Jerry Azar

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Back when I was a kid in the 1980s, every February my brother and I would fly to Ft. Lauderdale to spend a week with our grandparents, Nat and Mollie Pearlman.

Trips were always filled with fun and adventure: Lion Country Safari, Monkey Jungle, fishing, boat rides. But, for me, the gem of gems was the morning when Grandma and Grandpa would take us to watch New York Yankees spring training at the nearby stadium. Neither my grandparents nor my brother cared about sports—but I sure did. So I’d spend most of the time there leaning over the railing, begging for autographs. Through the years I snagged some dandies: Billy Martin, Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles. But, for some reason, the most memorable signature snag occurred when I spotted Jerry Azar—THE JERRY AZAR!— walking near the stands. He was, at the time, the most charismatic and influential sports anchor in New York, so I yelled at, “Mr Azar! Can you sign? Please, Mr. Azar!” Well, he walked over, mustache glistening in the sun, and I was giddy. Hell, 30-sometimes years later, I still have that scarp of paper.

Anyhow, consider this a full circle moment, because today’s 260th Quaz features THE JERRY AZAR!—one of my absolute media heroes and a man who has seen the highs and lows of a career in sports media. Jerry now lives in Indiana, but looks back fondly upon those days when TV sports anchors weren’t merely guys on the air, but kings of a city.

Jerry Azar, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Jerry, so back in the 1980s when I was a kid in Mahopac, N.Y., there were guys who I had to watch on TV. It was you, Sal Marchiano, Jerry Girard, Len Berman. My folks would yell, “Sports is on!” and I’d run in and watch—and that’s how I knew what was happening in this world I cared so much about. Nowadays it’s so different—sports 24/7, sports here, sports there, sports everywhere. And it sorta feels less … special to me. Do you know what I mean? And do you share those feelings in any way?

JERRY AZAR: I know exactly what you mean. We have an endless variety of sameness, and while I am not jealous, I am—as someone currently on the sidelines—jaded and bitter. Remember when NBC had “Must See TV” on Thursday nights with Seinfeld, etc? It used to be that way in local sports before cable—ESPN first, and then others conquered. There were distinct personalities on all the stations. Yes, we all had the same teams to cover, but it was a certain cook with a certain flavor. Now, it is formulaic with the same formula.

Another factor is the new audience of Millennials. Their appointment TV is when they set the appointment, not the network, not the station. Studies point out that they don’t trust marriage, employment, politics, Wall Street. You have a better chance in a casino then with their attention span. Sit through 22 minutes of a newscast to see a sportscaster? Sit through an hour of SportsCenter? No way. They get what they want, when they want or they don’t watch at all and find it on YouTube, or their phone. Perhaps if we were more compelling and original we could command more of their attention. Originality is not very original anymore. Not many have it, because no one really seeks it. That is why all the highlight shows look alike. I always felt personality was great, but you had to have the writing for that personality. That game plan took me twice from Terre Haute, Indiana to New York. I also had it, which can’t be defined, but cuts both ways. Throughout my career, I would be hired for that personality, that memorable TV/radio quality. Then the people that hired me would be fired and the next management—instead of liking it or at least being ambivalent—went totally against my game and soon it was “Bye-bye, get you audition tape ready.”

With Walter Cronkite
With Walter Cronkite

J.P.: You were a sports anchor in New York City during both the (bad) craziness of George Steinbrenner and the (successful) craziness of the Davey Johnson Mets. What was it like dealing with those two teams? Did you prefer one clubhouse over the other? One way of operating after the other?

J.A.: First, I don’t consider the George Steinbrenner years bad or crazy. I dealt with George before I came to WABC Channel 7 New York. I was working in Nashville from 1979-to-1981, and the Nashville Sounds were the Yankees Double A affiliate. They had some pretty good players on that team—Don Mattingly, Willie McGee, Steve (Bye Bye) Balboni, and a player who didn’t have the ability of the others but gave all he had and took the strikeouts very hard (he turned out to be a pretty good manager named Buck Showalter).

So George was going to help the Sounds out with an exhibition game in Nashville and I was assigned to get interviews and features for the game at spring training. The day we were there the Yankees didn’t feel like talking. I then went to George and told him we were having problems with his children (players). He blew up at me, told me to get my ass out of Ft Lauderdale and said that he was canceling the game in Nashville.

When the papers interviewed me I told them other forces were at work to make George hot. President Reagan had been shot that day, and Reggie Jackson had suffered a minor leg injury. This was a big story in Nashville, and from a hotel room I orchestrated that The (Nashville) Tennessean got access to my apartment for a picture of me that shared the headline with a picture of the Boss. The headline: STEINBRENNER AT ODDS WITH AZAR. Well, that headline and my audition reel helped me land the New York job.

Anyway, things were smoothed over, the game was held and George and I shook hands at the field. He later he presented me the award for the Southern League Sportscaster of the Year. Even without all that, Baseball isn’t as much fun, the Yankees aren’t as much fun and sports is not as much fun without the Boss and George M. Steinbrenner belongs in the Hall of Fame.

As for the Davey Johnson Mets, they were starting to set the table for their glory run of the 1980s. I interviewed Darryl Strawberry the day he was called up. Ron Darling was there, Keith Hernandez came and then Gary Carter. The Mets were more fun to cover because there was less tension. Dwight Gooden then came up and the Mets were being overly protective. They allowed no one-on-one interviews with Gooden. So, hey, you gotta do what ya gotta do. I gave my microphone to Strawberry, and somewhere there is archive footage of Darryl with the Eyewitness News mic interviewing Gooden, who had hit a home run that day. Doc’s line was terrific: “If they hang it I’ll bang it.” I have that interview on VHS and will post it once I get it converted to DVD. The Mets were loose and easy to cover, The Yankees a challenge because there was a Cold War atmosphere always ready to erupt.

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J.P.: Billy Martin—what was he like to deal with? What’s your best story?

J.A.: Why were the Yankees ready to erupt? Billy the Kid. Under Billy the Yankees instituted a policy—no cameras in the clubhouse. You would ask the players to come outside for interviews, and do Billy in the manager’s office. Why? It was always something—he said this, no, he said this, I was misquoted, Billy did this. The camera could set the story straight on many of these controversies.

I can remember once when Billy had been fired, then brought back, we were sent to Texas. The Yankee players didn’t want Billy back, there was a story of Don Baylor throwing a trash can against the wall. Well, when the announcement came there was going to be trouble. But, Billy, being Billy, hires Willie Horton as “tranquility coach.” There was also Billy’s fight with Ed Whitson, and Billy suffered a broken arm. I remember that when I interviewed him, Whitson was amazed that people thought there were two sides of the story. Hey it’s Billy Martin.

J.P.: In 1989 you were hired as the sports director at WKBW, the ABC affiliate in Buffalo, after being let go by WPLG. A story about the move included this: “Azar also had problems getting along with anchorwoman Ann Bishop, WPLG`s most valued talent. He said it was a personality clash. She countered that he wasn`t thoroughly prepared for his sportscasts.” A. What happened? B. Looking back, did she have a point? C. How often do personality clashes happen among news teams?

J.A.: After leaving WABC New York, my next stop was WPLG Miami. At that time I was not a good situation player, and I was in a situation. When I went there, Miami had just the Dolphins and U-M, the Heat had just won the right to exist as an expansion franchise, the Marlins and Panthers soon followed. You asked about Ann Bishop’s comment that I was not prepared for my sportscasts. Well, what I was not prepared for was the New York bias. Here was Mr. ABC, Mr. New York, coming to Florida to show us how it’s done. Instead of letting that slip by, I would fire off some smart-ass answer to give it back. Maturity and experience have taught me that just because you’re a quick gun doesn’t mean you have to go out in the street to prove it every time.

Ann Bishop was a great talent and anchor, but she was at war with the news director who hired me. You were either with Ann or not. I could not side against the guy who hired me. Also, while she was the top star in South Florida, I also had an audience from all of the snow birds who remembered me from the Tri-State area. In the end, Ann got the news director and me, and her critique that I wasn’t prepared was the first and only time that has been thrown against me. I loved living in Miami Beach, but the time there was too short. The lessons, though, were valuable.

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J.P.: As you know, ESPN’s Stuart Scott died in 2015. He, like many of the SportsCenter anchors through the years, had lots of fans and lots of detractors. People argue with Scott, Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, etc that they make it too much about them, too little about the actual sports. What do you think? Is there a boundary? And how does one know what/where it is?

J.A.: Their success speaks for itself. This goes back to your first question: If everyone is wearing a navy sports jacket, maybe your tie can make you stand out. The Broadway show and movie, “Gypsy,” had a number called, “You gotta have a gimmick.” If you find something that works for you and the audience likes it, run with it. Reaching an audience is one thing, connecting with them is a different animal. But when you do and it works, its magic. When a performer, anchor, actor has something that separates him from the pack, it separates them financially, more publicity, more opportunities. I am all for the standout, stand alone sportscaster who can pull this off. However, there is a danger. Topping yourself, going too far, well, the risk is that instead of being colorful, you cross over to zany. In preaching from the pulpit, you give a sermon every day, not just on Sunday and the novelty is gone. Trying to be funny every story, every highlight. If you can get off one or two good lines in a sportscast, it’s a big win. If, some nights, the material isn’t there, don’t force it.

J.P.: I know you’re an Indiana kid, know your first job, as a switchboard operator at WTHI, paid $1.60 an hour—but how did this happen to you? Like, why sports television? When did you first get an inkling? What was your first job? When did you realize you could be better than just good?

J.A.: It’s true—I got started as a switchboard operator in Terre Haute, which at that time was the country’s No. 140 market. What happened was, I injured my back out of high school … it was a ruptured disc that pinched a nerve, and my leg was dragging. I wore I brace but found it hard to sit in class in college, so I dropped out to have surgery, went back and never finished. To be honest, I hated school from time I was at St. Margaret Mary’s and the nuns did a number on me that still affects me to this day. You had to go to a Catholic school in the 1950s and 60s to appreciate what they did to many children who, like me, bear the emotional scars. But that’s a story for another day.

So injured back and all, I heard about a switchboard job opening at the TV station, and that eventually led to doing interviews and then anchoring. This brought about a change of climate regarding Jerry Azar. I was getting complements. We had a charity basketball team, and having played and being a dead-on pure shooter, well, I couldn’t do much, but I could shoot. That ability and showmanship led to people writing and calling the station—“Who is the guy with the big nose and mustache? He put on a good show!” That also helped to get me started. I felt I was good and getting acclaim was a high.

Remember, this was  during the drug revolution, and while I have never done anything related to drugs (which no one believes) I had found my high, the most intoxicating, addicting drug—TV. It gave self esteem, a sense of purpose, helped with women and it was legal. I went all in, all the chips in the middle, no plan B necessary, I was home. But, I gave all of myself, body and sou,l to a volatile, irrational, subjective force, that with all the glory would also bring bouts of unemployment, humiliation and allow this career to do things that no human—man or woman—could ever get away with. I knew I was good and I knew that I had it. Even when I was making just $5 a show as an anchor, the wolves were circling. It came easy to me, I didn’t need a  teleprompter when there wasn’t one. This was the mId-1970s, when the fun sportscaster was becoming the rage. Warner Wolf, Jerry Girard, other man like that.

When Muhammad Ali fought Ernie Shavers, I tracked Ali down in hotel room, spoke to members of his team about the fight. That brought about a meeting where I was was told, “If you want to be Howard Cosell go to New York.” Remember, I am only there on weekends, making $5 a show and were having meetings. I quit after that meeting, got another job at a TV station in Terre Haute, and eventually made it to New York … and interviewed Cosell.

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J.P.: You spent a good amount of the late 1990s and early 2000s at Michael Bloomberg’s WBBR in New York, serving as the morning sports anchor, getting up at 1 am to start preparing. It kinda sounds, well, awful. Was it? And is there something addictive about being on air/on screen that keeps people in the profession?

J.A.: I will always be indebted to Mike Bloomberg for bringing me back to New York in 1994. He also gave me the opportunity to do what I always wanted to do—celebrity interviews. Not just sports stars, either, but film greats and some from the political arena. Getting up early, hey, they don’t call it the graveyard shift for nothing. It was tough. At the beginning I tried to watch my lead story, Baseball was the toughest as those games could run past midnight, etc. You can’t do that and get up at 3 or 4 am and be sharp. I don’t like to go to work and start work, I like to have most of work done when I get there, and start cranking it out. After nine years it took its toll. I spent 16 years at Bloomberg L.P.

A quick Mike Bloomberg story: Mike says to me, “Azar, get over here! There was movie where a guy gets killed, but it wasn’t  his time and they have to find—” I cut him off, “Heaven Can Wait” with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.” Bloomberg says, “How do you know stuff just like that?” My answer, “Mike, that’s why your sitting there and I’m sitting here.”

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

J.A.: The greatest moment of my career came when I was working at WABC. I was sent out to cover a story on Visa and their new spokesperson, circa 1983. It was Mickey Mantle. Like so many from the 1950s and 60s, we loved the Mick. How many times would you be in your backyard, fantasy baseball, Wiffle ball, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, Game 7 of the World Series, and you would be No. 7. The pitch, as Mel Allen used to call it it,”is going, going—gone!” Anyway, I was there wearing my circle 7 lapel button. Back then, there were a badge of honor as the number 7 had an O around it, meaning you were working for an owned-and-operated station by the ABC Television Network. So I interview Mantle, he sees the 7 and says, “That used to be my number” I said,”You can have it” and I pinned  the 7 on number 7.

Tying that thrill was interviewing Charlton Heston. We hit off from go, and this is the only time this happened to me in my career … for about 20 seconds I felt “I’ve made it here!” Here I am, Jerry Azar from Terre Haute, sitting across from Moses, Judah Ben Hur, Michelangelo, Andrew Jackson, and he’s laughing and having a great time. On camera I asked him to give the famous quote from “Planet of the Apes” and he said, “Get you stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” I played that quote over and over in the newsroom … it was always requested by the co-workers. I still play it.

Lowest part of my career is also a tie. First, when Mike Bloomberg left the company to run for mayor, and my old curse turned up again. While he and managers had asked me to be the personality of Bloomberg and be the Zar, the person he left in charge was a non-broadcaster who hated personality, humor, opinion, color. I was a marked man. I probably am the only person who was sent to human resources  for having personality on the air, and then when some personality was asked for I would not do it because that gray area left me vulnerable. I was then sent to HR for not delivering personality on the air. This pressure, plus family health care issues back in Indiana with my mom (I was an only child), led to health issues and missing work and leaving Bloomberg. Had Mike never left, I would still be there or in another job. I had hit my stride, I could smell the gold—and then it was snatched away, leading to  a fall out of the game at a late age and my current position.

I have been on the sidelines for five years. OK, a couple commercials  some voice-over work, but no steady, daily work. A salesman has to sell, and a performer has to be perform, and when you leave New York, It’s like the Gordon Gekko line to Bud Fox in Wall Street, “You’re either inside, or you’re outside”. It’s hard to imagine being more outside than Terre Haute, Indiana at this point of my life and career.

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J.P.: “Hot Dates with Jerry Azar”—um, explain.

J.A.: One of my ideas for my morning sportscast at Bloomberg was “This Date in History”—celebrity birthdays and songs that topped the countdown. Things like that. You would be surprised what you can make with this stuff. A manager said once in a meeting, “We give them business news, Wall Street and headlines … and sometimes all they remember from the newscast is Azar’s birthdays or song.”

Out of this I pitched a pilot using movies, and all this stuff. We made the pilot, it was primitive but fun, but I was poison, and I was told they could not sell it. This was in my final year at Bloomberg and I was stupid enough to think I could save myself. In the Clint Eastwood film The Gauntlet he is chosen for a job that is basically a suicide mission (he doesn’t know it). When Sondra Locke asks him why he thinks he was picked for this mission, Eastwood says, “I get the job done.” Her reply: “They don’t want the job done.” This applied to me. No matter what I did I wasn’t going to change my status.

J.P.: What does it take to be a great broadcaster? Seriously, all jokes aside. Let’s say you’re advising a bunch of college kids on excelling in the business. What divides the bad from the average from the standouts?

J.A.: What does it take to be a great broadcaster? I’ve spoken to college students at places like NYU, and I tell them if you can’t take rejection, if you don’t want to be criticized, if you don’t want to have strangers come up and tell you they can’t stand you, don’t get into TV/radio. You can’t criticize people in the business for their massive egos, because they need that to survive and take it. I also repeat something I heard Bob Costas say about 10-to-15 years ago. In short: If you go to law school, complete your studies, pass the bar—you will be a  lawyer. If you go to medical school—same drill, you will be a doctor or nurse. Yet, you can go to Northwestern or Syracuse, study broadcasting, speech, communications and graduate with honors and there is no guarantee you will ever work in a television or radio station, be on the air as an anchor or writer. That said, broadcasting will open the doors for you if you are in the game. It can make you a celebrity, fill the voids and give you a career.

There is also a variable that can separate the great from the average—LUCK. Being in the right place at the right time, having a general manager like you or dislike you. And, of course, there is what i talked about earlier, having it.  Some are happy just to be in the game as a soldier.

Others go for the gold and the glory.

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• Rank in order (favorite to lest): Tony George, country potato bread, Chrysler Building, Sen. Dan Coats, Pantera, Steve Kemp, Keith Olbermann, Ronnie Wood, Fox Sports 1, Geri Halliwell, Niagara Falls, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”: 1. Tony George (I told him I owed him, as his grandfather, Tony “Gentlemen start your engines” Hulman gave me my first job at WTHI); 2. Fox Sports 1 (Would love to work there); 3. Keith Olbermann (Switch hitter can do sports/politics. Has taken on management and lived to tell of it, has burned ever bridge except the one at the River Kwai); 4. Niagara Falls (Check out the Abbot and Costello classic comedy bit); 5. Country Potato bread; 6 Senator Dan Coats (beats a possible President Pants Suit); 7. Ronnie Wood (Never that big of a Stones fan); 8. Pantera (Wasn’t he that weightlifter who turned wrestler?) 9. Steve Kemp (Shame on him for having all those kids with unwed mothers. Uh, sorry, that was Shawn Kemp); 10. Chrysler Building; 11. Geri Halliwell (Please); 12 It’s a Wonderful Life (If it is, it bypassed me).

• One question you would ask Wyclef Jean were he here right now?: Wyclef Jean, what the f— are you doing here right now?

• Five greatest sportscasters of your lifetime?: 1. Bob Costas; 2. Howard Cosell/Jim McKay; 3. Pat Summerall; 4. Keith Jackson; 5. Al Michaels

• What was your biggest on-air screwup?: My biggest screw-up on the air happened in Nashville. I was out on a live shot and had finished when the dean of anchors in Nashville and former announcer for the Grand Ole Opry asked a question for my sports director, throwing him a curve ball. Forgetting the first rule of broadcasting (Always assume your mic is live) while I wasn’t on camera I called the anchor an old fart twice, before my mic was killed. I wan in big trouble, but when I got back to the station, there had been no calls. Either no one was watching or they thought the guy was an old fart.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Am I the biggest name on the plane and do I get top billing?

• Would you rather glue slices of ham to your face and keep them there for a week or eat a bowl of John Tudor’s bloody snot?: Done both, next question.

• Ten nicest athletes you ever dealt with: I’ve never worried about about or cared about how nice an athlete was. I had a job to do, I wasn’t looking to be anyone’s friend. If the guy was difficult or nice, just handle it and move on.

• In exactly 17 words, your thoughts on Reggie Jackson: A true superstar, money player, a winner, ain’t braggin’ if you can do it, never any scandal.

• Two things we should know about your dad: 1. My dad croaked out when I was 21 and he never made an effort to have a relationship with me; 2. I’m thinking about possibly forgiving him now, before I croak out.