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HUBBELL WAS AS MUCH A PART OF BUFFALO'S SPORTS SCENE AS ANY ATHLETE

Gangster lore is that Jimmy Hoffa's body is buried somewhere near where this is being written, possibly imbedded in cement behind one of the end zones in Giants Stadium.

There are times when they could have stowed Jimmy under one of the piles on my desk, but one of the things I could always find was a 1998 thank-you note from Ralph Hubbell for mentioning his name in a column I wrote.

I kept the note handy as a reminder to make time for a phone call to Hubbell, whom I saw too infrequently once he moved on to the life of a country squire in Newfane. Friday evening I learned that I was too late for a last conversation. Ralph had died a month shy of his 91st birthday.

For anyone past the age of 40 and raised in Western New York, Hubbell was the master of ceremonies for a considerable chunk of our lives. Whether it was a communion breakfast, bar mitzvah, testimonial, sports night or bowling banquet, it took on an extra touch of class if Ralph were at the microphone.

When I was a young kid, radio was king. There was no TV yet. The radio stations had the big hitters in sports -- Hubbell, Bill Mazer, Jim Wells, Charlie Bailey.

It's hard to believe now, when sports is squeezed into a few minutes between the weather and the soft feature on the nightly telecasts, but in those days Hubbell had 15 minutes to talk about sports and anything else which caught his fancy for the day. It was leisurely, homey and, yes, sometimes schmaltzy. It was also as Buffalo as beef on weck.

Ralph's first experience behind the mike was reading poetry on WEBR. With his rich, soothing voice he could have read the legal notices and people still would have listened. He found his calling in radio.

When he began his 15-minute show, his first guest was Sam Cordovano, a Buffalo native who became a football star at Columbia and later the top assistant to the school's famed head coach, Lou Little. Years later, Cordovano would be the man who brokered the deal that brought the original Bills of the All-America Conference to Buffalo for oilman Jim Breuil.

Cordovano also became noted for something else. Every year, for the rest of Hubbell's broadcasting career, on the anniversary of his pioneer broadcast, the sentimental sportscaster would have Cordovano return as his guest. For his many faithful listeners, the anniversary show was not to be missed.

When television came to Buffalo and The Buffalo News was granted a license for Channel 4, WBEN-TV built the most prestigious staff of sportscasters ever assembled in this town -- Hubbell, Chuck Healy, Dick Rifenburg and Van Miller.

Hubbell and Healy seemed joined at the hip. Whether it was on the gold course at the Wanakah Country Club, in the Saratoga on Delaware Avenue or at any event worth attending along the Niagara Frontier, they usually appeared as a team. They were better known around town than most of the sports figures on whom they reported.

Wherever he went, people converged on Hubbell, pressing to shake his hand. He had that sort of effect. They wanted to be near him, have a few words with a legend. I don't think he ever disappointed anyone.

The first time I met him, I had just come out of the army and was assigned to cover the UB basketball team in a tournament at the Quantico, Va., Marine base. Hub broadcast the Bulls' games that season. I came down to breakfast the night after I arrived and he was already seated at a table. He invited me to join him. When the waitress came over he ordered, "bacon and eggs and four bottles of Carling's."

Seeing me blink, he explained: "breakfast of champions."

He was one of the most charismatic men I've ever met. Not only was he a fine storyteller, his perspectives on life made you a student at the knee of a great teacher.

It wasn't until years later that the fast lane caught up with him, ending his long ride at the top of his profession. For most men it would have been the crash that destroyed them. Not for Hub. He didn't hide, even for a short time. A few days after he left WBEN, he made an appearance at my bachelor party.

The fast lane also came close to killing him. When I heard that he was seriously ill in the hospital, I called his room. He answered in the same sort of voice with which he began a broadcast, upbeat, ready to tell a story.

"This may have saved my life," he said. "I was a sick guy and didn't realize it."

Not only did he regain his health, he maintained his dignity. His profile was lower, but his stature was never higher.

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