On and on it went, close to a billion calls in total.

“A lot of what Sports Phone did was it showed the desire, that I don’t think anyone realized it would be as much as it was for constant information,’’ Orgera explained. “They also created a lot of these things on the fly. The Quickie Quiz wound up being one of their biggest money makers. They only created it because during the afternoon during certain times of the year, there were no games going on. They just wanted to fill airtime and it wound up being one of the most popular things on Sports Phone.’’

When the Yankees somehow got two players thrown out at home on the same play Bob Papa was there reporting for Sports Phone. “I remember having to go to the locker room, they had that old picnic table and Billy Martin was going absolutely bonkers,’’ he said.

Billy Martin befriended Papa though, because Papa told him how his father used to play weekend baseball games as a kid in Macombs Dam Park, and many of the Yankees lived nearby in the Grand Concourse Hotel and would come down to their games. Billy Martin was one of those players. Noted Papa, “I remember him saying to me, ‘Oh, well, you’re a real Yankee,’ I hadn’t worked for the team or anything, but that was kind of cool.’’

Another cool story found in 976-1313.

Sports Phone was first. And fast.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

Comments
  • Chris

    Love this article. I remember calling and getting a guy who identified himself as “King Wally” I was a sports phone addict at night.

    April 28, 2024
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