By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The new book, “The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball,” is something of a tribute to Joe Overfield, the legendary late local baseball historian. Here’s another one.
I quite vividly remember the first time I met Joe. I had joined the Society for American Baseball Research somewhere around 1980, and a local chapter of that organization had decided to stage a meeting. The session was held at the Forks Hotel on Union Road in Cheektowaga, a location usually associated with magicians. That turned out to be appropriate, since what happened was on the magical side.
Joe was the first “presenter” of the session. He had brought along a large number of items from his personal collection to show us, explaining them as he went along. At some point, it was hard to believe he could fit all of that stuff in a car … and apparently he had plenty more items back home. I believe Joe talked for more than an hour, and it took about five minutes for me to realize that he must be in a class by himself when it came to Buffalo’s baseball history. I remember asking Joe about why Offermann Stadium had to be torn down in 1960 to make room for a school, and he still wasn’t sure why that was necessary. As the years went by, it became obvious to me that there weren’t many others across the country who could keep up with Joe in terms of his dedication to the subject.
Luckily, my association with Joe did not end there. I covered a lot of Bisons’ games in War Memorial Stadium for WEBR Radio between 1979 and 1986, serving as a play-by-play announcer for Sunday home games for a few years (we only did weekend games) and then covering games for the sports department the rest of the time. It was something of small group up in the press box, especially when the Courier-Express folded.
On several nights, though, we had company. Joe would make the long climb up to the ramp in the middle of the game. He always arrived in good humor, which was true of anyone who ever ran into him. We’d chat a bit about the game, but inevitably the conversation would move to Bisons’ history. I’m willing to admit that not all of the comments from Joe about players like Ollie Carnegie were fascinating to a 20-something at that stage of my life, but I learned some things along the way.
I do distinctly remember one moment in particular in 1985. We were watching the Bisons in the field when first baseman Joe DeSa made an outstanding play. Joe said he had never seen a better defensive first baseman in Buffalo than DeSa. At that point, News’ reporter Bob DiCesare almost fell off his folding chair. He and I were both used to hearing about how good the guys from yesteryear were, and it was nice to see Overfield concede a distinction to the current boys of summer.
Once I switched jobs in 1986, I didn’t spend much time watching the Bisons as a reporter. Still, I would see Joe around town. I remember bumping into him at a restaurant in 1989. My book on Sabres’ history had just come out, and Joe practically announced to the rest of the diners what an excellent book it was. I was a little embarrassed, but actually I was quite happy that the book had met Joe’s high standards.
Speaking of books, Joe had written one of his own four years before that. “The 100 Seasons of Buffalo Baseball” came out in 1985. It was instantly a must-purchase for anyone who did any work involving the city’s baseball history, putting all of the stories about the sport in one handy place. I quickly bought a copy, and had him autograph it. He wrote, “To Budd Bailey, a most knowledgeable and perceptive student of baseball. Best wishes, Joe Overfield.” Again, Joe was most kind in his assessment.
That book served me well over the years, but fairly recently I started to notice that the binding of the book was coming apart. I had obtained an extra copy of it around 2009, but the glue wasn’t aging well for that publication either. I was starting to wonder if I’d need gloves and a loose-leaf finder in the future.
Luckily, son Jim and former Bisons executive and Courier-Express Mike Billoni noticed the same problem, and decided it was time to come up with an updated edition. They even asked me to write the biography of Bob Rich for the book (obligatory note: I was compensated for my work). That was a pleasure, even though my part of the volume seemed to grow as time went on. The first version was held to a word count, but Mike decided there was too much left out. The second was more complete, I thought … and then the Blue Jays decided to play their 2020 home schedule in Buffalo. That added a few paragraphs. I did like the finished product, and I don’t need to be paid to say how good Bob and Mindy Rich have been as the Bisons’ owners over the years. Their stability and support for minor league baseball must be close to unprecedented in any part of the country.
The book runs close to 400 pages, with plenty of good photos. Many of Joe’s stories – some from the original book, others from publications like Bisongram – have been reprinted and some have been updated when necessary. There are two parts – the individual seasons, and places (home parks), personalities & performers (players, managers, owners, fans, etc.). That’s a lot of information, and some has to pop up in more than one place. Luckily, some cross-referencing is done in the text, so that the reader is referred to a longer version of a particular story when necessary. It’s also nicely illustrated. And what a great idea to have former Courier cartoonist Mike Ricigliano do drawings of some key figures in Buffalo’s baseball history.
No matter who else contributed to the book, Joe’s spirit seems to inhabit it on every page. Son Jim writes a nice tribute to him in the front of the book, followed by Joe’s own account about how he became a baseball fan and researcher/historian.
I hope I’ll get to refer to this for another 35 years, just like I did for the original.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)