Mesi headlines 2018 Greater Buffalo Sports Hall
“Baby” Joe Mesi is a member of the Ring 44 Buffalo Boxing Hall of Fame and was recently entered into the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame but getting selected for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame was a surprise.
“To be honored outside of the field is great,” said Mesi, a Town of Tonawanda native and a Sweet Home High School graduate. “To be cemented with the names that have been inducted before me of all different sports and industries is huge. This is one that I never expected to get. I felt like ‘geez, maybe I’ll be an old man [when I would get inducted]’ so to be so young, I was surprised.”
Mesi, 44, was announced as one of the 15 members of the 2018 Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame Class in a ceremony on June 6 at KeyBank Center. The date of the induction dinner will be announced in the coming weeks.
John Faller, recently retired Sweet Home football and lacrosse coach, is also one of the 15 members, as is former Amherst resident and baseball pitcher Werner “Babe” Birrer, who was one of four members to be inducted posthumously.
Mesi, once known as Buffalo’s “third franchise,” became a household name for Western New Yorkers although he didn’t start boxing until he was 19.
“I was fortunate to be from Western New York,” Mesi said. “If I had been from Houston, Miami or Los Angeles, I might have been a good boxer but I would not have had the following. It’s the people of Western New York and Buffalo that I share this with. Nowhere else in the world would I have 18,000 fans coming to see me. It just wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to bring boxing back to Buffalo and I feel like I did that. I gave people good times and memories. We did it together.”
As an amateur, Mesi was a three-time New York State Golden Gloves Champion (1993, 1995, 1996), an Empire State Games gold medalist (1993), a United States Olympic alternate (1996) and a New York State Heavyweight champion (1999).
With his father, Jack, as his manager, Mesi signed a promotional contract with fighter and then-promoter Sugar Ray Leonard.
In April 2002, Mesi won by technical knockout against Keith McKnight, which headlined a show at the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena that was nationally televised on ESPN2.
He sold out KeyBank Center, which was then called HSBC Arena, three times. One of the fights was Mesi’s favorite nights as a boxer in a first-round knockout over DaVarryl Williamson on Sept. 27, 2003.
“My goal was fighting here in this building,” he said. “I got to do it three times. Fighting DaVarryl was special because he taught me everything about boxing on the way up as an amateur. A lot of people don’t know that. I looked up to him. To meet up with him later in my career and beat him the way I did was sort of a sentimental victory for me.”
Earlier in 2003, Mesi beat Robert Davis by technical knockout to win the North American Boxing Federation Heavyweight Championship. In 2007, he won the World Boxing Council United States National Boxing Heavyweight Championship.
Mesi was 36-0, including 29 by knockout, but was forced into early retirement due to at least one, possibly two subdural hematomas.
Since leaving the ring, Mesi has worked for nine years as a territory manager for Abbott Medical, where he sells medical implants to local physicians.
“It didn’t the end way I wanted it to but sometimes things don’t end the way you want them to and sometimes things just work out better,” Mesi said. “I feel like where I am at today with my sales career with my wife and three children, I could not ask for anything more.”
John Faller was very surprised when he found out that he was going be selected for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
“This was not in my train of thought,” he said. “I was done coaching and teaching and I was happy with everything. I’m glad to be inducted. A boy from Rochester doesn’t expect to be in the [Greater] Buffalo [Sports] Hall of Fame. It’s been a good career. I have always been around a lot of good people and kids.”
Faller grew up in Rochester and played running back for Greece-Arcadia and the University at Buffalo. After getting drafted and serving a two-year stint in the Army, he was hired as a physical education teacher at Sweet Home in 1974.
Faller taught and coached at Sweet Home for 41 years. He coached the modified, freshman and JV football teams from 1974 to 1985 before becoming head varsity coach in 1986. He retired as football coach after the 2016 season.
In Faller’s tenure, his football teams amassed a 217-84-1 record, ranking him fourth all-time in Western New York history. The Panthers captured 16 division titles, eight Section VI titles and Class A state championships in 2008 and 2009.
Sweet Home was also a sectional finalist seven times (1991-92, 1996-97, 2005-06, 2013) and a state finalist in 2012.
The Panthers won 69 consecutive games against Section VI opponents, including six consecutive section titles from 2007 to 2012, before losing to eventual state runner up Williamsville North in the 2013 Class A section final.
Sweet Home lost three times from 2008 to 2012 – twice to Aquinas in 2010 and 2011 in the state quarterfinals and once to Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake in the 2012 state finals.
Sweet Home’s loss to Aquinas in 2010 ended its 36-game unbeaten streak. At the time, it was the third-longest streak in Western New York history and tied for fourth in the nation.
Faller was also boys lacrosse coach at Sweet Home from when it was introduced as a varsity sport in the 1976-1977 school year, minus the 1994-95 school year when he served as athletic director, until he retired in 2017. The Panthers won six section titles and were runner up seven times. Faller ranks second all-time in the section in coaching wins with 372.
He was Section VI boys lacrosse chairman from 1980 to 2014.
“It was great to see the sport grow for boys and girls lacrosse,” Faller said. “The officials are considered some of the best in the country.”
Werner “Babe” Birrer
Werner Birrer attended Kensington High School and then went on to pitch at the University at Buffalo before he signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers in 1947 by scout Cy Williams.
Birrer pitched professionally from 1947 to 1966, which was interrupted by two years of military service. He was primarily used as a relief pitcher and made 589 appearances and won 143 games.
Birrer threw nine seasons for the Buffalo Bisons (1952, 1955, 1960-66), which ties Baseball Hall of Famer James “Pud” Galvin for the most seasons a player has pitched for the Bisons.
Birrer played in the major leagues over parts of three seasons with Detroit, Baltimore and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He earned the nickname “Babe” after he hit two three-run home runs in Tiger Stadium on Aug. 19, 1955.
After his playing days ended, Birrer taught physical education in the Buffalo and suburban public schools for 20 years and coached baseball at every level from midget to high school.
Birrer was inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.
Other members of the Class of 2018 include Bill Bradshaw (college administrator); Gina Castelli (Canisius College basketball player, college coach); Lonnie Nielson (PGA golfer, senior tour champion); Barry Smith (NHL coach, administrator, Stanley Cup champ); Jimmy “Bug” Williams and Rickey Williams (college and pro basketball standouts); and Jeff Yeates (NFL and college football player).
James Hewson (track and field Olympian); Marv Hubbard (three-time NFL All-Pro fullback); and Louise, Estelle and Mary Weigel (figure skating champions) are also being inducted posthumously.
With the 15-member class of 2018, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame will now have 330 inductees since its inception in 1991.