Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap forward

It's February 29, which not only comes every four years, except for years such as 1700, 1800 and 1900 (but it did come in 2000, just to confuse us), but marks the end of a long-term project for me personally ... at least in one form.

Yes, I'll explain.

A few years ago, The Buffalo News used to have a roundup of stories that we couldn't fit anywhere else, or that we didn't think were important enough for a 16-paragraph story. I think it was called Sports Today. It came with a little syndicated list of some sort, which broke up the text graphically.

At some point, the light bulb came on over my head as I thought, "Why couldn't I come up with something to fill that space?" I wondered what could fill such a relatively small space on a daily basis. The answer came back soon enough -- a little story on the most significant sports story in Buffalo's history on that particular day. Could that be done?

I plowed into researching the matter in my spare time, grabbing media guides from the local sports teams and writing down the dates from them. I covered the usual big games, trades, hirings, firings, etc., with some help from the Internet and the News electronic library. After a while I discovered that I had filled about 200 days of the years. No, you can't have a daily feature that doesn't have any items in it for almost half of the days. I took the data I had discovered, and threw it in a computer basket for reference.

And there it sat, until the summer of 2009. The News was just getting into the Website business in a big way, and looking for unique material. Sports editor Steve Jones came to me and said he was looking for some feature that could be related in the sports section of the website every day. Could I help?

I told him to wait a minute, and pulled up the old list of sports dates. I said something like, "These are the 200 easy ones, but there are 165 more blanks that would need to be filled." We agreed I would give it the cliched old college try. Whenever I read a book on Buffalo sports, I'd take notes. One item would often lead to another, as I'd say something like, "What about fights by Buffalo natives who became boxing champions?"

"This Day in Sports History" first popped up on line in September 2009. I believe originally they ran for a paragraph or two. Longer versions appeared when I simply wrote an introduction to an event and reprinted our coverage of a particular story from that day. Honestly, I would have done more of that had our library gone back farther than 1989.

Some people noticed. The feature eventually received many hits during the course of the day -- a few hundred, usually, I'd say -- and the feedback from those who found it was quite positive. A few months later, someone made the decision that the feature should also run in the newspaper itself. To show you what a visionary I was at the time, I believe I asked why we should take away the exclusivity from a popular item that was creating some traffic and buzz.

Silly me. It first appeared in the newspaper on March 1, 2010. The response was remarkable. People kept telling me how much they enjoyed it, how they were at the specific game I wrote about, etc. In hindsight, our reading demographic probably skews a little old, so this brought back some memories for them. Eventually I stopped copying the old stories, and just wrote my own version to add perspective on events.

The parts that were the most fun were stories that had gone mostly forgotten over the years. There was the time that the Buffalo Bisons of the 1900's used a midget in a game in Baltimore ... and he got a single in his only at bat. Or the time in a boxing match that a fighter was knocked out, got up a bit later, rushed back at the opposing fighter, and was knocked out again. I had forgotten that the Atlanta Hawks had started their basketball life in Buffalo in 1946. I learned how Buffalo had a team in the National League in the 1880's, until the owners sold the whole team to Detroit. I found out how Buffalo was supposed to get a team in the American League in 1900, only to have league president Ban Johnson arrange to give that franchise to Boston. You may have heard of the Red Sox.

What's more, I filled up two years of dates. Yes, July was tough (no Bills or Sabres), but the space got filled up. But I'd like to think I'm smart enough not to press my luck. So, the series ends today with this piece.

Still, I'm not out of the history business yet. On Thursday, I start with "This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History." This takes a well-known figure from Western New York and gives him a six-paragraph biography. It's actually a way to cover some people who were not discussed the first time around, such as high school coaches. I'm not sure where all the non-pro birthdays will come from; I can only hope the idea catches on and I get some suggestions from readers.

In the meantime, the old material hopefully won't go to waste. There is at least talk of doing a book on the subject, which means I'll be living in the past a while longer. And then there are the inevitable movie rights ... oops, got carried away there.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that a good idea doesn't necessarily have to go to waste. You just have to be really, really patient before it blossoms.

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