In the latest HBO documentary, Glickman, about revered sportscaster Marty Glickman premiering tonight at 9pm, director James Freedman seems intent on paying homage to his subject’s humanity just as much as his legendary resume of work. The first athlete turned play-by-play commentator, Glickman, who passed away in 2001, became a pioneer for sportscasters, calling everything from basketball and football at the professional level to the trotters at Yonkers raceway and inspiring listeners and future broadcasters, notably many who came through the halls at WFUV. But he was much more: a proud member and beacon of the Jewish community and a firm believer in sports’ ability to connect and transcend intolerance at any level.
Born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants and later raised in Brooklyn, Glickman --dubbed the “Flatbush Flash,”-- inherited an incredible pair of legs, letting him outrun his neighborhood challengers and eventually Olympic-bred athletes. He was a track and football standout at James Madison High School and headed to Syracuse University, honing his skills to eventually become eligible for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But what a strong portion of the documentary focuses on is the fact that, as a Jewish member of the 400 meter relay for team USA, he never actually competed. Glickman, through archival footage, remembered seeing Adolf Hitler in the stands, remembered being addressed by coaches that Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf would replace him and the other Jewish sprinter Sam Stoller. He remembered and experienced anti-Semitism for much of his whole life.
Despite religious prejudice, Glickman continued to run and play football after graduating from Syracuse, eventually landing a spot with the minor league Jersey City Giants. He may have been a superhero figure to the Jewish kids in Brooklyn, but physically he was only 5’8” and 160 pounds as a running back. He’d play on the weekends, work day jobs to earn money, and then would stay late nights at WHN/MGM, eventually becoming the voice of “Today’s Baseball,” in which he would gloriously re-enact the calls from the games earlier in the day. He had such a radio presence that fans started closing their eyes and ears to the afternoon scores to wait for Glickman to spout them out that night.
At WHN he soon became the voice of the New York Knicks and would serve 21 years there. Basketball wasn’t a sport broadcasters were eager to call. It hadn’t ever effectively been done. The ball moved too fast and so did the players. No one had invented a vernacular for the game until Glickman began painting the listener’s canvas. Freedman interviews an array of broadcasters and entertainers from Larry King to Jerry Stiller and they all revel in his ability to create vocabulary for markings and positions on the court. As NBA announcer and Fordham University graduate Mike Breen describes, “his voice was attached to the ball.”
When King went to his first Knick game, he already knew what the court looked like thanks to Glickman. Marty even originated the phrase now omnipresent in the game, symbolic of a perfect shot.
The film is chronological, but Freedman is wary of when to converge past and present. An effective aside pits a Glickman NBA sound bite against those of his protégés Marv Albert and Mike Breen. “Top of the key, down the lane, into the corner, dribble in the right hand, passes near baseline, FOUL!” It rattles off each of them in similar succinct and articulate fashion. If anything, Marty’s legacy can at once be defined by his archived voice and through the broadcasters that he mentored, continuing to refine and individuate his guiding tenor and rhythm.
He later migrated to WNEW to broadcast New York Giants football games with Al DeRogatis and then jumped ship to WOR to be the Jets radio play by play. His time in football’s spotlight earned him considerable acclaim, becoming the reason to tune into games Sunday. In the best, most effective sequence of the film, Freedman allows us to listen like fans in the 1960s and 70s did, playing Glickman’s voice over shots of flocks of people, huddled around transistor radios in New York City. So jaded in a time of highlights and high definition, for those that remember him, Glickman created color TV for thousands who switched on the dial.
Glickman would later assist HBO with hours of sports programming and features. But something rarely brought up in the film, but one that will surely cross your mind, is just how much Glickman worked. He had a large family, but Glickman emphasizes his public life more than his private. He never stopped. If he wasn’t calling a professional game, he was calling one at a local high school. Nothing was beneath him, not even a game of marbles (seriously).
After speaking his last words into the microphone on December 26, 1992, he continued to mentor students at WFUV. His life was describing, analyzing, and connecting. It was also giving. In one scene, he recalls returning to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium for the first time since he had marched the opening ceremony and was eventually told he’d never compete there. There he let out a roar of anger, and was later surprised it had been pent up for so long.
I’m sure, with his outstanding ability, even that cathartic scream could have painted a replica of that fateful day in 1936.