Jays add a chapter to the Buffalo baseball history book

Buffalo

Almost from the moment when Joe Overfield finished “The 100 Seasons of Buffalo Baseball” in 1985, people began pestering him about writing an update.

There was a lot of baseball history being made in those days, after all. Bob Rich had recently purchased the Bisons. A new stadium, Pilot Field, opened in 1988. The team drew more than a million fans a couple of times in the early 1990s.

“He always said he intended to,” his son, Jim recalled Tuesday. “But he said, ‘I’ve got other projects.’ He never got to it. When he died in the year 2000, he hadn’t done anything more with the project.”

The idea sat there for more than a decade. But in 2015, Jim saw that Paul Ranallo had self-published “What’s New, Harry,” a collection of his father Phil’s columns at the Courier Express. Maybe he could do that with some of his dad’s later works. 

“I talked to a couple of people in Buffalo about it and they said, ‘Why don’t you do the book? We can do updates’. Then I called Mike Billoni. That was the big turning point.”

Overfield laughed at the memory. Billoni, who was the Bisons’ general manager in the glory days under the Riches, has never lacked for enthusiasm. He was known as the “P.T. Barnum” of baseball in his prime as Bisons GM, someone who would take a good idea and realize all of its possibilities. 

Billoni had known Joe Overfield very well, going back to his days as a sports writer at the Tonawanda News and the Courier. He had often visited Overfield at his home when he needed information on any aspect of local baseball history. He remembers watching Joe bang out the history on his old typewriter.

So at some point in 2017, Overfield and Billoni began the project to expand and re-publish Joe’s Buffalo baseball history book. There were few copies of the original left, and most of them were falling apart because of the poor adhesive used to bind them 35 years ago.

Billoni traveled to Burlington, where Jim Overfield had lived and worked for decades as a history professor at the University of Vermont. Jim was content to put out a 6×9 inch book, same as the original. Billoni, not surprisingly, had bigger ideas. 

“I said, ‘There’s a lot of great photos’,” Billoni said. “‘Why not make it a little bigger? Then we got to the history museum back in Buffalo, where they had Joe’s files. I said ‘Jim, this could be a real nice book’. That’s when it went from a 6-by-9 to an 8-by-10, over 400 pages with close to 250 black-and-white photos dating back to the 1800s.”

They originally planned on Father’s Day, 2020, as the publication date. Then the COVID-19 pandemic intruded. The MLB season was postponed. Then the Bisons season was wiped out entirely. For the first time since the 1970s, when there was no team, there would be no baseball in Buffalo. 

Who could have imagined that a new chapter would be added to the city’s long baseball history? For the first time since the 1880s, Buffalo hosted a big-league game Tuesday night, the long-awaited Blue Jays opener in their adopted home.

“He’d be absolutely pleased,” Jim Overfield said. “One of the saddest times in his life was the late 60s and the whole decade of the 1970s, when there was no baseball in Buffalo.

“I must say, his final years were enriched and made joyful by the Bisons under the Rich family. Getting Triple-A back, building a stadium. He was able to spend evenings with a bunch of friends, like Cy Williams and Tony Violanti. It really filled his life. My mom died in the early Nineties, so he was by himself. He was there for the glory days, bringing a million fans into the stadium.”

Overfield said writing the book, which required going through many of his father’s old papers, reminded him how much Joe loved doing research — he was a researcher for a living — and made him feel closer to his dad.

“Absolutely,” Jim said. “When he died, quite a few of his papers ended up at my son’s house in Buffalo and never made it to Burlington. There was all kinds of stuff. It’s very impressive that he was able to do all the work he did at a time when there was no internet.”

Billoni said there will be a press conference on Friday, Aug. 21, at the Johnny B. Wiley Pavilion — site of the old Rockpile — to officially announce the launching of the new book, entitled “The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball,” which is now scheduled to come out in mid-October.

“Ironically, we’ll have it on the ball diamond there,” Billoni said, “where his dad threw out the first pitch in 1985 when the book came out. So now his son’s going to announce the update of the book at the same ballpark.”

Overfield had high praise for Brian Frank, an English and history teacher who writes “The Herd Chronicles,” a Bisons historical blog. Frank was an editor on the updated history book and also is writing a history of the early Bisons.

“He’s very dedicated to Buffalo Bison baseball history, even though he’s very busy with his teaching job,” Overfield said. “Without Brian and Mike, who knows? It would have been a much inferior product. Now, it’s a big deal, a 400-page book, much more than I had even vaguely imagined.”

Of course, the publication date could be delayed if the Jays make a run in the MLB playoffs. Talk about wild imaginings. Billoni has visions of Toronto catching fire, slipping into MLB’s expanded 16-team playoff and making a run. 

“We’re going to add 2020 with an asterisk,” Billoni said. “I’ve got to believe. You’ve been around sports long enough. It’s all emotions. If these guys can come in here and Vlad Guerrero can get hot, him them onto Oak Street, and these guys look upon this as they’re the only Major League team playing their home games in a minor-league ballpark … ”

And if they win the World Series? “We’ll have books by the first week of November,” Billoni said. “Plenty of time for Christmas.”

Overfield isn’t so optimistic about the Jays. He knows his father would have been content to see just one big-league game in Buffalo before he died. So Tuesday was enough, the realization of a big-league dream.

“I’ll be watching tonight,” Overfield said. “MLB is going to show the game. I told the family. No CBS Evening News. I’ve got the TV tonight.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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