Obituary: Zander Hollander / Shepherd of sports trivia

March 24, 1923 - April 11, 2014

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Zander Hollander, a journeyman journalist who rebounded from the death of his newspaper in the mid-1960s by becoming what Sports Illustrated called "the unofficial king of sports paperbacks" -- particularly a once wildly popular series of encyclopedic yearbooks -- died Friday in a nursing home in New York City. He was 91.

The cause was Alzheimer's disease, his wife, Phyllis, said.

Before televised sports were pervasive and the Internet a nonstop gusher of sports trivia, Mr. Hollander found a niche in the market by annually providing statistics, team rosters, records, schedules and predictions for the coming season in the form of brick-size tomes he titled, "Complete Handbooks." He offered them for hockey, baseball, soccer and college and professional football and basketball.

Sports aficionados regarded the texts, dense with information and illustrated with black-and-white photographs, almost as holy books. Bill Simmons, an ESPN commentator and writer, wrote in his own book, "The Book of Basketball" (2009), that he would sneak Zander's NBA handbook into his high school math class.

Interviewed for a profile of Mr. Hollander in The New York Times last year, Brian Costello, a senior editor at The Hockey News, said: "When I was 8, 9, 10, I was reading 'The Hardy Boys.' When I came across Zander's books, I didn't read 'The Hardy Boys' anymore."

The yearbooks were just one part of Mr. Hollander's body of work. He also chronicled sports bloopers and wrote a history of Madison Square Garden, among other subjects. All told, he edited, wrote or packaged 300 books.

His wife said that, with her help and occasionally that of assistants, Mr. Hollander churned out books like an assembly line, starting with the submission of an outline to a publishing house. If the idea was accepted, he would recruit well-known writers in the appropriate field. He assembled photographs, wrote captions and did all the editing.

The books' sharper observations often came from Mr. Hollander. Describing Greg Dreiling, who played in the NBA in the 1980s and '90s, he wrote: "Stiffer than Julius Caesar. Should be a law passed prohibiting people from wasting seven feet of height."

His depiction of Phil Jackson as an NBA player (before he became the renowned coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers and the new president of the New York Knicks) was vivid: "His arm waving, leg flailing makes him look like a spider spinning a web on the court."

Alexander Hollander was born in Brooklyn on March 24, 1923, and grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens. In a 2001 interview, he said that as soon as he could hold a pencil and throw a ball, he dreamed of being a sportswriter. His first effort was on a mimeographed newspaper in elementary school.

At 14, he wrote columns for a neighborhood newspaper, and in high school, he wrote for The Long Island Daily Press and The New York World-Telegram. He attended Queens College but left to serve in the Army Air Forces, assigned to an Army newspaper in Hawaii. Joe DiMaggio, he later recalled, once visited as part of a troupe of barnstorming professional baseball players and hid in an Army truck after a game to escape autograph hunters. After his discharge, Mr. Hollander attended City College of New York but did not graduate.

After a stint with United Press as an editor in New York, he was hired as a sportswriter by The World-Telegram.

While writing for the paper, Mr. Hollander became friendly with a young lawyer, Howard Cosell, who rode the same bus. Mr. Cosell represented the Little League of New York and had been asked by the local radio station WABC to host a show featuring Little League players. Mr. Hollander agreed to help out by writing scripts and recruiting sports celebrities. Neither man was paid, but it was the beginning of Cosell's sports broadcasting career.

Mr. Hollander had begun publishing sports books and started a company to produce booklets that were distributed with razor blades, vitamins and other products. He left newspapers in 1966, turning down an editor's post when The World-Telegram and Sun, as it had become, merged with two other newspapers, The Herald Tribune and The Journal-American.

One of the most popular features in his yearbooks were the predictions of how seasons would end. Mr. Hollander tended to throw out wild ideas. One, from the early 1980s, concerned 1989: "An earthquake had left Candlestick Park unplayable," he wrote. That would turn out to be the year an earthquake, on Oct. 17, caused a 10-day delay in the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics.



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