By Mike Harrington
News Baseball Columnist
It was a year after “The Natural” was filmed here and four years before “Field of Dreams.” But what happened at the corner of Jefferson and Best 30 years ago Monday had all the makings of a movie. Minus the cornstalks, of course.
Imagine Willie Mays making basket catches in center field, Brooks Robinson making diving plays at third base, Larry Doby hitting home runs to right field, and pitchers that included Buffalo’s Warren Spahn, Early Wynn, Bob Feller, Whitey Ford and Don Larsen. Even Ernie Banks wishing we could play two – more innings, that is.
Imagine 12 Hall of Famers. All on the same diamond. In the same sunny afternoon. It really happened. I was there but a lot of folks around here were too young or simply don’t remember.
On June 23, 1984, an event dubbed “Buffalo’s Grand Old Game” brought magic to War Memorial Stadium and allowed fans to remember some heroes. But more important, it gave a huge kick-start to the city’s push into Triple-A the next year and toward status as a real baseball town worthy of being in the major-league expansion chase.
“In hindsight, it might have been the one single event to do that,” said former Bisons broadcaster Pete Weber, who called the game for WBEN Radio. “You have to remember that in 1984 there were people who said they would never go to ‘The Rockpile’ and did not want to go.
“This showed a lot of people could go there and have a good time and not fear for their lives. There was a certain imagery there that had to be fought and that was the day that did that. It was absolutely fantastic.”
For the record, a crowd of 26,436 saw the American League all-stars win the seven-inning game, 6-1, with all the runs scoring in the first three innings.
Light-hitting Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger took the first pitch of the game from Feller, then 65 years old, over the screen in right for the National League’s only run. Doby belted a pair of solo shots for the AL, and Robinson’s three-run homer to left capped a four-run third off Milt Pappas.
“Even in a game like this, you could see the juices and the greatness and the instincts of these players,” recalled former Bisons General Manager Mike Billoni.
The star of the game was Robinson, who was only seven years out of the majors and made three strong plays at third base. But those are just brute details. The event was about much more.
Lots of support
The game was part of a four-city tour of oldtimers’ contests that summer run by a Chicago promotional company that included stops in New Orleans, Indianapolis and Denver. Oldtimers baseball got a huge boost when Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling, then 75 years old, hit a home run in a televised event at Washington’s RFK Stadium in 1982.
The Bisons’ Rich Baseball Operations team attended their first Winter Meetings in 1983 in Nashville and spoke to the company, quickly liking the idea of bringing a game to Buffalo.
“Bob and Mindy Rich’s goal was to have us be looked upon as a minor-league team that had a major-league operation,” Billoni recalled last week. “We agreed we could get corporate sponsors to support it and let’s go for it.
“We had an idea that people would get behind it but the response of the businesss community and general public made it a great experience. You got to sit and talk baseball with legends of the game and it really gave us a great endorsement from all sides for our dream going forward.”
Several parts of the community stepped up to help. Local amateur baseball players helped with batting practice and longtime MUNY Voyageurs manager Art Ponto mingled with the oldtimers – complete while wearing his trademark Earl Weaver uniform. The News ran an “Oldtimer for a Day” contest and local residents Joan Mammott and Herm Brunotte suited up and got a turn to bat.
The $2 program featured a full-page ad from the Buffalo Stadium Committee headlined “Bases Loaded, Buffalo’s At Bat” and asking for public support. It included a black-and-white drawing of a “Downtown Buffalo Sports Complex” featuring a 20,000-seat baseball stadium and indoor facilities for Erie Community College.
They are some of the earliest renderings of Coca-Cola Field and ECC’s Flickinger Center.
A Natural at catcher
The list of Hall of Famers who played reads like this: Mays, Robinson, Doby, Spahn, Feller, Ford, Appling, Orlando Cepeda, Enos Slaughter, Monte Irvin, Early Wynn and Hoyt Wilhelm.
And there were plenty of other well-known names on hand too like local resident and former Milwaukee Brave Sibby Sisti, Bobby Thomson, Bobby Richardson, Don Larsen, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva and Moose Skowron.
But the American League catcher that day was current Williamsville South athletic director Kevin Lester. Lester, the Bisons’ longtime official scorer who was then a bullpen catcher, got the call from Billoni when Detroit’s Bill Freehan pulled out two days before the game. Lester also was one of the New York Knights players in The Natural.
Lester, then 35, hustled to get a Knights uniform made at the old Broadway Kitting Mills and still had a Knights cap from the movie that he wore. He even got paid the standard $1,500 players’ fee by Chuck Stevens, the longtime treasurer of the Association of Professional Ball Players of America alumni group that sanctioned the game.
“I was like in a trance,” Lester recalled last week. “A USA Today reporter came up to me in the dugout and I’m trying to be a fly on the wall. He says, ‘How do you feel?’ and I looked down at all these players and turned to him and said, ‘I feel like the Pope sitting with the 12 apostles.’”
In reality, however, the oldtimers immediately took Lester in because so many loved the movie.
“We had a dinner the night before and I’m sitting at a table with Whitey Ford and Bobby Richardson and Moose Skowron and Don Larsen,” said Lester, a longtime Yankees fan. “Don Freaking Larsen. Seriously. And Billoni is introducing me as a catcher from The Natural. All of a sudden, I’m sitting with all these Hall of Famers and they’re acting like I’m a celebrity. It was cracking me up.”
Lester doesn’t stop laughing when recalling the game. Tony Oliva was at the next locker and wanted his autograph because he loved the movie. AL manager Gene Mauch told him with some salty language that the game was being played to win, then Ford floored him by reviewing signs for his pitches.
“I’m trying not to be a fan,” Lester said. “But I’m catching Whitey Ford and now we have signs?”
Lester went 0 for 3 batting against Spahn, Johnny Sain and Don Newcombe. He hit a long fly ball foul to right off Spahn and one of his outs was a trademark Mays basket catch, complete with cap flying off.
Late in the game, Lester followed Mauch’s advice to go hard when he chased down a Cepeda pop-up in foul territory by first base.
“Moose Skowron is at first yelling, ‘Lester, go get it’ so I made an effort and caught the damn ball,” Lester said. “It was a pretty good play but I remember Cepeda was mad. He’s like, ‘They didn’t come to see you catch a foul ball. They came to see me hit.’”
A springboard event
Weber’s voluminous personal audio library includes the entire broadcast of the game. There were interviews done by WBEN legend Stan Barron, who died later that year, as he was stationed with Michael O’Shea in the dugouts.
Weber, voice of the NHL’s Nashville Predators since 1998, called the game alone from the press box atop the Dodge Street side of the stadium.
“It really helped establish me as a baseball broadcaster in town,” said Weber, who went on to call the Bisons’ first 11 years of modern era Triple-A ball. “The fact I was alone upstairs helped me focus immeasurably even though I was watching all these stars.”
“This was a big event springboarding to the future in a lot of ways,” Lester said. “The guys loved the old stadium, loved the way they were treated. The Bisons’ organization has never done anything small and this was one of the first examples.”