The Right Angle: Tales from a Sporting Life
By Bob Rich
Prometheus Books, 2011
List Price: $27
In the world of sports, there isn’t much Bob Rich hasn’t played, coached, or managed. His childhood love of hockey blossomed into a stint as part owner of his hometown Buffalo Sabres. He formed a handball team that competed in the New York State Games, capturing a bronze medal and two silvers in three years. He purchased the then Double-A Buffalo Bisons in 1982, building them into one of the most successful franchises in minor league baseball. Add to that list holding naming rights on Buffalo’s NFL stadium, playing competitive polo, sport fishing, endurance swimming, and you have a guy who can’t sit still.
Rich, whose father founded Rich Products Corporation, got his start in professional sports as part of the ownership group that lured an NHL expansion team to Buffalo in 1969. His involvement lasted until the ill-fated deal that brought the Rigas family to town. Rich details their shenanigans in one of the more intriguing chapters of his new book, “The Right Angle: Tales from a Sporting Life.”
Rich got an up-close view of the Rigases’ dirty dealings, long before their Adelphia Cable empire crumbled down around them, landing both father and son in prison. The sale of the Sabres was dragged out by the Rigas contingent’s efforts to get Rich and his side to accept Adelphia stock instead of cash. Even once the deal was agreed to, it took months to close, and that only happened after Rich threatened to hire a forensic accounting firm to go through the Rigases’ books. Had it come to that, the world would have learned earlier how they had financed their empire by fraudulent means.
When Erie County built the Buffalo Bills a new stadium in the early 1970s, it sought to recoup some of the costs by selling naming rights. Rich’s father proposed purchasing the rights for 10 years at a cost of $1 million to call the new stadium Coffee Rich Park, after one of his company’s top-selling products. All well and good, until Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who had signed away naming rights to the county, objected to the “crass commercialism.” Rich details the hurdles he had to clear to eventually close the deal—and then ensure it was enforced after Wilson ordered his workmen to remove the letters spelling out Rich Stadium under cover of darkness the night before the team’s initial preseason game.
Rich’s most enduring legacy in Buffalo may be the stewardship of the Bisons, who were on the verge of washing out for a second time when he stepped in to purchase the club. By dumb luck a year later, the producers of the Robert Redford movie “The Natural” targeted Buffalo’s decrepit stadium, affectionately known as the Rockpile, as an appropriate setting for the film, set in the 1930s. Interest in the movie helped boost attendance at Bisons games. Within a few years the team was back in the Triple-A ranks, with eyes for more. Rich breaks down the pursuit of a new stadium with an ultimate goal of landing a major league expansion franchise. In the end, Buffalo was edged out by Miami and Denver for the two National League openings, as MLB opted for larger television markets.
While the baseball chapters, which are full of behind-the-scenes details of the expansion process, will likely be of most interest to Baseball America readers, there are plenty of other entertaining stories in the book, particularly for residents of Upstate New York who follow the Sabres and Bills. At times it feels a little like lifestyles of the rich and famous (Rich and famous?), particularly the chapters on polo and sport fishing (from which he culled the book’s title). But Rich’s easy tone keeps things light and moving, and if you happen to run into him at a ball game you’ll have plenty of openings to strike up a conversation.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.