Old Team Tuesday – The history of pro baseball in Buffalo
Old Team Tuesday is a weekly feature taking a look at former teams that have gone by the wayside. This week’s edition does not look at the history of a single team, but revisits the entire scope of professional baseball in Buffalo as a whole.
Over the course of 140 years, the city of Buffalo has seen everything professional baseball has to offer, whether it be a great triumph or a heart-wrenching loss. Most Western New Yorkers will recognize the Buffalo Bisons as the region’s primary baseball team, and as a beacon of continuity and stability. However, the rocky years of the early 1900s and the turmoil of the 1960s almost wiped out the city’s baseball culture forever.
--- Notable and National ---
In 1877, a new franchise named the Bisons played their first season in the New York State Association, finishing with a record of 3-11. Because of their dreadful record, the team folded following the season. However, another Buffalo team with the same nickname was formed and joined the upstart International Association for the 1878 season. Buffalo’s new league treated them well, as they wound up winning the pennant and splitting an inter-league playoff series with the Boston Red Caps.
The following season, Buffalo was invited to join the National League. For the seven years the Bisons played at the major league level, they compiled a .487 win-percentage. One of the team’s most notable major league moments occurred on May 25, 1882. During a home contest in front of approximately 1,000 fans, the Bisons pummeled the Cleveland Blues 20-1, thanks in part to the bat of right fielder Curry Foley. Foley knocked a grand slam in the bottom of the first to give Buffalo the lead. He followed that at-bat with a triple in the second, a single in the third, and a double in the fifth, and by doing so, became the first major leaguer ever to hit for the cycle.
|The 1882 Bisons, with Curry Foley on the left side of the second row from the top.
After returning to minor league status in 1886, a crosstown rival eventually emerged in a new league called the Players’ League. The original Bisons couldn’t compete with the new club at the gate, and just 18 games into the season, the team was sold and transferred to Montreal. After a one-and-done season for the Players’ League, Buffalo was welcomed to the Eastern League for 1891 and remained there until 1898, when financial strains threatened the viability of the team and the league as a whole.
--- Bad Johnson ---
For the 1899 season, Buffalo jumped ship to the Western League, which had existed in one form or another for 14 seasons. The team finished in a tie for seventh place, and in 1900, stayed with the league as they underwent a name change to become the American League. After another seventh-place finish in 1900, Buffalo was unceremoniously dumped from the league in favor of a new outfit that would play in Boston, a much larger and desirable market to president Ban Johnson. Johnson’s shuffling of franchisees positioned him to become a new major league, and in 1901 the AL officially became one.
The Bisons, however, missed out on the chance to return to the majors, and instead returned to the Eastern League they had left just a few years before. In 1910, Chet Carmichael became the first EL pitcher to throw a nine-inning perfect game – and did so whilst nursing a split finger. The team played one more season in the Eastern League before being bumped up from Class A ball to the Class AA International League. However, the promotion didn’t prevent more competition from trying to steal the spotlight.
--- The new kids on the block had a bunch of hits ---
In 1914, a self-declared major league chartered a franchise in Buffalo. The new team took its nickname from the league to which it belonged and called itself the Federals, or "Buffeds" for short. The Buffeds amassed a respectable 80-71 record in their inaugural campaign. The 1915 season brought a change to the Federal League squad, as the moniker was changed to the Blues. The Blues were less successful than the Buffeds had been, finishing four games below .500 and 12 games behind league champion St. Louis.
|A 1915 baseball card featuring Frank Blair of the Buffalo Federals.
The Federal League folded after the 1915 season, and the IL Bisons enjoyed a few more years as the city’s lone professional baseball team until the Stars and an independent league set up shop in 1922. The new outfit didn’t do well financially and collapsed before the season ended, allowing the Bisons to prosper downtown until the 1960s.
Buffalo was also home to various Negro league teams while baseball remained discriminatory and segregated. The Buffalo Red Caps and Buffalo Colored Giants were two of the earliest Negro league teams to play in the area, but the most notable team to make Buffalo home was actually the Indianapolis Clowns.
The Clowns had become one of the most legendary and popular Negro league teams because of their nose for publicity, their comical play, and their outlandish stunts. After baseball became integrated again, the Clowns became a barnstorming team akin to the Harlem Globetrotters. They played numerous games at Offermann Stadium in the 1950s, and won the Negro American League pennant in 1951 and 1952.
|The Buffalo Criterion advertised an upcoming Indianapolis Clowns game at Offermann Stadium (notably misspelled in the ad) that would feature professional baseball's only female player, Toni Stone. [June 3, 1953]
Other teams such as the Chicago American Giants and Philadelphia Stars visited Buffalo in neutral-site contests as well. Buffalo was one of the most dependable cities for Negro league baseball in terms of gate receipts, and was rewarded for its loyalty by playing host to several key dates on the calendar including the regular-season finale and Opening Day.
It should be noted that another team, the Pittsburgh Colored Stars of Buffalo, are sometimes said to have called the Queen City home. However, verification for that claim is not available, as they are also said to have been another barnstorming team, or to have been based out of Buffalo Township, Pennsylvania. The vast majority of their games were played against teams in the Southern Tier and Pittsburgh areas, with little mention of them coming any further north than Olean, New York.
--- Rockpile renegades ---
As the Negro leagues slowly faded into history, Buffalo Bisons baseball was still chugging along. In their 48th season as a member of the now-Triple-A International League, the lights at Offermann Stadium went out on the Bisons one last time following a 5-3 playoff loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on September 17, 1960.
In 1961, the Bisons became co-tenants of War Memorial Stadium with the newly-formed Buffalo Bills of the American Football League. They christened their new home with a 4-3 win over the San Juan Marlins on May 3. They cruised to a third-place finish, but ousted the Marlins (who had relocated to Charleston, West Virginia midseason) and the Rochester Red Wings in the playoffs to win the IL title.
|A capacity crowd takes in a Bisons game at War Memorial Stadium.
After an ownership mutiny of sorts in 1964, the Buffalo Baseball Club, as it was officially called, went from being a publically-owned entity to a privately-owned one due to the sale of stocks to Sportservice Corp. Now under the direction of a board, the team flopped from a third-place 80-69 finish the year before to an eighth-place 51-96 record in 1965, good enough for dead-last in the league.
--- Wealthy people ruin everything ---
Things didn’t improve over the next several seasons, as the team failed to place higher than fifth in the IL. As a result, attendance plummeted, taking with it the gate receipts minor league teams so desperately required. Dangerous conditions on the city’s East Side prompted team officials to relocate night games to Hyde Park in Niagara Falls in a desperate attempt to ensure fans would still turn out.
Creative promotions and bold personnel hires weren’t enough to cement the future of the team. On August 3, 1969, the Washington Senators cut their affiliation with the Bisons and the team announced it would likely lose upwards of $60,000 by season’s end ($492,000 in 2017).
Now a member of the Montreal Expos’ farm system, the Bisons spent 1970 working arguably harder off the field than on it. The team attempted to strike deals to settle in Lackawanna Stadium or All-High Stadium, but both were shot down. Things only got worse, and eventually, the plug was pulled altogether. From the Bisons team site:
"The opening day crowd was only 1,319, one of the smallest in memory. On June 2, and with the team at 9-27, the Bisons had played 13 games at home and drawn just 9,204 fans. League officials met in New York on June 4 to discuss the Buffalo situation. That afternoon the Buffalo franchise was forfeited and awarded to the Expos, who subsequently transferred it to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Buffalo's last International League game was played against Tidewater on June 4, 1970. The team started the game as the Buffalo Bisons and finished it as the Montreal Bisons. It was a 7-4 loss and left the team at 9-29, six and one half games out of seventh place. Buffalo was now without professional baseball for the first time since 1876."
The Winnipeg Whips picked up where the Bisons had left off, finishing in last place in both 1970 and 1971. The Expos relocated the club again to Hampton, Virginia for the 1972 season, but the distance from the parent club ballooned expenses, and the Peninsula Whips were finally shuddered in 1973.
--- Rich people bring it back ---
In 1979, after eight seasons without baseball, Buffalo was awarded the rights to the Eastern League’s Jersey City Athletics after nearly 100 Buffalonians scraped together the $140,000 needed to buy the franchise and move it to Western New York. The name and history of the Bisons was restored, and although the club was now Double-A, fans flocked to the old Rockpile, and by season’s end, led the circuit in attendance.
In 1985, team president Bob Rich, Jr. announced that an agreement had been reached to purchase the franchise rights to the Wichita Aeros of the American Association. The deal meant that after 15 years away, Buffalo would once again return to the Triple-A level.
--- Return to prominence ---
That same year, a new collective bargaining agreement was settled upon by Major League Baseball’s players and owners. The most newsworthy item to Buffalonians was that the National League would be awarding two new franchises in the coming years.
Rich assembled a group of investors to make a pitch that would land one of the teams in Buffalo. While they worked on that, the Bisons also worked to ensure the team would become and remain a hot commodity, so they announced plans to build a brand-new ballpark downtown to replace dilapidated War Memorial Stadium.
|Governor Mario Cuomo addresses the crowd at a groundbreaking ceremony for Pilot Field. [July 10, 1986]
The 1987 season was the team’s last at the Rockpile, and although the Bisons limped to a 66-74 record, fans came out in droves to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the old stadium. A record 497,760 fans came through the turnstiles that year, topped by a single-game-best 38,211 on July 26 for a postgame Beach Boys concert. Unbeknownst to many, the off-field success of the 1987 season was a glimpse into the soon-to-be glorious future of Bisons baseball.
--- The golden age ---
Pilot Field opened before a sold-out crowd on April 13, 1988. At the time, it was perceived as one of the most pristine ballparks in the country, at any level. HOK Sport won the bid to build the facility, and they wound up delivering a beauty. Its style was a unique retro-classic blend that wound up inspiring the design of Oriole Park at Camden Yards just a few years later. Though capacity was only 19,500, the firm designed the ballpark in a way that would allow additional seating to be added above the second level and in the outfield should Buffalo’s major league dreams become reality.
The inaugural Triple-A All-Star Game, the National OldTimers Baseball Classic, several noteworthy concerts, and a string of 22 sellouts helped the 1988 Bisons become just the second minor-league team to ever bring over 1 million fans through their gates in a single season.
1989 saw the club make its mark in the standings as well. Terry Collins managed the squad to an 80-62 record, trailing only Indianapolis at season’s end. For the second straight year, attendance topped the 1 million mark, and in Pilot Field’s first two seasons, an average of 16,330 fans came out to each game.
The team expanded seating in the ballpark to 20,900 prior to the 1990 season, and once again the fans packed the house to watch the Bisons battle for the American Association pennant. Another excerpt from the Bisons web site:
"In either 1st or 2nd place the entire season, the Bisons season came to an end in heart-breaking fashion. After 146 games, the Bisons were tied with the Nashville Sounds atop the American Association Eastern Division. On September 4, the two teams forged an epic one-game playoff battle. "The Game," which lasted 18 innings and five hours and eight minutes, finally ended when after 43 players and 14 pitchers, Chris Jones doubled down the left field line to score Billy Bates and give Nashville the 4-3 win."
Attendance continued to climb, and in 1991, the seminal moment that the Rich famliy, the Bisons, and the city waited for finally came, as the National League announced the two newest members of Major League Baseball. Ultimately, Denver and Miami won the bids due to advantages in market size, but for the fourth-straight season, attendance at Pilot Field hit seven digits, reaching a minor league record 1,240,951 that still stands today. The team won the East Division with a regular-season record of 81-62, but flubbed a 2-0 series lead to Denver in the Association championship series.
After opening Pilot Field with a string of first- and second-place finishes, Buffalo floundered to an eighth-place 55-89 mark in 1994. The woeful play also halted the streak of 1 million fans in attendance after six consecutive seasons. 1994 proved to be an off-year, however, as the team rebounded to finish with an 82-62 record. However, regular-season success failed to translate in the postseason once again, as the Bisons fell in the American Association Championship Series to Louisville.
After a first-round playoff exit in 1996, the 87-57 Bisons beat Indianapolis and Iowa to win their first Association crown in 1997. They would become the last team to hold that title, as Triple-A baseball was made into a two-league body following the season. The American Association was shut down and its teams were split amongst the International and Pacific Coast leagues.
Buffalo’s return to the International League was a decidedly successful one. While the team couldn’t pay fans to watch them play in 1970, they managed to bring 768,749 to Pilot Field. Several team records were shattered on the field that year, and it culminated with a first-place finish in the East, a sweep of Syracuse in the opening round of the playoffs, a five-game triumph over Durham to win the IL Governors’ Cup Championship, and a win against New Orleans in the first Triple-A World Series.
--- Let the ladies have the floor ---
With all the success the Bisons had experienced in their renaissance, the executives of the Ladies Professional Baseball League decided to award a team to Buffalo for the 1998 season. It was to be the second season for the league, with 1997 seeing all franchises located in either Arizona or California. The league rebranded and expanded for 1998, hoping a national presence in the shadow of Women’s Pro Fastpitch would allow their product to grow. As such, Buffalo was awarded a team along with New Jersey and Florida.
The Nighthawks were comprised primarily of local women who’d previously played college softball and they shared North AmeriCare Park with the Bisons. A paltry crowd of 325 fans braved poor weather and a 45-minute rain delay to witness their debut on July 9, 1998. Despite not having their game uniforms yet, they played the full seven innings in practice shirts, and topped the Long Beach Aces by an 11-7 count. An early 5-0 deficit was erased with a 10-run fourth inning that saw 15 batters step up to the plate. They continued their hot play, and after a four-game sweep in which they outscored the Arizona Peppers by a 41-9 margin, sat in first place at 9-3.
Unfortunately for the Nighthawks, league officials severely overestimated public interest in the sport, and faltering attendance at games failed to cover the hefty accommodations and cross-country travel the league now required. Just 16 games into the planned 56-game schedule, the league went under, and the Nighthawks were named the East Division first-half champions.
--- For the long haul ---
Since the Nighthawks abrupt dissolution in August of 1998, the area has seen other teams like the Jamestown Jammers come and go, but the Bisons remain the sole professional baseball team to play within the city of Buffalo.
The early 2000s saw the Bisons win four division titles in a six-year span, climaxing with a second Governors’ Cup in 2004. The stability the Rich family brought to the franchise was evident again in 2012, when the Triple-A All-Star Game made its return to Buffalo. With the addition of a Home Run Derby to the festivities, Coca-Cola Field was ecstatic when hometown favorite Valentino Pascucci muscled his way to the derby title.
|Valentino Pascucci salutes the home crowd after winning the 2012 Triple-A Home Run Derby.
A longtime affiliation with the Cleveland Indians was not renewed following the 2008 season, and after a brief stint with the New York Mets, the team has found a steady home under the Toronto Blue Jays. However, they haven’t made a postseason appearance since 2005, and have finished over .500 just five times in that span.