by Jim Riggs
February 18, 2006
25 Years Of Hall Of Fame Memories
The Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame will have it's 25th annual induction dinner on Monday, but it was more than 25 years ago when the organization got off the ground.
It was on Dec. 6, 1980, when Russ Diethrick, then the director of the Jamestown Parks Recreation and Conservation Department, invited 26 people involved in area sports to attend a meeting at the Fenton Mansion to discuss the establishment of a sports museum for the Jamestown area. Ten showed up and three still remain on the board of directors of what became the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame - Komo Tane, Diethrick and myself.
Meetings were held monthly and at the fifth get-together there was discussion about presenting the inductees with a ring or watch. Eventually the final decision was to present a ring and after Monday night 110 inductees or their families will proudly own one.
At the ninth meeting it was determined the first induction dinner would be on Feb. 8, 1982, at the Red Coach Inn. But there was plenty to do before that.
At all of the meetings there was discussion about the geographic area that the hall of fame would include. The work "county" was left out of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame's name on purpose, but there had to be a limit for where the inductees would come from. It was determined that persons who were born in, lived in or achieved in Chautauqua County a name in the world of sports would be considered for induction.
It was a struggle then and it still is a struggle now to get Northern Chautauqua County involved with the hall. Back in the early years, at their own expense, Diethrick, then president Tony Milioto and others on the board made numerous trips to the north county to speak to service clubs and other organizations, trying to get all of Chautauqua County involved. There were offers to move the monthly meetings to a halfway point between Dunkirk and Jamestown, but nothing materialized and the struggle continues for north county participation.
It was decided that the first induction would honor 10 area sports figures. Eight were inducted the second year and it's been four per year ever since.
Names of possible inductees were requested from the public. Since the board does not have the time to research each nominee's accomplishments, when a name was received, a form was sent to the person who submitted the name requesting information. Some people returned very detailed information about their nominee while others returned barely anything. Some possible inductees had bulging file folders filled with clippings and other information about their accomplishments while others had perhaps only the returned form with scant information. So of course the nominee with the bulging folder had the
better chance of being inducted.
The board still hears from critics, "I can't believe (fill in the name) has not been inducted into the Hall of Fame!" Then we would check the list of nominees and discover that the person's name had never been submitted. If a name is not submitted, it can't be considered.
There was a lot of concern for the first year that the field of 10 initial inductees might lean too much toward one sport, such as baseball. But an objective scorecard system was used to determine the inductees. All the concerns about not having a balance were thrown out the window when the first 10 inductees were determined solely from the totals of the top 10 scorecards. The result was three inductees mainly involved with baseball, but there was also one for tennis, one for track, one for football, one for bowling, and one for basketball. The board also ended up with a woman inductee who was part of a father and daughter being inducted in the first year.
There was more diversity in the second year when the inductees included a boxer, a speed skater, a pro lifter and a sportswriter. So the fears about one sport domination the inductions were forgotten.
That first induction dinner went off without a hitch and the guest speakers were former Cleveland Browns star Lou Groza and then Montreal Expos manager Jim Fanning. Both attended without a fee (yes, without a fee!) and Fanning went the extra yard.
Fanning had been in Germany and arrived back in Montreal the night before the induction dinner. He could have easily backed out and everyone would have understood considering he had just returned from Europe. But Fanning still came to Jamestown to speak at the initial induction dinner after spending one brief night in Montreal.
The second induction dinner was at the Holiday Inn while the third went back to the Red Coach. But since 1985, it has been held at the Holiday Inn.
The list of celebrities that have appeared is impressive with names such as Steve Blass, Sam McDowell, Phil Vilapiano, Joe Charboneau, Marty Springstead, Bill White, Dave Andreychuk, Bill Polian, Dale Hawerchuk, Johnny Rutherford, Sparky Lyle, Pete Metzelaars, Michael Peca, Danny Gare, Mathew Barnaby, Marcellus Wiley, Rod Woodson, Tommy John and Dennis Hull, to name a few. The celebrities were important as an attraction for the induction dinner, but I was the squeaky wheel that kept bringing up at meetings that it was an induction dinner to honor the inductees, not a revival of the old sports dinners in Jamestown.
That's why a few years ago the order of the induction dinner program was changed. For many years, the inductees were honored at the end of the program after the celebrities had spoken. I still recall one induction night that was running a bit long. After the celebreties had spoken, the biography of the first inductee was being read late in the program. And while it was being read, some people began to leave because they had heard the celebrities they came to see. And as the inductees spoke, a person here and there would sneak out the door. They had come to see the celebrities, but they had forgotten the
reason the celebrities were there was because it was an event to honor the new Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame inductees.
Later in 1982, after the first induction dinner, a site for the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame museum was opened at the Chautauqua Mall in the site of the former J.R. Gentry men's clothing store. For years the hall was housed at different sites at the mall rent free with the organization responsible only for paying utilities. The Chautauqua Mall's support in those early years helped keep the facility going.
With the hall housed at the mall, board meetings, which had been breakfasts at the Holiday Inn, were changed to dinner meetings at the York Steak House.
I can still remember attending many of those meetings with my young son, who would bring along his Snoopy briefcase filled with coloring books and crayons. One board member, the late John Champion, would always make sure he took a seat next to my son and would entertain him throughout the meeting.
In 25 years of induction dinners there are many moments I'll never forget. Two years ago former NHL: player Dennis Hull had tears of laughter flowing during his appearance as a guest speaker.
John Gurtler, a past employee of the Buffalo Sabres, was the emcee numerous times and was also one of the top "comedians," He and the late Joe Nalbone, an inductee and board member, used to put on a great Abbott & Costello-type routine. I'll never forget the night Nalbone, who never saw a microphone he didn't like, was at the podium for an extended amount of time thatended when Gurtler used a hockey stick like a vaudeville hook to "pull" Nalbone off the stage.
One of the speakers at the 1989 dinner was goaltender Daren Puppa of the Buffalo Sabres. My son, who was 10 at the time, attended the dinner with me and one of the board members introduced us to Puppa. When he asked my son if he wanted Puppa's autograph, he replied, "No." Then he asked why not and my son said, "Because I don't like the Sabres."
And in 25 years of induction dinners there have of course been some lowlights and two stand out. One year an inductee, a former professional athlete, wanted his expenses paid to come to the dinner. And another time an inductee turned down the honor because he thought he should have been inducted sooner.
But in all, it's been a pretty good quarter of a century of honoring the area's best in sports and not just those who starred in competition, but also those who were behind the scenes. Now the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame prepares for 25 more years and beyond.