Every dog has its day. Say woof, Buffalo.
That was the lead paragraph on Tom Weir’s sports column in USA Today when the previously winless Buffalo Bills upset the Dallas Cowboys at Rich Stadium 35 years ago today.
Days later Weir got a sheaf of letters in the mail from students in a grade school class in Buffalo. Many of the individually written letters began with the same opening sentence.
“The teacher must have given them a template to start from,” Weir says by phone from his home in Tennessee. “They’d say, ‘Dear Mr. Weir, You are not a very nice man.’ ”
For the record, Mr. Weir is a very nice man. I worked with him for 30 years at USA Today and sat next to him in the press box for that game on Nov. 18, 1984, when the 0-11 Bills shocked the Cowboys as Greg Bell ran 85 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. The Bills would go on to win 14-3 on the day Jack Kemp’s name went up on the Wall of Fame.
Weir was taken aback at the time by such politely couched derision from an entire class of schoolchildren. I assured him Buffalo has a long history of reacting unkindly to unkind words because it has a long history of brickbats tossed in its direction.
The most famous case came in 1968, when San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Glenn Dickey authored this broadside: “Buffalo is known as the armpit of the East, although that seems to be an unnecessarily limited title. I’ve seen nothing elsewhere to indicate it has any challenges for national honors. … Women are still wearing skirts below the knees, and men are wearing wide-lapel jackets. It’s like watching a 1948 movie.”
Dickey had come to town to see the Oakland Raiders beat the Bills 48-16, which was then the worst loss in their history. The Bills somehow mustered minus-19 net passing yards and owner Ralph Wilson made up his mind to fire coach Joe Collier by halftime.
Still, for all of that, what really stuck in the craw of the good citizens of Buffalo was Dickey’s knock column, better known in the trade as a rainy-day column – so named because they could fill column inches when baseball games rained out.
Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray invented them, or at least perfected them. Dickey’s knock column was a pale imitation of Murray’s act, mainly because it committed a mortal sin of the genre: It wasn’t funny.
Murray’s rainy-day columns, meanwhile, were enough to make readers pray for rain:
• “The only trouble with Spokane as a city is that there’s nothing to do after 10 o’clock. In the morning. But it’s a nice place to go for breakfast.”
• St. Louis “had a bond issue recently and the local papers campaigned for it on a slogan, ‘Progress or Decay,’ and decay won in a landslide.”
• “Minneapolis and St. Paul don’t like each other very much and from what I could see I don’t blame either one.”
This is how it’s done. Now why couldn’t Buffalo get knocked by a patron saint of sportswriting like Jim Murray, instead of a knockoff knocker like Glenn Dickey?
Murray penned what may have been history’s first rainy-day column in 1961 while on a desultory road trip with the Los Angeles Dodgers, losers of 10 consecutive games before a rainout in Cincinnati.
“You don’t have any appreciation for what us truth-seekers go through on a road trip for the honor and glory of baseball,” Murray wrote. “For instance, you come into a city like Cincinnati at 3 o’clock in the morning. Now, if you have any sense, you don’t want to be in Cincinnati at all. Even in daylight, it doesn’t look like a city. It looks like it’s in the midst of condemnation proceedings. If it was human, they’d bury it.”
Reds fans greeted Murray with protesting signs when he returned to the Queen City of the Midwest for the 1961 World Series. Seven years later, the Queen City of the Great Lakes would go a step farther.
“Dickey was paid to come back to Buffalo a couple of times so the civic boosters could insult him on television,” Buffalo News sports columnist Larry Felser wrote in 1989. “Dickey still claims he plans to do another Buffalo knock piece some day if he ever runs short of money.”
Felser, a patron saint of Buffalo sportswriting, recalled Dickey’s column as “your basic city knock piece. Dickey must have wanted a day off and wrote it in advance. … In Buffalo, we treated it as if it were the Ninety-Five Theses Martin Luther nailed on the door of All Saints Church at Wittenburg.”
Felser, as ever, was right. He wanted us to have a thicker skin, to let such fusillades pass. Maybe we’re getting better at that. Or maybe we’re just getting better press these days.
Whatever the case, Weir doesn’t have those dismissive missives from the schoolkids anymore. I asked him to look for them because I figured maybe I could find some of the letter writers to see where they are now and what they’re thinking these days.
Weir kept the letters for decades but, alas, must have tossed them at some point. He’s sorry about that. He’d like to read them again. Nothing like venom raining down from grade schoolers to make the day of a rainy-day columnist.