Billoni's Buffalo-Niagara Views
By Mike Billoni
I was a 22-year-old rookie sportswriter at the Buffalo Courier-Express in August of 1977 when at precisely 7 p.m. my idol, legendary columnist Phil Ranallo, walked into the sports department.
A Lucky Strike cigarette dangling from his lips, Ranallo presented his column to copy editor Joe Alli. As I sat at my desk on the fourth floor of what is now the headquarters of the Diocese of Buffalo at 795 Main St., I was mesmerized watching Ranallo interact with the editors around the rim.
Back then there were no computers. We used typewriters and turned in our stories on paper. They were marked up and sent down to the printers, and then eventually made the sports page of the next morning's paper.
I grew up in Kenmore and, at a young age, I delivered the Courier-Express early each morning. Upon returning home, I immediately went to the sports section and, on the five mornings Ranallo's "What's New, Harry" columns appeared, they were what I read first.
He had a way with words unlike any sports columnist I have ever read. It was as if he was sitting across the table from you carrying on a conversation about the latest goings on with the Buffalo Bills or a famous national story.
The highlight of that first night at the Courier was when Ranallo made his way to the desks of all the tremendously talented sports writers the paper employed. Back then, the beat writers wrote their stories in the office, so the room was usually full. Phil made his way to each reporter, gathering information about our local professional and college teams. Then he came over to me, who had just been hired from the Tonawanda News to cover high schools.
"Hey kid," he says. "I have read some of your stories. You have a future in this business, but never forget to spell everyone's name correctly and make sure of your facts. I began just like you covering high school sports. It is a good beat."
As he walked away, he suddenly stopped, turned around and came very close to me and almost whispered, "Hey kid, we are both Italian-Americans, so we have got to stick together. Call if you ever need anything."
Above, an autographed photo to Phil Ranallo from Jack Kemp. Below, an early photo of Phil. (Ranallo family collection)
Ranallo was a legend in WNY. He called himself "Honest Harry" in his columns. He called his wife "Ruby." He also had a cast of characters based on real people, including "Sam the Immigrant," "Julie Potatoes" and "Loose Lip Louie."
I am writing about him because Phil's son, Paul, has spent the past 24 years reading every column his dad ever wrote. He took 125 of his favorites and put them into a 247-page book titled "What's New, Harry? The Best of Buffalo Courier-Express Columnist Phil Ranallo."
Paul received editorial support from Joe Kirchmyer of Kirchmyer Media LLC and he self-published the book through No Frills Buffalo publishing company. The book can be purchased online at www.amazon.com, www.powells.com, www.barnesandnoble.com, www.ECO.com and www.nofrillsbuffalo.com. It can also be found at Talking Leaves and Dog Ears Bookstores in Buffalo.
Phil Ranallo, whose writing earned him an entrance into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame and numerous awards, began working for the Courier in the 1940s as a copy boy. He continued working there while attending Canisius College. He married Dorothy on June 27, 1942, and then joined the United States Marine Corp during World War II as a tail gunner on dive-bomber plane.
The commanders recognized his writing skills and assigned him to the intelligence department as a report specialist. They asked him to stay for six months after the war officially ended to assist in the completion of the war reports. His work was so impressive they offered him a position in Washington, D.C. - and offered to move his family there. He gratefully declined telling them he wanted to resume his sports writing career in the city he loved: Buffalo, New York.
Returning to the Courier-Express, Ranallo spent the next 10 years covering local high school athletes for a paper that dedicated a considerable amount of space to scholastic athletics. He was quite a wordsmith and that's what led Sports Editor Mike Kanaley to promote Ranallo to the paper's premier sports columnist position.
Ranallo began at the Courier when he was 16 years old in the 1940s. He was there with us when the doors closed after the last paper rolled off the presses on Sept. 19, 1982. It was a sad day for all of us.
Ranallo had always wanted to write a book but, unfortunately, the cigarette smoking caught up to him and he passed away in 1986.
Knowing how much his dad wanted to write a book, Paul began the long process after his son, Justin, was born in 1991. He spent hours in his garage, reading column after column of his father's wonderful writings.
"My father wrote his columns while listening to Frank Sinatra on the old Magnavox console stereo in our North Buffalo home," Paul explains. "My mother would answer the phone and act as his secretary and, once the column met his approval, he would pack up and head downtown to turn it in."
"Putting this book together has made those days a reality for me again. 'Honest Harry' and 'Ruby' can now rest in peace, because his book is a reality," Paul says with pride. "How many times in our lives can we do something totally from our heart and publish it? This is one of the most positive things I have ever done in my life."
The final sentence in Paul's preface says it all: "He always said he was just a 'Fan with a Typewriter.'"
There are so many wonderfully written, timeless columns in the book, but one that struck me most was Ranallo's column from Nov. 12, 1972, about Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr., whom he calls "a man of integrity."
Ranallo pointed out that, in the then 13-year existence of the Buffalo Bills, he attempted to play it down the middle with Wilson in regard to praise or criticism. In this piece, though, he praised Wilson for wanting to spend $1.5 million to the county over 25 years to call the new stadium in Orchard Park "Buffalo Bills Stadium." It eventually was called Rich Stadium.
Ranallo could not get over the fact that the owner of the football team would give the county $1.5 million to name the stadium after his team.
"Sound businessman just do not do that and he would not have benefitted one dime having the stadium named after his team," Ranallo wrote.
Fast-forward more than 40 years later when Mr. Wilson passes away and his Bills are sold for over $1 billion. Prior to his death, Wilson directed his estate to give that money away for worthy causes in Buffalo and Detroit through his Ralph C. Wilson Foundation. That is what his wife, Mary, his niece, Mary Owens, and the foundation are doing now.
Another wonderful column was from March 25, 1970, when Ranallo wrote about former Buffalo Bills quarterback the late Jack Kemp.
"Jack Kemp is a man I admire, a man of intelligence and high values - values that go far beyond his next paycheck," Ranallo wrote of the quarterback who received more than his share of boos and criticism from the fans and the media.
Kemp went on to become a U.S. congressman, secretary of HUD and a candidate for vice president before passing away way too early in his life.
Boxing and horse racing were two of Ranallo's most popular sports, and the book has some legendary columns about both. His Sept. 3, 1969, column about the passing of heavyweight boxing legend Rocky Marciano is a classic, as is Ranallo's June 28, 1968, column about Jimmy Ralston, whom he said was one of the greatest fighters every to lace the gloves. Ralston is still training young boxers today.
Ranallo eloquently described former Buffalo Mayor Tony Masiello's final game as a Golden Griffin basketball player for Canisius College in a March 10, 1966, column following a win against archrival Niagara. The Purple Eagles were coached by Frank Layden and featured future NBA star Calvin Murphy. Ranallo called Masiello the "Captain with a mighty heart."
Above, Paul Ranallo with Pete Rose in Las Vegas earlier this month. Below, Paul signing books at the North Park Theatre. (Ranallo family collection)
Earlier this month, Paul visited family in Las Vegas and went to Pete Rose's Sports Bar Lounge where he met the former major league baseball great who is suspended from the game for gambling. Ranallo featured Rose in a column on May 1, 1978. It said one of the game's all-time greatest hitters should enter the Hall of Fame, because of his hustle on the base paths.
After reading a portion of the column to Rose, who did not have his glasses, Rose looked at Paul and said with strong emotion and tears in his eyes, "Paul, we all love our fathers, and your father was a great writer."
For long-time sports fans, this book is a walk through history of some of the top Buffalo and national sport stories during Ranallo's days behind the typewriter.
Former Channel 7 sports anchor Rick Azar wrote in an email to Ranallo after receiving the book, "Just remembering those days has brought a tear to my eyes. Having known your father ... is a special gift that I have treasured all these years."
Have some fun today.
Mike Billoni, a former award-winning sportswriter for the Tonawanda News, Buffalo-Courier-Express and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, also is the former vice president/general manager of the Buffalo Bisons (where he served under Bob and Mindy Rich).
He is a member of the Buffalo Bisons Hall of Fame, as the team sold more than 1 million tickets for each of six seasons in the new downtown stadium during his term as GM.
Billoni also is secretary of the board of directors of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park; he is active at St. Stephen RC Church; and he is a freelance writer for Niagara Frontier Publications.
He can be reached at [email protected]. He and his wife, Debbie, reside on Grand Island.