To everything -There is a Season. . .A Time to build up, a time to break down”
-Turn! Turn! Turn! -song by The Byrds
This past Friday, I had the opportunity to do something I think every Buffalonian should do once in their lifetime. It was a beautiful August morning and I sat on the field at Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion. For those who do not know, this is the location of the former War Memorial Stadium, once the home of the Buffalo Bills and of the Buffalo Bisons. It is also a part of Buffalo’s movie history with the 1984 baseball film The Natural starring Robert Redford was filmed here. As the event began, the sounds of the movie’s iconic moments filled the loudspeakers as Robert Redford’s character hits a mammoth homerun out of the stadium into the lights.
As I sat on the grass and looked at the preserved facade of the stadium, I thought back to the games I watched there as a kid. My mind wondered and wandered. Was this the spot where Jack Kemp threw a touchdown? Where Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins threw a strikeout or Johny Bench hit one out? Maybe Robert Redford talked with Glenn Close about their next scene here, right where I sat.
The stadium was partially torn down in 1988. Now only the northeast and southeast entrances remain with the baseball diamond in the southwest corner. It was a moment that day to not think about what was broken or torn down, but what was being built up–a new season in the history of the game for the Queen city.
In 1985, Buffalo baseball historian Joe Overfield published what has become the bible of baseball information in Buffalo, The 100 Seasons of Buffalo Baseball covering the yeas 1885 – 1985. It was on this field that Joe threw out the first pitch at a Bisons game 35 years ago and cemented his legacy as the pre-eminent historian on all things baseball in this city. Sadly, I never had the chance to meet Joe even though through my own historical work he became a legend and an icon to me. This day, however, was a celebration of Joe and of Buffalo baseball as Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz named August 21st as “Joseph Overfield Day” in Erie County.
Often, the Fates see to it that everything comes full circle and indeed there is a season for everything. Joe Overfield day was the day to announce a new book arriving in the fall. Joe’s son, Jim Overfield, took up the torch that was passed to him by his late father and in October will release a revised and updated version of the work entitled The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball 1857 – 2020.
Working with former Bison’s general manager Mike Billoni, with Herd Chronicles website founder Brian Frank, and with a host of others, the project has come full circle. Spanning the history of the game in the city from its earliest origins with the Buffalo Niagaras, the Bisons’ first foray into the National League in 1879 – 1885, the short-lived challenger to the National and American Leagues in the Federal League of 1914 – 1915, and through our modern day. It tells the stories of the greats that resided here: Ollie Carnegie, Luke Easter, and Jeff Manto. It also relates the trials of the late mayor Jimmy Griffin to save baseball from being a forgotten piece of our city and his efforts to bring the franchise back home after an exodus of nine years and many more.
The work is not only a chronological look at the year by year history of the teams, but even more so a look into those stories that are uniquely Buffalo. Stories like that of Buffalo being one of the first teams to have a black baseball player in 1887, future Hall of Famer Frank Grant, and of voting AGAINST the 1887 ban of black players from baseball. Buffalo was also the first minor league team to install a permanent lighting system for night games in 1930, to have home and away radio broadcasts of their games in 1931, and to have television broadcasts in 1951. Buffalo also set a record that will most likely never be broken when the Bisons in their new home of then named Pilot Field drew over a million fans for those six consecutive seasons between 1988 – 1993.
The book also continues the story of what may be the most unusual and odd year in professional sports in 2020. For the first time since 1979 there has not been Bison baseball downtown. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Toronto Blue Jays have made Sahlen Field their home away from home for this year, bringing Major League Baseball back to the city for the first time in 105 years.
At the press conference for the launching of the book Jim stated, “I have a deep love and affection for the people of Buffalo and the city. . .it [the book] tells an uplifting story of baseball in Buffalo.”
Mike Billoni spoke of his involvement in the project as follows and of it coming full circle, “I have been doubly blessed as I worked closely with Joe Overfield on the original 100 Seasons of Buffalo book and now, 35 years later, we are announcing an update of that book with his son Jim.”
The Toronto Blue Jays have made Sahlen Field their home away from home for this year, bringing Major League Baseball back to the city for the first time in 105 years.
In remembering the past, we must always look to the future and as I sat on the grass in that amazing stadium of yesteryear I looked at the faces of the young men around me. For what was once a home to professional athletes is now in some ways an even more awe-inspiring facility. The Johnny B Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion and its director Cedric Holloway will be partnering with the book and launching the The Joseph M. Overfield Baseball, Softball, and Mentoring Program. This partnership with Willie B. Hutch Jones Education and Sports Programs offers “Every child, at no cost, equal opportunities to engage in the highest quality program and to offer character building activities through academics, sports, and the arts.” In addition, this collaboration will feature involvement from the Omega Mentoring Program, a program of which “inspires and motivates at-risk youth toward college through one-on-one mentoring. A donation in to these programs will be made with a portion of book sales in Joe’s name.
The youth around me listened to the speeches and witnessed the unveiling of the new cover. Perhaps they were unaware that they were witnessing history as they sat in this historical venue. What was being built up around them, for them this day. But what I saw was the exuberant trot around the bases of youth as they emulated legends of the past and perhaps become the next legends of Buffalo sports, following in the footsteps of the greats before them, watching the ball soar upward and outward as Roy Hobbs did in The Natural and Luke Easter did in Offerman Stadium not too far away. The future, the season for these young men and women is now.
The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball 1857-2020 will retail for $49.95 and a special 10% discounted price of $45.00 plus tax and handling is available between August 21st– October 1st, 2020 by pre-ordering the book at www.bisons.com.
Lead image: Jim Overfield (Left) and Mike Billoni with cover of new book