ORCHARD PARK — It was the first meeting of the Ralph Wilson Stadium Wall of Fame committee since the Bills’ team owner and facility’s namesake passed away in March.
Oh, he hadn’t been at the actual gathering for three years due to health concerns. But even in his 90s, Ralph’s input was a major part of our selection process. He didn’t have a vote, but always offered his thoughts, which we strongly considered ... though occasionally taking a different path.
On Wednesday it was different.
Our group is down to eight with the passing of legendary Buffalo News sports writer Larry Felser last year and the absence of former Channel 2 sports director Ed Kilgore, who now works for Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
That left retired play-by-play man Van Miller, his successor, John Murphy, former Bills’ trainer Eddie Abramoski, one-time Director of Archives Denny Lynch, Mark Gaughan and Milt Northrup of the News, Leo Roth from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and yours truly to make the choice.
It didn’t take long.
Oh, we had our list of deserving players ... but a suggestion from Murphy clinched it instantly.
“Murph” allowed that none of our other candidates belonged on the “Wall” more than Miller.
It was so obvious ... almost embarrassing.
Of course, it was also awkward ... what with him in the room with us and vehemently protesting, “You’ve got to put a player on there.”
Naturally the vote was unanimous ... except for Van’s.
YET WHO else belongs on the “Wall” ahead of the 86-year-old dean of Western New York sportscasting? After Ralph, no person was as strongly identified with the franchise — and for so long — as Van Miller.
In a span of 44 years — interrupted for five seasons when WKBW outbid WBEN for the radio contract — he broadcast over 700 Bills’ games ... from 1-12-1 seasons, through two AFL championships, to four Super Bowls.
He did it with a flair and words and phrases that stuck: “Fandemonium,” “Fasten your seatbelts,” “Do you believe it?”
When BEN lost the contract, KB installed Philadelphia’s Al Meltzer in the play-by-play spot with Rick Azar and former Bill and Erie County Executive-in-waiting Ed Rutkowski providing the analysis and commentary.
The 6-foot-4 Meltzer was a pro, but he continued to live and work in Philly ... he wasn’t Van, he wasn’t the homegrown kid from Dunkirk who made good, he wasn’t “one of us.”
And that was so much of Miller’s appeal.
He WAS Buffalo. Besides the Bills, he did play-by-play of the Bisons, Stallions, UB football and, of course, the Braves.
The latter was how we met.
Van helped fill that 5-year football hiatus by calling the games of Buffalo’s NBA team for its entire 8-season life.
My tenure at the Times Herald began in the second half of the 1972-73 season and one of my beats was covering every Braves home game.
Van soon realized I was a “radio guy” before making the switch to a newspaper and persistently invited me to be his halftime guest.
And though my preference was to discuss the Braves, he loved asking me about the Bonnies.
One memorable night, during a commercial break, he whispered, “I really have to go to the bathroom ... I’m going to ask you a question that requires a long answer ... you keep talking until I get back.”
It was my first solo in major market radio.
VAN HAS a unique charm ... and sense of humor.
More than once while in his presence, he’d be introduced to a woman, look her in the eye, and ask, “Why would such a pretty lady be wearing only one earring?”
Invariably, they would reach for their ears, only to realize they’d been pranked.
Van had a way of telling jokes that was a combination of Jack Benny’s timing and Bob Hope’s delivery.
Some of his best lines have been repeated for years — including Wednesday — but they’re still funny.
His last Bills’ broadcast was the 2003 season finale when failing eyesight and the vagaries of age forced him, at age 76, to bequeath the play-by-play chair to his color man, Murphy.
Still, Van owns eight season tickets at “The Ralph” and is in the press box for every game.
His legacy is the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and in the Buffalo Sports, Buffalo Broadcasting and Chautauqua County Halls of Fame.
Of course, he had one other characteristic for which Van was incessantly razzed by his colleagues.
He was, uhhh, notably frugal.
And stories of that trait were legend ... cashing in first-class plane tickets for coach and pocketing the difference, wearing trousers without back pockets to avoid carrying his wallet and being the first one in the hotel lobby to make sure he was included back in the days when the Bills’ PR department took the media and assistant coaches to dinner the night before road games.
What made the ribbing so funny was that it wasn’t mean-spirited ... it merely verified he was one of the guys and wouldn’t be treated differently merely because he was the “Voice of the Bills.”
And when those stories were retold, Van not only pleaded guilty, he also laughed harder than any of us.
It was great to see him so amused, and it was fitting, after all, he spent over a half century entertaining us.
Who better to be the seventh non-player added to the 29 names on the Bills’ Wall of Fame?
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)