WHAT’S NEW, HARRY? November 29,1980
(Preamble by Chris Wendel) Several things happened to me today that led to the reprint of this 1980 Phil Ranallo column. First was reading a Facebook post discussing the concept of an outdoor stadium in downtown Buffalo. Next was a friend (who grew up in LA) asking me why Buffalo never had a major league baseball team. The last was seeing this column in a pile of papers in my office. This column has a little of everything: The questioning of Ralph Wilson’s motives, discussion of a stadium that could breathe life into an ailing downtown, and the prospect of major league baseball in Buffalo. Enjoy this work from “Courier Express” sportswriter Phil Ranallo:
Last weekend’s happening — the influx of out-of-towners and their two-fisted spending — served as a fine example of what a big league baseball franchise could do for our town.
Revelation that the invasion of all those Steeler faithful may have had as much as a $l-million economic impact
on the community had to open a lot of eyes.
I’m talking about the eyes of all — the city and county fathers’— as well as the residents of the area, many of whom have long opposed construction of a stadium suitable for major league baseball.
WHAT TRANSPIRED last weekend —-the business the visitors brought to our hotels, motels, restaurants, taverns, etc.—could be the greatest possible advertisement for construction of a baseball stadium in downtown Buffalo.
It should provide the Erie County Sports Board with, ammunition in its fight for such a facility.
Perhaps Ralph Wilson had all this in mind when he made the decision to hustle tickets in Pennsylvania for the Bills-Steelers game.
It’s my guess that Wilson would do anything in his power to help Buffalo build a downtown stadium and land a big league ball club.
I’m sure Ralph isn’t averse to a big league baseball team being located here and competing for the Buffalo sports entertainment dollar.
LAST WEEKEND’S goings-on were unique for a regular season pro football game. Almost all the fans, generally speaking, hail from the area represented by the home team.
Not so, though, in, baseball.
A baseball team with its long home stands, does something that neither a pro football team nor a hockey team does. A baseball team attracts fans from hundreds of miles.
Many of these fans spend theirvacation time or weekends in the baseball town. They stay in your hotels and motels, dine in your restaurants, shop in your department stores, patronize your theaters, etc.
Why, a big league baseball club performing in a beautiful stadium at the Crossroads would even lure people from suburban Buffalo to the central city.
PERSONALLY, I feel that construction of a new downtown stadium — to accommodate a, major league baseball team would ‘be the most progressive step this community could take.
It would be good for some of the things that are ailing Buffalo — terrific for the city is economic growth and the attractiveness of the downtown area.
With major-league baseball as part of our Buffalo life, sports fans would have somewhere to go during this community’s current sports-dry months — from May to September.
They’d have a baseball club to root for — something that would put a little fun in their lives.
And at reasonable prices, since baseball — unlike pro football and hockey does not turn the pockets of its customers inside-out
THE SAD PART of all this is, it could have happened here in Buffalo long ago. Your newspaper the Courier Express thumped the tubs for a downtown stadium in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
And it definitely would have happened, had it not been for those certain people in certain quarters.
Our head-in-the-sand leaders, men with lack of foresight, acquiesced to the dictates of those selfish certain people!
They built Wilson his 80,000-seat football-only stadium in Orchard Park and thereby slammed the major-league baseball door on Buffalo —and for that baseball fans in Montreal and Toronto will be forever grateful.
Those Canadian cities landed big league baseball franchises, either of which could have been Buffalo’s — if we had the proper leadership.
THE COMMUNITY’S current leaders may get the chance to correct the colossal blunders of their predecessors.
The economic impact the visitors from Pennsylvania had on this area last week should enable our leaders to provide the state with a strong argument for state funding of a new stadium in downtown Buffalo.
As the NBA All-Star Weekend approaches, we go back in the way-back machine to 1978. In the Braves’ final year in Buffalo and his team in a state of disarray, Randy Smith took the nation by storm and was voted the All-Star game’s Most Valuable Player. The game featured several amazing shots by Smith who had joined the Braves in its early years after being selected as a 7th round draft choice in 1971.
Phil Ranallo, veteran writer of the “Buffalo Courier Express” newspaper brillantly recounts Smith’s stellar performance in his morning column: “What’s New, Harry?”. Ironically, the Braves’ coach at the time, Cotton Fitzsimmons, had doubts about Smith’s abilities, especially in clutch situations. In a style that made him a staple at Western New York breakfast tables, Ranallo recounts not just Smith’s All-Star performance, but also the unlikely path that brought him there.
WHAT’S NEW, HARRY?
Phil Ranallo, February 7, 1978
LET’S ALL HOPE THAT Cotton Fitzsimmons was paying close attention Sunday afternoon as Randy Smith – with the world watching – did everything with the basketball but take the air out of it.
If Fitzsimmons was all eyes as Randy transformed the NBA All-Star game into “The Randy Smith Show,” Cotton’s worries are all over – at least in any future critical late-game situations the Braves may find themselves.
I’m willing to bet that, from this moment on, whenever the Braves are in desperate need of a field goal in the dying seconds of a basketball match, Fitzsimmons will know exactly what to do.
I mean, Cotton will do the logical thing.
He’ll order Randy to take one of those high-percentage shots of his, one of those dazzling high-arching 35-footers – the kind that way, way up there, gather a little snow, then come down and go, “Swish!”
What Randy Smith did Sunday, in the Atlanta Omni, is straight out of Frank Merriwell – or straight out of the wildest dreams of little kids who go to bed with their arms wrapped around a basketball.
And what Smith did – what happened to him in the Omni – could not have happened to a more deserving fellow.
FOR A LONG TIME now, Randy Smith has been one of the best basketball players in the business. And for an equally long time, all he ever got in the plaudits or recognition department – beyond the city limits of Buffalo – was the business.
Despite the fact that talent oozes from his every pore, what Randy always received from pro basketball America was short shrift.
In the balloting for this All-Star game, for example, Smith failed to make it among the top 10 guards in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. He picked up fewer votes than Al Lorenzo did in the last Democratic mayoral primary.
Smith went into this game a veritable unknown basketball soldier.
But Randy came out of this game a basketball guard of the highest rank, a celebrated hero, a basketball darling – a guy who, figuratively, was carried out of the arena on the shoulders of pro basketball America.
USING THE OMNI AS his headquarters, Randy introduced himself to the pro basketball world – “Hello, all of you out there in basketball land; my name’s Randy Smith; I’m quite a pro basketball player; so watch and I’ll prove it.”
Smith, in this All-Star match, showed ‘em all what he really is – a shooting star of breathtaking dimensions.
With a wondrous, spellbinding demonstration of long-range firing, Smith, the city slicker from the East, won the West.
Smith, the basketball pride of Buffalo, buried the West in a blizzard of baskets.
Fittingly, the play on which Smith climaxed his 11-basket performance was his piece de resistance. It left the folks in the Omni – and in television land – gasping.
The play was vintage Randy Smith.
Randy stole the ball and dealt it to Julius Erving – and Erving shot and missed. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Smith appeared, leaped, grabbed the rebound, put up a 15-footer and – “Swish!”
SO NOW THAT THIS All-Star game is history, Randy Smith no longer is a Rodney Dangerfield of pro basketball – no longer is a guy who commands no respect from the nation’s basketball fans.
They now know exactly who Randy Smith is – a sleek, quicksilver fellow with a marvelous outside jump shot and incredibly fast hands that can catch flies in mid-air and steal hubcaps off speeding automobiles.
The fans now know that if there’s anything faster than Smith’s hands, it’s his feet.
It was Smith’s blazing speed, by the way, that gave him his chance in pro basketball.
Seven years ago, after the Braves drafted Smith seventh in the draft, Randy’s chances of making the Buffalo squad were regarded as slimmer than slim.
Until he took one of Coach Dolph Schayes’ agility tests.
THE FIRST DAY they passed out the uniforms that season, back in 1971, Smith popped the eyes of Schayes and the rest of the Braves brass with his performance in the agility drill.
In this drill, the players ran from one end of the line of the court to quarter-court and back, then to half-court and back, then to three-quarter court and back, and finally to the other end line and back.
Well, when Randy completed that first agility drill, his closest pursuer still hadn’t made it to the other end of the court.
Randy was so much the best, so much the fastest, that he could have showered before the second guy got home.
Right then and there, Schayes and the rest of the Braves people – Eddie Donovan, John McCarthy and Joe Niland – made up their minds.
“For a kid with this kind of speed,” Schayes said, “there’s got to be a place on the squad.”
SO RANDY SMITH stuck with the Braves. And now, today, fans everywhere know who he is and why guards who guard him run the risk of going cross-eyed – since it sometimes seems that there are three of him.
Randy Smith, the fellow who for seven years, night after night, has played beautiful music out there on the basketball court – the guy who has conducted, composed, arranged – has finally been allowed to make all the curtain calls, instead of somebody else.
Sunday afternoon, in the Atlanta Omni, justice was served.
For more on the Braves see the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” which features a comprehensive team history and over 260 vintage photos.
Note: It’s been over a year since the release of the book Buffalo, Home of the Braves. We’ve reposted a column written by Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News from 2009. The book is now classified as “out of print” but there are still a limited number of copies available online from the Sun Bear Press web site and Amazon.com.
May 22, 2009
I can see it from the third floor of The Buffalo News, a crumbling carcass of steel and brick. You think of the ghosts and memories contained in the old Memorial Auditorium, and in the hearts and minds of the athletes and fans who spent so many hours there.
Tim Wendel remembers. Wendel grew up in Lockport. He came of age in the 1970s, when pro sports in Buffalo were at their zenith and two daily newspapers were there to record the moment. Wendel would run out of his house on cold winter mornings to pick up the old Courier-Express, and to see what Phil Ranallo had to say in his column.
Wendel went to Syracuse to learn journalism. He got work as a sports rewrite guy at the Courier, editing Ranallo’s stuff. He was on his honeymoon in September 1982 when he got a phone call from a friend who was watching his apartment. Your apartment’s fine, the friend said, but your paper closed.
He ended up in Washington, D. C., where his wife got a job with the Post. Wendel wrote a book about the 1980 U. S. Olympic hockey team. He covered baseball and wrote a baseball novel about Fidel Castro.
He remained a Buffalo guy at heart. He and his brother, Chris, sat around at family gatherings, rehashing games from their youth. One day, they were carrying on about the Braves when a relative said, “Why don’t you guys shut up and write about it?”
That’s where the idea for the book started. Wendel got access to the Courier archives and reread Ranallo’s old Braves columns. Chris said he should start calling some of the old Braves. The first call went to Ernie DiGregorio.
“I said, ‘I want to talk about the Braves,’ ” Wendel said Thursday. “His reaction was, ‘Wow! Yeah, let’s talk about the Braves.’ All the guys felt that way.”
Wendel’s labor of love, “Buffalo, Home of the Braves,” was more than four years in the making. On May 30, Wendel will be at New Era Cap on Delaware Avenue for a book signing and release.
The book is 216 pages, coffee table size, and costs $89. That’s a tad pricey, but it’s hard to place a value on people’s memories. There are some 250 photographs, most by Robert L. Smith. There are eight chapters, one for each year of the Braves’ existence. Wendel’s text is accompanied by 15 of Ranallo’s columns.
“We’re bringing Ranallo back to life, so to speak,” Wendel said. “Once again, I’m playing straight man to Phil. I’m writing the narrative and he’s the voice of outrage and reason.”
Wendel traces the team from its inception through the playoff seasons to the grim departure, after Paul Snyder sold the team to John Y. Brown. There are eerie parallels to the current sports scene. Snyder wanted to regionalize his franchise. The Braves played as many as eight games a year in Toronto.
“The Braves’ so-called home games in Toronto, about a 90-minute drive north of the border, often grated on the team’s die-hard fans,” Wendel writes.
Sound familiar, Bills fans?
Wendel talked with most of the main parties, including DiGregorio, Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, Jack Marin and the coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay.
“They all hold a sweet spot in their hearts for Buffalo,” Wendel said. “They realize this is where they came of age. They talked about how great it was to play in the Aud, and how great the fans were, and about going out at night. They talked about going to Cole’s and seeing Bobby Chandler and the Bills there.
“They loved the Aud. McAdoo, Randy, Marin, it was almost Field of Dreams stuff, about shooting a basketball at the Aud. They loved shooting there.”
It’s good to know that, as the Aud was coming down, a Buffalo guy was retrieving its brief but precious NBA memories, which live forever.
Twenty-seven years ago, The Buffalo Courier-Express folded. I’ll never forget it because I worked there and I was on my honeymoon when it happened. Of course, that unfortunate turn of events was well before cell phones, emails and texts.
My new wife and I were driving around the West – Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Francisco – and we weren’t exactly regular about checking back home. That resulted in one of the most bizarre conversations of my life.
I called back to Buffalo, to the friend who was keeping an eye on our apartment. “How’s it going?” “Your place is fine,” he replied, “but your paper folded three days ago.” We rushed back in time for the vote about the paper’s future.
On the table was an offer from Rupert Murdoch, which would have meant significant cuts in editorial staff. At the meeting, I sat next to Phil Ranallo and I remember him muttering “It’s Jonestown” – a nod to the drinking of the fatal Kool-Aid – as the measure was voted down.
To this day, I find it amazing that Murdoch ownership was fine for The Boston Herald and eventually The Wall Street Journal but somehow beneath Buffalo.
I saw Phil one last time after that. A quick chat. Everything was unraveling fast for C-E folks by then. Some were preparing for an abrupt retirement. Others of us were scrambling to find a new job. I became the sports columnist for The (Syracuse) Post-Standard and soon parlayed that into a move to the Bay Area and eventually a staff job at The San Francisco Examiner.
To think too much about Buffalo back then was to risk too much heartache. Best to make tracks and put down new roots out West. After all, that’s where we were when all of this happened, right? But, of course, one can never forget where he’s from. Western New York. The Courier-Express.
Working next to Phil. Listening to him talk about arguably his favorite basketball team, the Buffalo Braves. Those are the times I find myself thinking about on such sad anniversaries.
- B is for Books, E. Quaker Street, Orchard Park
- UB Bookstore North Campus off of Audubon Road
- The Book Corner Main Street, Niagara Falls
Buffalo News sportswriter had a great column on the Braves’ anthology: “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” this morning. He spoke with Tim yesterday, and was it was nice to have the column published before next week’s book signing and Jerry’s well deserved Florida vacation.
We heard from a lot of Braves’ fans today, many transplanted to other parts of the country but still with a strong affinity to Western New York and the Buffalo Braves, just like us. At day’s end we’re ending up as the number two sports story, what’s #1? The west wall of the Aud that came crumbling down as its demolition winds down.
The book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” is close to completion. On Saturday, May 30, 2009, a book release celebration event will be held in Buffalo.
From 11 AM – 1 PM that day, author Tim Wendel will be available for the signing of purchased copies of the book in the Community Room of the New Era Cap Company, located at 160 Delaware Avenue in Buffalo.
“Buffalo, Home of the Braves” can also be purchased online prior to the celebration event from SunBear Press.
As I recollect the chronology of this book it dawns on me how long the process has taken and how many pilgrimages I have made to Buffalo. Recently someone asked me why I have dedicated so much time and effort into a book about the Braves.
You see I was a Sabres fan first growing up. Playing hockey from age eight to eighteen in Lockport (when it had a rink) put hockey at the forefront. Still I had good recollections of the Braves. I believe I first heard the cheer “Let’s go, Buffalo!” at a Braves game televised in 1970. Now my five year old says the same cheer in the same old cadence, when we drive past a field of bison on our regular trips to town. The years may pass but it has stayed with me.
July ’05: The Courier Express files have a limited number of Braves pictures; this is going to be a problem. What kind of coffee table book will it be without a large number of action photos? I start to search ebay for photos and memorabilia. Plenty of miscellaneous Topps cards, pennants, and Elton Brand throw back jerseys. One day I end up with a great video collection of Braves highlight films narrated by Van Miller.
Why not put the video into a CD that could be added to the book? I check with my contact with the NBA legal department who warns me to quell any video aspirations. The league is apparently quite protective of any of their video and the Braves intellectual property still belongs to the NBA, not the LA Clippers.
January ’06: Through my “real” job I run into a graphic design person here in Michigan who might be right for putting the book together. He has a strong affinity for sports and quickly shows an interest in what we are trying to do. He starts to appreciate the Braves despite the fact that he grew up in Saginaw and knows much more about hockey and the Tour de France then basketball.
March ’06: Another trip to Buffalo to file through Ranallo columns and past Courier articles. There are plenty of banner headlines highlighting a big Braves win, the amazing scoring exploits of Bob McAdoo, or a 17,000 night of attendance at the Aud.
I get some solid leads on former team photographers through two Braves fans who wonder why I’m always bidding against them for items. One asks; “What are you doing writing a book or something?”
The odyssey leading to the photographers is next.