It seems rather redundant to have a team named the Buffalo Bisons, really. I mean, do you know the difference between a buffalo and a bison? (Zoologists need not apply.) And yet to date there have been no less than 4 teams who have taken on this moniker.
Baseball is of course a relatively young sport, and even today Major League Baseball is only a de facto monopoly; though you would be hard-pressed to find 15-20 multimillionaires willing to compete against the MLB, the fact is a league could sprout up tomorrow, given the proper avenues. This scenario was much more likely in the 19th century - especially when baseball was still viewed as only a middling entertainment, and owners kept player salaries as barebones as they were allowed.
Reaction to this among players was, at best, heated, and in 1890, most of the superstars had had enough. They wanted higher salaries, and so they formed a league of their own: the Players' League. Essentially boycotting the National League and American Association, these players managed their teams and promised great things for their investors in exchange for proceeds from the profits of the box office and other considerations. Stars like Jake Beckley, Dan Brouthers, Silver King, and Hugh Duffy all took part in this experiment. And among the eight teams was the Buffalo squad. Now back in 1890 teams didn't have official nicknames or heavy handed marketing to coincide, but the Buffalo team was given the informal nickname the Bisons - presumably a play on their city's name. The team played at Olympic Park, which was owned by players Sam White and Jack Rowe.
Unfortunately for the Bisons, none of the aforementioned stars played for them - in fact, most of their players were simply castaways from the defunct Washington Nationals team from the NL. A few standouts like Sam Wise and third baseman John Irwin aside, the team was mostly roustabouts and bottom feeders. Perhaps the only worthwhile note on the team's lineup was their only future Hall of Famer - though 27-year-old catcher Connie Mack didn't earn his spot in Cooperstown for his on the field prowess.
With a league-worst 6.11 ERA, the team did not yield a single pitcher with a winning record. Irwin, who had batted .370 the year before with Washington, suffered unknown injuries early in the season and trotted in at the end of the year with a .234 clip. The rest of the team was slightly less anemic, but I stress slightly: deaf-mute centerfielder Dummy Hoy's .298 mark led the team in a year when Pete Browning captured the batting title with a .373 average. The team stole the least bases, batted the lowest, hit the least home runs, scored the least runs, gave up the most runs, hits, and walks, and finished, appropriately, dead last in the Players' League with a 36-96 record, a full 46 and a half games behind the league champs, the Boston Reds.
After the season ended, American Association owners wised up and bought out the league, giving the players salary increases to return to their team. Buffalo was mercifully disbanded, and the players for the most part disappeared into anonymity.
The same year that the original Buffalo Bisons departed the city, a new came to replace it. This one was playing as a sort of minor league to the American Association, the International League. Owned by the flamboyant Jim Franklin, who spared no expense on his team or on entertaining his paying customers, the Bisons were the toast of Buffalo throughout the 1890's.
On opening day, Franklin hired a brass band and a stream of horse-drawn carriages to parade in his new team. His team earned the razzamatazz well, winning at a torrid pace throughout the season, so much so that by July, 4 of the teams in the small league had folded due to poor attendance - people would only come when Buffalo was in town! Led by pitcher Les German, whose 34 wins set a minor league record for nearly 30 years, and Ted Scheffler's 82 stolen bases (another long-time record), the team so dominated the league that at the end of the season, a draft was held, and most of their star players were plucked from their lineup.
From 1892 to 1899, the team had its share of ups and downs, and a number of stars passed through the team on their way in or out of the big leagues: Pud Galvin, Jimmy Collins, and Chick Stahl all played with the team. The team had a few wacky predicaments during the decade, including a brief rename to the "Hibernians" after they changed uniforms to a bright pastel green color; accusations in 1895 that they had deliberately lost games at the end of the season to ensure Providence would win the pennant; and having their 1897 all-redhead outfield be the subject of a Zane Grey short story, appropriately titled "The Redheaded Outfield." It no doubt helped that Grey's younger brother was 1/3 of that Irish trio.
In 1899, the team ditched the IL and joined Ban Johnson's Western League, in hopes of better attendance and a longer schedule. Owner Franklin in particular had been losing money for years with the squad, and now hoped that would change. Soon enough, this Western League would rename itself to the American League. Franklin was so excited about the move that he went out and purchased Jake Gettman, a star outfielder, for the rather extravagant sum of $300, to which a newspaper replied, "He is spending money in a way that is astonishing to his friends." But Franklin, for all his spending, showed little prowess for running a baseball team. He fired manager Dan Shannon for "drunkenness" and then placed his 18 year old son Joe in charge of the team. The team finished in the cellar, but Franklin was optimistic: Johnson was planning on breaking away from the minor league system of the National League and become an independent league. When January 29, 1901 rolled around, the AL did become a new league: unfortunately, Buffalo wasn't part of the plan, and the eighth franchise was awarded to Boston instead. Franklin was rightfully shellshocked.
The team spent 1901 back in the Eastern League (the International League's old name) and changed its name to the Pan-Ams in honor of the Pan-American Convention being held there. When President William McKinley was assassinated at the convention, Franklin quickly changed the name back to the Bisons. The name changes didn't change Franklin's ineptitude, and the team finished near the bottom once again. Disgusted, Franklin sold the team at the end of the year; he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in November.
How To Get Unstalled
With Franklin's death, the original sale was ruled null and void, and the team was awarded to George Stallings, a former major league player. He scratched most of the original lineup and reworked it, signing major league talent at minor league prices, and by 1904, the team won their first pennant, with the help of Rube Kisinger, a part-time surveyor and coin collector who managed to win 24 games in the betweens. Shortstop Nattie Nattress provided the pop, batting nearly .400 for much of the season. In 1905 the team finished fifth, but injuries had rattled the team, and people expected a great comeback in 1906.
1906 began as a strange year for the squad: owner Stallings' wife handed him divorce papers before the season started, citing substantial evidence that he had been involved with "a blonde with glasses and good looking, and known by the defendant, affectionately, as ‘Nips'." Shortly thereafter, George sold the team, claiming to be done with baseball - though two years later he would return and lead the Newark, New Jersey club to another pennant. In the meantime, the Bisons continued to play good but not outstanding ball, and more big-timers came to play for the team throughout the oughts and tens: Mickey Corcoran, Joe Judge, Herb Pennock, and future Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy all spent time with the Buffalo squad. In 1911, outfielder Art McCabe made history when he hit one of the new "live balls" so hard that he knocked the innards out of it, a feat later dramatized in The Natural with Robert Redford.
A Fighting Chance
In 1916, the team won its first pennant of the renamed International League, behind the strong pitching of King Bader, Ty Tyson, and Pennock, while the rest of the league kept close at their heels, with the Bisons clinching victory on the last game of the season. It would be another 11 years before the team captured the pennant again. In 1921, work began on a new stadium after a major purchase by a large steel corporation in town. The team had also earned a reputation as a "fighting" team, and they upheld it on July 21, when first baseman Cowboy Tomlin got into an argument with the umpire that resulted in both men being arrested. Amazingly, despite the construction, the team continued to play in dilapidated Olympic Park even while its seats were being bulldozed.
Finally on Opening Day 1924, their brand new Bison Stadium was ready to be opened to the public. Capable of seating nearly 18,000 people, it was to be a red letter day for the city and the team. Unfortunately, Mother Nature intervened and the "Opening Day" game was postponed 5 times on account of snow and rain. Finally on May 6th the team played their first home game - but only 3,000 people showed up. In 1926, team captain Billy Webb was beaned by a baseball that bounced back to the shortstop, effectively ending his career. The following year, with Webb still coaching but no longer playing, the team signed Del Bissonette from Jersey City and several other stars. The team coasted to 112 victories, the most ever by any Buffalo team, and Bissonnette led the way with a .365 average, 31 home runs, and 167 runs batted in. In 1928, the team's pennant hopes came down to the last game of the season, but they finished second when Herman Bell, a journeyman pitcher for Rochester, managed to win both games of a doubleheader against Providence to propel his team to the top.
The Great Depression
From 1932 to 1940, the team, along with the rest of baseball, suffered through the Great Depression. Attendance was down significantly, and player salaries were slashed dramatically. New manager Ray Schalk, formerly of the Chicago White Sox, managed to lead the team to the "Little World Series" three straight years from 1933-1935. In 1935, team owner Frank Offerman died, and the team stadium was renamed Offerman Park in his honor. The team had several game highlights in this era, most notably Bill Harris' perfect game on June 3, 1936. Famous eephus pitcher Rip Sewell joined the squad in 1937, and went 16-16 before learning his famous nothing job. In 1939, they picked up future Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau. At this time, they became firmly entrenched as the Cleveland Indians farm team, but the system was not as well-integrated, and teams held on to their stars vigorously. When Boudreau and star shortstop Ray Mack were called up to the big league team in August due to a tight pennant, the Bisons lost any chance of winning their playoffs, and finished third in the league. The team quit its contract with the Indians and became a free agent in the minor leagues.
In 1942, the team released Ollie Carnegie, their all-time batting and home run leader. A huge ceremony took place at the stadium for all of his hard work. With he and Boudreau and others gone, the team languished at the bottom of the league over the next few years. In 1944, their good-looking player-manager Greg Mulleavy was replaced by Bucky Harris, who would later go on to a Hall of Fame career with the New York Yankees. The team moved from awful to merely mediocre, helped by centerfielder Mayo Smith's outstanding defense and .340 batting average. In '46 Harris moved into the front office and another Hall of Famer, Gabby Hartnett, came in to manage. By now the farm system had been somewhat stabilized, and the Bisons began taking on players for the Detroit Tigers, including future star Vic Wertz. Another important milestone occurred on Opening Day, when the visiting Montreal Expos started a young Jackie Robinson at first base - the first black player to play professional baseball in an integrated league. In 1949 the team won its 4th pennant of the century, led by hardnosed manager Paul "The Rapier" Richards.
As if fate was playing fair, "The Boys of 1950" became the only Buffalo Bisons team to go from first to worst in consecutive years. Ray Schalk had returned to manage the team, but they had won the year before on hitting, and most of their team had been picked up by their respective squads. Their pitching abysmal, they finished some 50 games below .500, for their worst finish in nearly 40 years. In 1951, the team was sold directly to the Detroit Tigers, and in 1952, Waco phenom and major league standout Schoolboy Rowe came up to manage. Not used to the cold New York weather, Rowe came down with so many illnesses he was called "Truant" Rowe by his players. That same year, Dick Marlowe repeated Bill Harris' feat from 16 years prior, throwing a perfect game against the Baltimore club.
1953 saw perhaps the strangest altercation in baseball history. On August 8, after a disputed home run call at Offerman Park, manager Jack Tighe and umpire Max Felerski got into an argument. Felerski reported later that Tighe had spit in his face, and Tighe was suspended for the rest of the year. Tighe argued that he had not spit, only "spluttered," and agreed to a lie detector test to prove his innocence. The machine's verdict was not guilty, and Tighe's suspension was lifted. Long-time hurler Frank Lary's rookie year saw him give a 17-11 performance, but the team finished third. The following year, Lary came one out short of a perfect game - and was called up to the majors the next week, never to return.
In 1955, the team played poorly, and due to losses at the gate, the Tigers announced they were going to fold up the team. However, the team had a first refusal clause, and used it against the Tigers to generate a public stock offering for the team. Several investors put up money, and the team was saved from the junk heap. In 1957, the team picked up Luke Easter, who dominated the league thoroughly (though his major-league success was mixed at best.) The team finished one game out of first in both '57 and '59, much to their chagrin.
Going, Going, Gone
Throughout the 60s, the team only finished above .500 twice, mostly due in part to their recent affiliation with the hapless New York Mets. Players like Marv Throneberry, Dallas Green, and Ferguson Jenkins all saw time in Buffalo, and they rarely helped the cause. In 1968, the team put up a bid to become one of the new major league franchises - but it fizzled out. Many of the players and fans knew the reason the owners had pumped so much money into the team was on the hopes of getting a major league team out of the deal, and some worried the team would simply be closed down. By the end of 1969, the team had lost nearly $100,000 and was running out of money.
In 1970, the worst was yet to come. Offerman Park was in shambles, and nearby Hyde Park was less than affectionately called "The Old Rockpile." The team tried to get a taxpayer referendum to build a new stadium, but it failed. With attendance nonexistent, the team was forced to fold, and on June 4, 1970, the team played its last game before being transferred to Winnipeg. Baseball would not return to Buffalo for 9 years.
Back From The Dead
In 1979, 90 Buffalo businessmen put up $1,000 each to fund the initial revamping of War Memorial Stadium, where the old Buffalo Bisons football team (more on them later) had played in the 20s. The team became an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and saw two stars in Rick Lancellotti and Tony Pena come to play for the squad. Lancellotti ended up MVP of the league, and though the team finished fourth, they had the highest attendance of all the teams.
The cheap spending Pirates in turn kept the Bisons from any chance of making the playoffs. Average players like Jose DeLeon and Dave Dravecky could do no better than put the team in seventh place. Finally, in 1983, Rich Marketing bought the team on the cheap and began to market them better. Attendance tripled, and palmballer Steve Farr won the Cy Young award in the IL with his 13-1 record and 1.61 ERA. In the offseason, The Natural was filmed at the park, generating more buzz for the team.
In 1984, the team bought up the AAA club from Wichita, Kansas and moved them up to Buffalo. In 1988, the team moved to the $50 million Pilot Field in downtown Buffalo, and reaffiliated with their old-time club, the Cleveland Indians. They sold out 50% of their games that season - including the All-Star Game held that year - ensured that the team would outdraw three major league clubs that year. Hopes for the new Major League expansion were high, but when the teams were awarded to Denver and Miami instead, the city was crushed. They still continued to play competitive ball, making the IL World Series three times in the 1990s. Current stars like Brian Giles, Jeromy Burnitz, Richie Sexson, and Bartolo Colon all had playing time up there, dominating the league and setting team records in home runs and stolen bases.
Today the team still represents the Cleveland Indians, and continues to perform well at Pilot Field, which has since been renamed North AmeriCare Park. Will they ever become a Major League team? Only time will tell.
Buffalo Bisons #3: American Professional Football Association
Shortly after World War I, a roving team of football all-stars was formed in Buffalo to compete against other teams in the area. The "Buffalo All-Americans" played against the APFA teams in Canton, Ohio, New York City, and Baltimore, crushing them all. The following year they were invited to join the league, where their talent was spread out amongst the other teams, and their domination ceased.
In 1924, the team (now affiliated with the burgeoning National Football League) renamed themselves the Buffalo Bisons and began playing at Bison Stadium, abandoning their old park of War Memorial Stadium (where the minor-league team would later pick up and move to) to play alongside the baseball squad. The team finished 1-6 in both seasons, and then quickly renamed themselves again to the Buffalo Rangers.
In 1928, the team shut down for a year due to financial constraints, but in 1929 they again rejoined the NFL as - you guessed it - the Buffalo Bisons. As if there were any doubt, Al Jolley coached the team to another one win season, and the team finally folded for good.
In the older days of the National Hockey League, there were only six teams, guaranteeing that only the best players played at the top level. Most players then played in the AHL. The Buffalo Bisons were a member of this league, and saw many glory years before the demise of the AHL in the 60s and the addition of the Buffalo Sabres to the NHL in 1970.
The team began in 1928 playing for the Canadian Professional Hockey League, which was subsequently renamed the International Hockey League, and finally the American Hockey League in 1936. Though the team was incorporated in Buffalo, they played their home games in nearby Fort Erie, Ontario. Two time champions in 1932 and 1933, the Bisons were coached by three future NHL Hall of Famers Persey Leseur, Frank Nighbor, and Mickey Roach, and featured a future Haller on the ice in forward Carl Voss. However, in 1936 the team's arena roof collapsed unexpectedly, and the team, grappling with the Great Depression, could not afford to replace it. They folded up and did not return until 1940.
In 1940, Louis Jacobs (who also at the time owned the Buffalo Bisons minor league baseball team) purchased the Syracuse AHL franchise and moved them to Buffalo. Three years later, they acquired their first Calder Cup, a feat they repeated 8 times in their thirty year history. Led by such stalwarts as Jacques Plante, Terry Crisp, and Toe Blake, the team was a perennial league favorite. In 1950, the team was bought by the hometown company of PepsiCo, who marketed the team on its bottle caps (now treasured collector's items.) In 1970, the team won the final league championship, and then promptly merged with the Sabres for their new expansion NHL team.