Some of the voices of 1940s Buffalo radio

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


Clare Allen, WEBR

Clare Allen was WEBR’s jack-of-all trades through the 40s, 50s, and 60s—as a newsman, emcee, quizmaster, and on-air outdoorsman– but also chief announcer, program director and promotional director. During the 31 years that WEBR was owned by the Courier-Express, Allen also became a prolific writer for the newspaper, chronicling changing face of Buffalo through the 50s and 60s.

WEBR Chief Engineer Frank Ridgeway and Clare Allen load up the WEBR mobile van.
Colin Male, WEBR

Colin Male spent several years in the 1940s at WEBR before heading to Hollywood. He made a handful of television and film appearances as an actor, but the Bennett High grad is best remembered as the announcer who talks over the whistling on the opening credits of the Andy Griffith Show.

Gomer Lesch was WEBR’s “Doctor of Discography” and announcer on popular shows like “Queen City Cinderella,” hosted by Clare Allen and Billy Keaton.

Gomer Lesch, WEBR

Lesch was a Riverside High School grad who left WEBR to navigate B-29s in World War II. Until his death in 2019, he often put his media skills to work for the Baptist church.

Al Zink, WEBR

Through the 30s and 40s, Al Zink was one of Buffalo’s most beloved radio hosts as the emcee of “The Children’s Hour” on WEBR for more than 20 years. Many of those kids grew up to listen to him as the local host for NBC’s “Happy Birthday” program. Here, “Uncle Al” gives $40 checks to Mrs. Edith Reardon and Mrs. Marie Walczak at the WEBR studios on North Street.

Zink was part of the WEBR staff under three different owners—founder H.H. Howell, The Buffalo Evening News from 1936-42, and the Buffalo Courier-Express, which bought the station from The News when federal regulations changed– barring an entity from owning multiple stations in a market. The Courier-Express sold WEBR in 1972.

Ad from The Buffalo Evening News Almanac, 1941
The WBEN Players ham it up in studio for a 1942 performance.
WBEN’s new Grand Island transmitter, 1943.

Before coming to WBEN in 1936, Ed Reimers worked at WHO in Des Moines, where he often shared the same mic with sportscaster—and later President—Ronald Reagan.

WBEN staff announcer Ed Reimers

Reimers was WBEN’s top announcer before joining ABC’s announcing staff in 1948. Soon he was in Hollywood, working steadily in television’s infancy.

Reimers, holding the script, is joined by WBEN personalities Dr. Frederick Hodge (seated), Esther Huff (center), and George Torge & John Eisenberger (far right) at a broadcast from Kleinhans Music Hall.

He filled in as an announcer on NBC’s Tonight Show—a gig arraigned by fellow WBEN alum Jack Paar, and was the regular announcer on Westerns Cheyenne and Maverick. His best remembered TV acting gig was on the original Star Trek series, where he played Admiral Fitzpatrick in the “Trouble with Tribbles” episode.

But it was with hands cupped he entered American pop culture consciousness. Reimers was the television spokesman and steady voice who reminded viewers, “You’re in good hands with Allstate” from 1958-77.

Ed Reimers for All State
Announcer Aaron Levine was often heard on WGR and WKBW giving local station breaks during network programs and reading newscasts.
Ollie Carnegie and Ralph Hubbell

One of Buffalo’s all-time sports reporters chats with one of Buffalo’s all-time athletes. WGR’s Ralph Hubbell talks with Bisons slugger Ollie Carnegie. Carnegie still holds the record for most games as a Bison and his International League all-time homerun record stood for 69 years. Both men are in Buffalo’s Sports Hall of Fame.

While the show has been best remembered as introducing Helen Neville to Buffalo, Laura Rischman was the original hostess of WKBW’s “Modern Kitchen” show starting in 1938. Here, her smiling gaze is backed by the sour disposition of Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation’s Night Manager Malcolm Barney. The show offering “practical help with dollar and sense values in nutrition and home management” was taken over by Neville when she arrived on the Buffalo radio scene from WBTA, Batavia in 1943.
Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation Page Matt Harris gives a tour of the BBC studios, showing how an announcer turns his mic on and off.

Charlie Bailey was one of Buffalo’s leading sports journalists for 40 years.

Charley Bailey

A long-time Courier-Express sports columnist and WEBR personality after the paper bought the radio station, Charley Bailey’s early radio career at WGR-WKBW was a varied one.

He stepped into WGR as an assistant to Roger Baker in 1933, before joining the staff of the Courier-Express as a writer and columnist in 1942. He spent time behind the sports play-by-play microphone which would be his realm through the 1960s, but he also “donned a high hat and white tie for a survey of Buffalo’s night life on “Man About Town.”

Charley Bailey, man about town

Starting in 1946, Bailey was back on the airwaves at WEBR, and he would serve that station as sports reporter, play-by-play man, and Sports Director until the 1970s. An old school reporter, Bailey was tough but always smiling, and always seemed ready to turn the perfect phrase.

Bob Schmidt, later known as Buffalo Bob Smith

“Bob Schmidt, so versatile that it is difficult for us editors,” read the caption on this photo in a pre-war publication for the Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation.

“Smiling Bob Smith” was how Masten High School grad Robert Schmidt was known through most of his years on WGR from 1936-1944.

He also spent a couple of years at WBEN before moving onto New York City to host the morning radio show on WEAF (later WNBC), and become one of the great stars of the early days of television as Howdy Doody’s sidekick, “Buffalo Bob Smith.”


This page is an excerpt from  100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon

The full text of the book is now online.

The original 436-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York. 

©2020, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

Roger Baker

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


One of the original superstars of Buffalo Radio in the 20s and 30s for the Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation’s WGR and WKBW, Roger Baker was the Queen City’s first definitive sportscaster. His 40-year announcing career started when he was a musician sitting in the orchestra waiting to go on the air, but no announcer showed up. He stepped up to the microphone and never stepped back.

A pioneer in the art of baseball play-by-play– before him, calling the action of a baseball game was assigned to which ever announcer was next on the schedule. He was Buffalo’s first regular baseball announcer, and gained recognition for his descriptions of Bisons games.

Roger Baker’s play-by-play abilities transcended language. In 1935, his endorsement of Old Gold Cigarettes was translated into Polish and appeared in Dziennik Dza Wszystkich, Buffalo’s Polish language daily newspaper.

Those who remember him in the sports booth remember the ultimate professional– no focus on personality, so much as the product on the air. His work from Offermann Stadium was straight and by the book.

After being tapped by Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to call the 1933 World Series to a nationwide audience on CBS, Baker was called up to the big leagues in 1939, replacing Red Barber as the voice of the Cincinnati Reds when “the Ol’Red Head” moved onto critical acclaim as the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the New York Yankees.

Deco Restaurants were an early sponsor of sportscasts in Buffalo, including Roger Baker’s play-by-play broadcast of the Buffalo Hockey Bisons from the Peace Bridge Arena in Fort Erie in 1933.

In 1948, Baker returned to Buffalo as the news-reading General Manager on WKBW Radio. He eventually moved into the same news-reading General Manager spot at the short-lived Buffalo UHF pioneer WBES-TV Channel 59.

Along with Bill Mazer, Baker was also an original member of the WGR-TV sports team when the station signed-on in 1954.

“Years of experience covering sports events plus constant study of the sports picture account for the mature nature of Rog’s evening sports telecast. Master of play-by-play, his reporting of sports as they happen has set the pattern for imitators all over the country,” read a promo piece from the sign-on of Ch.2 in 1954.


This page is an excerpt from  100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon

The full text of the book is now online.

The original 436-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York. 

©2020, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

From 1880 to Today: West Side home of the National League Buffalo Bisons

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

Baseball’s National League — one of two leagues that make up modern Major League Baseball — was founded in 1876.

Three years later, Buffalo joined the National League, playing at Riverside Park on Buffalo’s West Side.

Riverside Park, home of the Bisons from 1878 to 1883. Bounded by West Avenue, Vermont Street, Rhode Island Street and Fargo Avenue.

The park was bounded by West Avenue, Vermont Street, Rhode Island Street and Fargo Avenue. The park was small, and other teams complained that it gave the Buffalo club an advantage.

The homerun wasn’t as universally well-thought-of in the early days of the game, and some felt Buffalo’s team was a lesser squad for taking advantage of the short fences.

“The day the snow goes,” wrote a Syracuse newspaper in 1879, “the Buffalo nine will commence practicing the knack of knocking the ball over the fence of the corral they call a ballpark.”

It was in part those home runs that helped ignite excitement in Buffalo over the new sport.

“Everyone else is talking base ball, and why shouldn’t we?” asked the Buffalo Express in 1881, after the Buffaloes defeated the Chicago team that wouldn’t officially be renamed “the Cubs” for another 26 years. “Three successive defeats of the champions by the Buffalo team make a ‘base ball’ event of quite enough note to set all tongues wagging.”

Six seasons of Bisons baseball, including five seasons in the National League, were played in the park. Over the next decade, pieces of the lot where the ballpark once stood were sold off to developers, and Buffalo baseball moved to the first Olympic Park at the northeast corner of Summer and Richmond.

When that new ballpark opened, the Buffalo Commercial bragged that “The Buffaloes … had the best base ball grounds in the country.”

Luke Easter: Slugger, barrier breaker and sausage maker

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

There is really so much to say about Luke Easter.

Luke Easter was a Home Run King and a Sausage King

Perhaps Buffalo’s greatest sports hero of the 1950s, the hulking legendary Negro League star was one of the first handful of black men to play in the American League.

After two years of slugging home runs for the Cleveland Indians, Easter came to the Buffalo Bisons and the short right field fence at Offermann Stadium and became an instant fan favorite, sending balls over the fence and over the scoreboard. He was the first black man to play for the Bisons in the modern era.

Even wearing glasses, Easter was still one of the great home run hitters in baseball when he joined the Bisons in 1955, and his 40 homers helped him grab the 1957 International League MVP Award.

The story of Luke Easter as a ball-playing sausage maker made national news on several occasions.

He wouldn’t have admitted it then, but the first baseman was 40 when he joined the Bisons. Although he did wind up playing until the age of 49 with the Rochester Red Wings, Easter had been making plans for the days after his playing career by making sausage. Professionally.

Luke Easter runs the sausage grinder.

Easter’s first dalliance in the world of processed meats came in Cleveland, where his brother-in-law was a butcher.

“You know, good sausage is just like a good woman. Hard to find. And I got both,” Easter told a throng of fans at a meat store in Akron, Ohio. But in Cleveland, it was his name on someone else’s sausage. In Buffalo, he was president of Luke Easter’s Sausage Products, on Bailey Avenue near Genesee.

Baseball in the sausage pan.

Aside from providing some side income, working on the trucks delivering sausage provided the kind of exercise Easter needed to keep his body going during the offseason. And throwing around 100-pound bags in the factory, Easter said in one interview, was better than the workouts he’d get in at the Michigan Avenue YMCA.

After Easter was cut by the Bisons and picked up by the Red Wings, a “Luke Easter Night” was held during a doubleheader at Rochester’s Norton Street Stadium between the Herd and the Red Wings, hoping to attract some Buffalonians to make the trip.

Among the plaudits and gifts he received were a diamond watch, a color TV, an electric razor and five pounds of a rival brand’s wieners.

Luke Easter hands out sausage samples.

Conehead is one of the people that makes Buffalo… Buffalo

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Conehead is one of the People that makes Buffalo… Buffalo.

Conehead serves up a beer at Pilot Field.

With his familiar shout, “Who needs a beer?” Conehead — known as Tom Girot when deconed — has been wandering the stands of Buffalo sporting events with ice cold beer since he poured his first beer at a Sabres game at the Aud back in 1972.

One of Buffalo’s all-time most popular sports personalities first donned the Conehead at a Bills game in 1977. It was a castaway from his wife’s Halloween costume that year, and it’s stuck ever since.

His all-time record sales day came at a Bisons exhibition game at the Rockpile. Fans tossed back 59 cases as the Bisons played the World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979.

“There’s nothing I’d rather do than vend,” says Girot. “I just love it.”

He’s poured millions of beers for thirsty sports fans through the years… but he hasn’t poured a warm one yet, because we all know the Conehead guarantee:

“You’ve got the Conehead Guarantee, get a warm beer from me, and you drink it for free.”

More: What it looked like Wednesday: Getting beers at Pilot Field, late ’80s

Steve Cichon and Conehead, celebrating Paul McCartney’s first concert in Buffalo at Keybank Center, 2016.

Buffalo in the 1880s: Bisons’ 2B is baseball’s earliest black star

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Bisons-1887FrankGrant
Buffalo Stories archives

He is often heralded as the best player the Bisons had in the 1800s, which is no small feat, as he was being matched against four Hall of Fame players. But even after his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame in 2006, 120 years after he first joined the Bisons, few know the name Frank Grant.

A 1915 story in the Buffalo Courier reads, “He played for years for The Buffalos, gained the sobriquet ‘The colored Dunlap,’ and was regarded the equal of any second baseman in the country.” The Dunlap referenced was Fred Dunlap, baseball’s highest paid player of the 1880s, and the game’s best (white) second baseman of his time.

Many believed it was Grant’s prowess on the field that effectively barred African-Americans from major league baseball for the first half of the twentieth century.

When Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of baseball was making headlines in the late ’40s, one man wrote a letter to the editor with his memories of the sport’s first crack at integration.

“As a boy, I attended games at the original park at Richmond and Summer,” wrote Ed Rother. “This was in 1886-88. Our Colored second baseman, Frank Grant, had everything our present day Jackie Robinson had, and was the idol of Buffalo fandom.”

The Bisons’ manager, John Chapman, always referred to Grant as “a Spaniard,” fearful of fan and player reaction to the truth.

His style was described by The News as “full of vim and abandon.” Grant played second base without a glove — only his bare hands — but he had to create his own special wooden shin pads from the numbers of opposing base runners who seemed to find a way to run into second (and the second baseman) spikes first. In 1888, his last year with the Bisons, his teammates refused to sit for a team portrait with him. The next season, he was playing with barnstorming teams and was an early star in the Negro Leagues.

One of very few known photos of Frank Grant comes from the Bisons' 1887 team photo. The following year, his teammates refused to sit with him for the portrait. (Buffalo Stories archives)

One of very few known photos of Frank Grant comes from the Bisons’ 1887 team photo. The following year, his teammates refused to sit with him for the portrait. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Grant visited area ball diamonds at least twice after his Bisons days. In 1894, Grant and the Cuban Giants — a barnstorming black team — played Buffalo’s amateur Oakdales at the Bisons’ home field, Olympic Park. Two years later, Grant and the Giants took on the Niagara University varsity squad.

There are historians and baseball enthusiasts who take up the case for Grant as the “greatest ever Bison,” and there is a case to be made, but the man who gets more of those than Grant is the Bisons’ second African-American player: Luke Easter. Easter broke the modern-era color barrier for the Herd after a long career in the Negro Leagues, the big leagues with Cleveland starting in 1949, and then with Rochester and Buffalo in the International League.

What it looked like Wednesday: Getting beers at Pilot Field, late ’80s

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Regardless of what the temperature is or how much snow is in the forecast, the Bisons’ first home game is as sure a starting point for Buffalo’s spring as any other measure.

Buffalo News archives

Part of what makes a trip to the ballpark so enjoyable is the communal nature of thousands of baseball fans getting beers from the same vendors for decades.

Buffalo News archives

Conehead:

One of Buffalo’s all-time most popular sports personalities, Conehead — known as Tom Girot when deconed — has been wandering the stands of Buffalo sporting events with ice cold beer since the early ’70s. His all-time record sales day came at a Bisons exhibition game at the Rockpile. Fans tossed back 59 cases, all served up with the Conehead guarantee, as the Bisons played the World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979.

 

Buffalo News archives

The Earl of Bud:

Though he’s been gone from the stands for almost two decades, Earl “The Earl of Bud” Howze is still a household name and a testament to how much Buffalo loves its beer and beer vendors.

He started hawking beer to Bisons fans in 1979, the same year the team returned to the field after a decadelong hiatus. For almost two decades, it was his style as much as his product which endeared him to a generation of thirsty sports fans. His white tuxedo tails with his nickname emblazoned in red were sponsored by Heidie’s Tuxedo.

Even my unflappable, no-nonsense grandfather — a longtime season ticket holder for the Bills and the Sabres, a man who was rarely impressed with any notion of pageantry or exhibition beyond what the game on the field or the ice, was really impressed with The Earl of Bud.

“They should get rid of that Pee-Wee Herman,” grumbled Gramps, “This guy is 10 times the dancer.”

Of course, as little as Grandpa Coyle liked nonsense, he loved ice-cold beer — which likely explains it all.

 

Buffalo News archives

There have always been beers on the concourse, too. In fact, that’s where most of Buffalo knows they can find Conehead at the arena these days. In 1989, choices on the concourse were limited to only a few bottled varieties not carried around the park by roving vendors.

Today, the selections include a dozen or more local craft brews if that Blue or Blue Light — even served by the Conehead — doesn’t get the job done for you.

Buffalo in the ’60s: Luke Easter’s 500-foot home run

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s spring in Western New York. For most of the last 137 years, that has meant getting ready for Bisons baseball.

Buffalo News archives

This 1957 photo shows Offermann Stadium, home of the Bisons from 1924 to 1960, and the path of Luke Easter’s record 500-plus-foot home run over the scoreboard that year. It was the first time that it have ever been done during a game in the park’s 33-year history — although legend had it that Babe Ruth once hit a ball over the scoreboard during an exhibition.

The outfield billboards are an interesting snapshot of life in Buffalo in 1957 as well.

WKBW’s clock advertises the station that wouldn’t become Buffalo’s top 40 rock ‘n’ roll leader for another year yet. Weber’s Mustard remains a Buffalo favorite, but Madison Cab, Don Allen Chevy and the rest all only exist in Buffalo memories.

Buffalo in the ’80s: Now pitching for the Bisons, Larry King (and Mike Billoni)

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

In some cynical Western New York circles, when the announced crowd seems to be a bit higher than the actual attendance figure, someone is bound to ask, “Did Mike Billoni do the counting?”

Buffalo News archives

It’s probably not what talk show host Larry King was talking over with Bisons Skipper Rocky Bridges in the dugout, but Billoni’s magic played no small part in the meeting in the first place.

It was Bisons executive Billoni’s marketing and public relations prowess which helped whip Western New York into a baseball frenzy in the late ’80s. Triple-A level ball was back for the first time in 25 years, seats at the brand new Pilot Field were the hottest ticket in town, and the you-could-almost-taste-it hope of Major League Baseball coming to the new ballpark were amplified by the former Courier-Express reporter’s panache for promotion.

Ten-thousand tickets sold within an hour-and-a-half of the first Pilot Field passes going on sale. The nationally televised old timers’ game and the Triple-A All Star game, both seen on ESPN that year, were also sellouts. With 22 sellouts for The Herd in the 1988 season, Buffalo shattered the all-time minor league baseball attendance record with just shy of 1.2 million through the turnstiles in Pilot Field’s first season.

So, when Larry King — whose national radio show had been heard overnights on WBEN in Buffalo for a decade and was becoming more famous for the CNN talk show he’d been hosting since 1985 — came to Buffalo to throw out the opening pitch, it wasn’t good enough that it just be a random Friday night at the ballpark.

Billoni was pitching King’s appearance as the “formal dedication” of Pilot Field on May 19, 1988. That’s not to be confused with the first game, which was played a month earlier, when Governor Mario Cuomo, Mayor Jim Griffin, and the whole cadre of politicians wanting to claim some credit for the erection of the ballpark showed up to be a part of the ribbon cutting.

There’s no doubt that was alright with Billoni — who three decades later, remains one of Buffalo’s great molders and shapers of public opinion.

Buffalo in the ’20s: Lacrosse at Buffalo’s Baseball Park

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

From 1889 to 1960, the International League Buffalo Bisons played at East Ferry, Masten and Michigan.

For the first 35 years, Buffalo Baseball Park was barely more than glorified wooden bleachers. But under the direction of team owner and Erie County Sheriff Frank Offermann, Bison Stadium opened in 1924. The park was renamed in Offermann’s memory when he died unexpectedly at the age of 59.

The city owned Offermann Stadium, and in 1960, the land was reclaimed to build Woodlawn Junior High, which today is Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts.

As a city-owned facility, Offermann Stadium and its predecessors were open to far more than just baseball. This 1920s photo shows a lacrosse game, and outfield ads for, among other items, Buffalo-brewed Phoenix Beer.

Buffalo News archives

The extreme right side shows some players standing behind the play, an outfield ad for baseball tickets, and several homes — including one with a distinctive turret.

While sports fans no longer look at the house, it doesn’t look much different 90 years later for students staring out one of the Woodlawn Avenue windows at Performing Arts.