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Buffalo baseball lore gets modern retelling

Overfield revives historian father's greatest work after 35 years
Bisons assistant general manager Brad Bisbing, far left, and GM Mike Buczkowski with Jim Overfield and Mike Billoni, far right, at a production meeting.
March 30, 2020

In some ways, Jim Overfield picked up his father's work long before it started.Joe Overfield began a day job for a local insurance company in the 1940s. But he published his passion project, "100 Seasons of Buffalo Baseball," in 1985. It was an encyclopedic opus written by a man whose

In some ways, Jim Overfield picked up his father's work long before it started.
Joe Overfield began a day job for a local insurance company in the 1940s. But he published his passion project, "100 Seasons of Buffalo Baseball," in 1985. It was an encyclopedic opus written by a man whose love of history and baseball were eclipsed only by a love for his city.

By his son's account, Joe Overfield left Buffalo just once -- to serve in World War II. With job opportunities limited in the rust belt city, Jim Overfield left his hometown, first to earn a doctorate from Princeton University in 1968, then to Burlington, Vermont, where he worked the next four decades as a professor.
His area of expertise? History.
"He probably loved [historical research] a lot more than I understood at the time," Jim Overfield said. "His productivity in terms of putting out articles, compiling all that data and information … it was pretty remarkable. That's what he did. That's what he loved. And he did a lot of it."
Until his death in 2000, Joe Overfield intended to update his major work. People reached out to the family, offering to pick up where the book left off. Finally, after his retirement three years ago, Jim Overfield found time to revive the project.
Working with local reporters and historians and a platoon of current and former employees of the Triple-A Bisons, Jim Overfield spearheaded "The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball."
Copies of the original are hard to come by. The elder Overfield used a local publishing company that apparently was short on adhesive the day the book was produced. Until a few weeks ago, the only Amazon review of the original was a two-star assessment that said, "When reading the book, the spine broke and the pages fell out."
The problem was not unique to one consumer.
"As far as I know, every copy of the book that people have now, it's all falling apart," Overfield said. "That was really funny because he gave it a low review. ... I doubt if he was commenting on the quality of the book."

The Overfield family celebrates Joe's induction into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame at Pilot Field in 1993. Photo courtesy of Jim Overfield

With copies of the 1985 version scattered, the new edition will include Joe Overfield's original work rather than existing solely as a sequel examining seasons from 1985 to the present. Jim Overfield enlisted the help of former Bisons general manager Mike Billoni and Brian Frank, a middle school English teacher and operator of HerdChronicles.com, a website devoted to "the stories of the Buffalo Bisons of the past, present and future," and was able to expand on some of his father's pieces.
Joe Overfield conducted his painstaking research by spending hours in libraries and archives, poring over old newspapers and record books. In his foreword to the updated version, Jim Overfield speaks of his father's aversion to "new technology," which to him included transistor radios, automatic transmission, electric razors, touch-tone phones and ballpoint pens. He believes his father would have softened his stance upon discovering the convenience of the internet.
"I think once he figured out all the treasures of baseball history that are now available online, I think he probably couldn't resist," he said. "His productivity in terms of putting out articles for SABR [Society for American Baseball Research], compiling all that data and information that later became part of '100 Seasons,' he continued to write those articles for the Bisons newspaper, the Bisongram."
The wealth of sports data websites available today allowed for further editing in the updated version. Joe Overfield included expanded statistics with his year-by-year summaries. Considering that this information is readily available online, the new volume boils down these yearbook chapters to the most important details.
"That was, of course, all done before the internet made it possible to look all this stuff up with ridiculous ease," Overfield said. "We included other new features. ... It turned into a much bigger project than we'd anticipated at the start, but it's been a lot of fun. I really enjoyed doing it."
Jim Overfield mentioned that most of the capsules written by his father didn't require much editing. As far as continuing Joe Overfield's work, the group perfectly grasped the tone of the original. It has an exhaustive amount of information compiled by people with a deep affinity for the city of Buffalo.
It's essentially a love letter in textbook form.

Joe and Jim Overfield together in the 1940's. Photos courtesy of Jim Overfield

"He was very devoted to the city. And a lot of people in Buffalo are like that. He's not unique in that respect," Jim Overfield said. "The thing that I think amazed me more than anything else is how the Buffalo sports teams still have this nationwide following. There are Bills' bars in almost every major city.
"You probably read about the 'Bills Mafia' and all their antics wherever the team plays. To a certain degree, it's the same thing with the hockey club and the baseball team."
In his opening paragraph, Jim Overfield acknowledges the derision and mockery often directed at Buffalo. Within the book are several anecdotes that not only show the city's link to baseball history -- the reserve clause was devised at a meeting of team owners in Buffalo in 1879, for example -- but illustrate the resilience of Buffalonians, especially when it comes to baseball.
The survival of professional baseball in the city often relied on people like Joe Overfield, public-spirited individuals willing to spend their own time and money to prevent the franchise from falling apart. Bob Rich Jr., dubbed "Buffalo's ultimate booster" by the Buffalo News in 2017, stepped up and purchased a Triple-A franchise to bring to the city just two years before the original "Seasons" went to print.
But the story that resonated most for Jim Overfield occurred in 1933, during the Great Depression. The Bisons needed a late run to finish the regular season one game under .500 and secure the final seed in the inaugural International League playoffs.
"Right in the depths of the depression, Buffalo, like everywhere else, was suffering. Minor League baseball was on the ropes. Leagues and teams collapsing right and left," Overfield said.
But a playoff game against Rochester at Bisons Stadium was overrun by fans. Some climbed fences if they couldn't sneak in, others gathered outside the ticket offices, clamoring and shouting. The game was not going to be broadcast on the radio, but the unexpected crowd of nearly 24,000 forced the owner to change his mind.

"He shouted out of his office window, 'OK we're going to allow the game to be broadcast, go home and listen on the radio,'" Overfield said. "It's an extraordinary story."
Jim Overfield wrote in the foreword of the updated work that project is "a way to honor his father's memory by preserving a body of his work that otherwise might be lost." He described his father as the fourth collaborator, along with Frank and Billoni.
"When he was alive, we routinely critiqued drafts of each other's works-in-progress and made suggestions about how they might be improved," Overfield wrote. "I felt I was doing the same with this project."
The group hopes to publish the updated version of "Seasons" in June, fittingly right around Father's Day, and -- hopefully -- the resumption of International League play.

Gerard Gilberto is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @Gerard_Gilberto.