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Remembering “What’s New Harry?” and Phil Ranallo

If some enterprising writer ever compiled a history of Buffalo’s most accomplished journalists , it’s a pretty good bet that the late, great Phil Ranallo would make the all-star team as a sports columnist.

Ranallo worked for the old Courier-Express newspaper for nearly 40 years, until finances caused the Courier to shut down operations in September 1982. He spent most of his career writing “What’s New, Harry?” – a popular sports column that delighted readers with its wry and witty observations, and funny characters.

Although he occasionally wrote about his family, politics and world events, Ranallo usually focused on Buffalo’s athletes and the greats who passed through Western New York. In print, Ranallo came off as one of those opinionated guys you’d see on a bar stool or near the finish line at a horse racing track, chomping on a cigar and talking very fast out of the side of his mouth.

The real Ranallo, who died in 1986, was a decorated World War II veteran and devoted family man. He smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes, not cigars, and drank pot after pot of coffee while he wrote. He always kept the number to his Kenmore home listed in the phone book, and sometimes got calls at home from the world’s most famous athletes – boxer Muhammad Ali, to name one.

“He listened to Frank Sinatra all day on the Magnavox stereo, always wore a suit to work, and wore a white shirt and pressed pants at home every day,” recalled one of his five sons, Paul Ranallo.

Paul Ranallo recently completed a book about his dad’s work, compiling more than 100 of Phil’s best columns. It’s called “What’s New Harry? The Best of Buffalo Courier-Express Columnist Phil Ranallo.” The book is sure to bring a lot of smiles to nostalgic sports fans, people who enjoyed Ranallo’s work with the Courier, and those who just enjoy entertaining, old-time newspaper writing.

Phil Ranallo created outrageous characters to help him tell his stories – people like his buddy “Sam,” and guys with nicknames like “Loose Lips Louie,” “Julie Potatoes,” and “Fat Tony the Bookmaker.” He called his beloved wife, Dorothy, “Ruby” in his columns. His son said Ranallo picked “Ruby” because it was the title of one of his favorite Ray Charles songs.

“Honest Harry,” the narrator, appeared to be a man of strong opinions who loved all sports, but especially boxing, baseball and horse racing.

For years, Ranallo’s column appeared five times a week, an extremely heavy workload for a person who writes opinion columns.

“Phil Ranallo was a legend at the Courier when I started working there,” recalled Mike Billoni, a former Courier sports reporter who still is a writer and also community development director of the Food Bank of Western New York. Billoni said Ranallo took a liking to him, and offered this advice: “Never forget to spell everyone’s name correctly and make sure of your facts.”

What was it like to grow up as Phil’s son? A lot of fun, recalled Paul Ranallo, 62, who lives in Amherst and is an inspector for the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

He said Phil was a tough but loving father who loved going to the horse track and taking his kids to sporting events. He said Phil would get very caught up in the action while watching sports, and remembered when his dad once got thrown out of a Braves game for giving an official a rough time.

A few highlights from the book:

• Joe Namath and the Jets win January 1969 Super Bowl. The New York Jets became the first team from the upstart American Football League to beat a National Football League team in the title game. “The remarkable Joe Namath and his Jet Set performed a miracle,” Ranallo wrote. “The miracle of cramming footballs down the throats of the Colts and a thousand other NFL coaches and players, and perhaps 50 million other heretofore arrogant NFL loyalists.”

• Don Elbaum survives bombing. In January 1972, Ranallo’s column was an interview with his long-time buddy Elbaum, a colorful boxing promoter who was lucky enough to survive a car-bombing. “I’ve got the willies,” Elbaum said. “I haven’t slept forty winks in ten days.” Elbaum said the police told him the bombing was probably “a warning.” He told Ranallo he just wished he knew what he was being warned about. Forty years later, Elbaum was still drawing breath, and still promoting boxing matches.

• Mort O’Sullivan. In May 1971, Ranallo delivered a remarkably descriptive column on O’Sullivan, a former Canisius College basketball star. He described O’Sullivan as a man “constructed along the lines of a Sherman tank. He is six-by-six and could easily pass as the anchorman of Ireland’s tug-of-war team. His large, florid, scrubbed face seems to have the words ‘Erin go bragh’ etched on it.”

• Secretariat. The great steed won horse racing’s Triple Crown in June 1973 and Ranallo was thrilled. “Secretariat, that magnificent dude – that unreal, coppery-coated colt who is worth five times his weight in gold – planted an indelible hoof on the world of thoroughbred racing Saturday, as he streaked to an incredible 31-length victory.”

• Ali. After Ali’s legendary 1975 victory over Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manilla” fight, Ranallo wrote that “Frazier wobbled to his corner like a drunk walking against a high gale … Ali hit him with everything but a cream pie – or a cement pie.”

• Nate “Tiny” Archibald. In September 1977, Ranallo wrote about Archibald, a talented guard who had emerged from abject poverty to star for the old, sorely missed Buffalo Braves basketball team. “Archibald escaped, dribbled right out of the squalor and despair – and demonstrated that a man need not necessarily live a demeaning life because of the demeaning circumstances that surround him.”

• Pete Rose. Ranallo was a huge fan of Rose, the intense baseball star who would later be barred from the sport’s Hall of Fame because of gambling. In May 1978, Ranallo wrote: “He plays the game with the pure joy of a little boy – like a kid who goes to bed night after night and dreams his wonderful dreams with his baseball glove tucked under his pillow.”

• Gilbert Perreault. Ranallo was also a big admirer of the Sabres superstar center, but in April 1979, he became the only journalist I know of to mention a serious flaw in Perreault’s game – that he too often passed to teammates when he could have scored himself. “If Perreault has a flaw, it’s his unselfishness,” Ranallo wrote. “The guy actually over-passes the puck.”

There are interesting columns in the collection about many sports giants from Buffalo’s past – including Bills founder Ralph C. Wilson Jr., Buffalo Braves stars Randy Smith, Bob McAdoo, Elmore Smith, Ernie DiGregorio and Emmett Bryant; college hoop stars Bob Lanier, Calvin Murphy and Tony Masiello; bowler Tom Baker; Bills’ stars Jack Kemp, Robert James, Ernie Warlick, J.D. Hill and Ed Rutkowski; and Tim Horton, the late star of the Buffalo Sabres and the world of doughnuts.

One thing about Ranallo that leaps from the pages is his ability to write – sometimes poignantly, sometimes hilariously, sometimes angrily – about topics that had nothing to do with the world of sports. He wrote a touching column on his daughter’s wedding and a beautiful remembrance of his late mother. He wrote several columns about racism, and lashed out in eloquent outrage after the 1968 assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

In this newsman’s eyes, the best column in the book is Ranallo’s May 1972 piece on Mark Corbett, a young friend of his family who was slain in the Vietnam War.

“Mark Corbett is a member of the silent minority that today lies under the bare white crosses of a thousand cemeteries,” Ranallo wrote. “He no longer is commanded by the stale visions of politicians … Mark Corbett and the other members of that silent minority, 53,000 strong – most of them boys without many seasons behind them – now lie under those bare white crosses.” The knowledge of those deaths, Ranallo wrote, “brings shivers to the spine, gnaws at the stomach, tears at the heart.”