- Sports reporter, Kansas City Star, 2002-09
- Writer, Baseball, Baseball Prospectus
- Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus
- Member, Baseball Writers Association of America
- Member, Professional Basketball Writers Association
On May 23, 1885, a dispatch from Montana by a New York Sun correspondent went national, declaring that the American buffalo had been hunted into extinction. The writer went on to describe the thundering herds that once roamed the great expanses of the plains as far as the eye could see but had subsequently been wiped out thanks to the demand for their valuable hides.
Coincidentally, a few months later, big league baseball went extinct in Buffalo, New York — then one of the 15 biggest cities in America. The National League team in Buffalo was called the Bisons, the most common moniker for Buffalo teams all the way to the present day. As with its namesake from the animal kingdom, news of the extinction of big league ball in Buffalo would prove to be greatly exaggerated, as 19th-century writer and baseball aficionado Mark Twain liked to say.
All it took was a little patience: On Tuesday, after nearly 135 years, major league baseball (this time of the official MLB variety) will once again be played in Buffalo. The drought will end when the Toronto Blue Jays begin their home schedule at Sahlen Field, home venue of the Triple-A Bisons.
In what is arguably the most abnormal year in the long history of baseball, a sport that has known many times of upheaval, we are left with an outcome that no one could have possibly foreseen when 2020 began: Big league baseball in Buffalo. Under the circumstances, it’s hardly a time for celebration. If the Canadian government had approved of baseball’s plan to have the Blue Jays host games in Toronto, Sahlen Field would be sitting dormant. So too would it remain dark if any other big league city had been willing to take in the Jays.
That Sahlen Field turned out to be the Blue Jays’ only option beyond becoming a full-time travel team is unfortunate. However, it is also historic, as big league baseball returns to a city that hasn’t seen it since the president of the United States was one of its own. When the majors last called Buffalo home, in the midst of his first year in the White House was the city’s former sheriff and mayor, Grover Cleveland, whose connection to baseball has always been defined by the fact that a future Hall of Fame pitcher (Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander, born in 1887) was named after him.
To mark the occasion of big league baseball’s return to Buffalo, let’s hearken back to Oct. 7, 1885, the date of the last home games for the National League version of the Bisons, a doubleheader against the Providence Grays. (The Bisons did play two more games that year designated as the home team, but those games were not played in Buffalo.) In particular, we’ll note how much things have changed in baseball since then but we’ll also, because of the odd circumstances that have defined the 2020 season, point out a few things that would be oddly familiar to anyone who witnessed both contests. (Which would of course be impossible.)
MAJOR LEAGUE ADJACENT: Ever since the NL Bisons went under, Buffalo has always circled in the perimeter of markets that were almost, but not quite, a fit for the majors.
There are two short-lived leagues recognized by MLB as major league that had Buffalo entrants. One was in the Players League, a circuit that sprang up out of a revolt against tight-fisted owners. That league operated in 1890. The other was the Federal League, which operated in 1914 and 1915. If you want to look at those Buffalo squads as major league, then you are free to do so.
Such distinctions are debatable. The TPL was certainly major in terms of talent but certainly was not in terms of administration. The Federal League bequeathed to us the ballpark that we now know as Wrigley Field and, in a roundabout way, baseball’s bizarrely intact antitrust exemption, but it’s far from consensus that it should be considered major. (Though, we should emphasize, both leagues officially are considered major.)
What we can say is that of all those early leagues, the survivors are the National League and the American League. From 1879 through 1885, Buffalo was a member of the former. And it was very nearly a charter member of the latter.
Buffalo played in the first season of the American League — 1900 — the last year in which the former Western League was still a part of the minors. League honcho Ban Johnson had redubbed the league before the 1900 season as he positioned it for a jump into the majors. By then, Buffalo had risen to become the eighth-largest city in the United States and seemed like a perfect fit, especially since there would be no National League rival there.
After initially hoping to avoid too many direct clashes with the established league, by early 1901, Johnson resolved to go toe-to-toe with the NL wherever he could. He dispatched Connie Mack — once the catcher for the TPL version of the Bisons — to Boston with instructions to find a spot for a ballpark. Soon, Huntington Avenue Grounds was born, and just months before the American League launched itself into the big leagues, the Bisons became the club that we now know as the Boston Red Sox.
And so the beat goes on. Buffalo will host a big league club but, of course, it’s not really its team and fans in the city are almost certainly not going to be allowed to go in to watch. Again, Buffalo is left just on the outside looking in at big league baseball.
Obviously, the ranking of American cities by population has changed dramatically over 135 years, and there are a lot of ways to illustrate that. But here is a pretty stark example: The Blue Jays’ opponent on Tuesday will be the Miami Marlins. On Oct. 7, 1885, the city of Miami was still 11 years away from being incorporated.
TWO-DIMENSIONAL FANS: As has happened all over the 2020 majors, the Blue Jays launched a campaign to sell cardboard cutouts to occupy the otherwise empty stands at Sahlen Field. This will not be the first time baseball has been played before cardboard fans in Buffalo.
Remember “The Natural”? You know, it’s the inner-circle member of baseball’s cinematic pantheon, starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs and based on Bernard Malamud’s very different novel of the same name.
The film was largely shot in Buffalo, with the old War Memorial Stadium serving as the home park for the fictional New York Knights. The Bisons played there from 1961 to 1970 and again from 1979 to 1987. (Buffalo did not have a team from 1971 to 1978.) The stadium was opened in 1937 and retained many of its old school ballpark characteristics, though it was large enough to be the original home of the Buffalo Bills. Still, it gave “The Natural” the old-timey feel the filmmakers were going for.
While numerous citizens of Buffalo were used as extras in the movie, they had to augment the humans in the stands with — you guessed it — cardboard cutouts. And because everything becomes a collector’s item these days, those cutouts have indeed become collector’s items.
From back on Oct. 7, 1885 — the last day of big league Buffalo — there are no surviving reports about two-dimensional fans. But if some enterprising promoter would have thought of it, there would have been plenty of room. Which brings us to our next fact about that last day …
(ALMOST) NO FANS IN THE STANDS: Before this season, there was one no-fan game in baseball history, played April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Fans were held of that contest because of civil unrest in Baltimore. They are being kept out this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, those are extreme circumstances.
Beyond that, it’s hard to say what the big league record is for lowest attendance or the worst box office take for a game. But it might well be those final two games in Buffalo. According to the following day’s Buffalo Times, “less than a dozen paying spectators were present.” (There are differing accounts of an 1882 game between Worcester and Troy that quote an attendance figure as low as six. And, yes, Worcester and Troy were once members of the National League.)
The gate for that meager headcount has been listed at $4.50, perhaps the lowest take in the history of the majors. That would buy you about 35% of a beer in some big league ballparks in 2021.
Why did so few fans bother to show? Well, it was October in Buffalo, and the doubleheader — which started at 2 p.m. local time at long-gone Olympic Park, at the corner of Summer Street and Richmond Avenue, was played on a day when the temperature topped out at 51 degrees. (The park was not all that far from Ulrich’s Tavern, which opened in Buffalo in 1868 and remains there to this day.) If there was a breeze blowing off nearby Lake Erie, it might not have been a good day to take in a couple of ballgames.
But that wasn’t it. The Bisons had been a highly successful franchise on the field. The star player was Pud Galvin, who was the only player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1965. Galvin, baseball’s first 300-game winner, died in 1902, but two of his 11 children were still around to attend the ceremony in Cooperstown, and his plaque, as much as anything, helps keep the flame of Buffalo big league ball alive. Gentle Jim (or Jeems) also was a personal friend of the President Cleveland, who inquired after him when hosting a contingent of players at the White House a few years into his second term.
In both the 1883 and 1884 seasons, Galvin won 46 games under what were obviously very different conditions. (For one thing, you couldn’t replace a pitcher during a game with anyone except one of the other players already on the field.) The Bisons finished a strong third in 1884, their fourth straight winning season and fifth out their first six NL campaigns.
Unfortunately, attendance wasn’t great, and after being forced out of their old ballpark, Buffalo’s directors spent $6,000 on the construction of Olympic Field before the 1884 campaign. This also was a tumultuous time for baseball finances (as per usual), and numerous commentaries at the time decried rising player salaries as an existential threat to the sport.
Galvin was not the only star player on the Bisons. There were two other Hall of Famers — Big Dan Brouthers (who was 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds) and Deacon White, whose 20-year career began in the National Association in 1871. Those two along with catcher Jack Rowe and second baseman Hardy Richardson became nationally prominent as the “Big Four” and stayed together as a unit after their Buffalo days.
With the 1885 season off to a poor start, Galvin struggling and gate receipts dwindling, the popular (and portly) pitcher was released on July 13, thanks in large part to a payment by the American Association’s Pittsburgh Alleghenys to procure his services. Galvin spent most of the rest of his career toiling in Pittsburgh.
Then the final straw came in late September, when Buffalo’s president — Josiah Jewett — sold the entire team, including the Big Four, to the owners of the Detroit Wolverines for $7,000. The Buffalo owners defended the decision by claiming the team needed to draw an average of 800 fans to break even but were only bringing in 500. (Capacity at Olympic Park was around 4,000.)
The Big Four, however, balked at the idea of going to Detroit, and trouble ensued. After the season, chatter in The Sporting Life was that they would be split up among the remaining NL clubs. Ultimately, they did not, and all ended up in Detroit. The 1886 Wolverines went 87-36 with a lineup up half comprised of the previous year’s Bisons.
By selling off the roster rather than folding, Buffalo ownership kept alive the possibility of the franchise continuing and played out the rest of the schedule with castoffs, wannabes and never-weres. (But not from a 60-player pool with players at an alternate site.) Galvin’s replacements at pitcher were a pair of 18-year-olds who were summoned to the majors to finish the season.
That fiasco is why by the time the season finally ended, Buffalo fans had completely given up on a franchise that only one year earlier appeared to be on solid footing. After the season, the Bisons were disbanded.
But first, there were those last two games. As an early version of Ernie Banks would have said, let’s play 1.1 … because the games were part of a …
SHORTENED DOUBLEHEADER: Sorry Ernie. Just as the 2020 version of a doubleheader (14 innings) is really just 1.56 games, on Oct. 7, 1885, the Bisons and Grays played a pair of five-inning tilts. In the less-sensitive prose of the day, the Buffalo Courier described the twin bill as such: “It was a meeting of cripples, but the Bisons seemed to lean heavier on their crutches and dropped both contests.”
Providence won the first game 4-0 on a no-hitter — again, just five innings — and the Grays completed the sweep with a 6-1 win. Over the five innings of the second game, Buffalo managed to commit 11 errors. The 10 innings were completed in a combined one hour, 53 minutes. And as the paper alluded to, it was not exactly a clash of titans, only one year after a rivalry between the Grays and Bisons (and Galvin and Providence legend Old Hoss Radbourn) burned hot.
The lone run scored that day was a first-inning tally by center fielder Jim Lillie, who started the game with a single and whose nickname was “Grasshopper.” Grasshopper Lillie died five years later in Kansas City at the age of 29 from typhoid fever. Reportedly, his last words, uttered to a friend who attended him at bedside, were, “I am afraid, Charlie, it is three strikes and out.”
You gotta love baseball.
Anyway, for 135 years, Jim Lillie has been the last player representing Buffalo to score a run in a surviving major league. Sorry Grasshopper, but your reign will end sometime this week.
FUNNY RULES: Well, this year’s season is being played with a number of rules that are unfamiliar and probably (maybe?) temporary — and despite their possibly ethereal nature still have managed to stir plenty of debate.
All you have to do when plagued with thoughts about the immutability of baseball’s rulebook is look up any timeline of rule changes through history. Here’s one. The rate of change over time has slowed, probably too much. But it has never ceased, and it’s a process that has always been on going.
The 1885ish versions of the extra-innings runner or the three-batter minimum were instituted the year before and surely still hotly debated at the time. In 1884, restrictions on a pitcher’s delivery were removed, and the “full arm” pitch was born.
Galvin’s career is remarkable when viewed through this prism. He excelled when pitchers had to throw underhand, continued to excel when the range of motion was extended to sidearming and kept winning when all such regulations were removed. In fact, he attributed his remarkable durability to having his arm saved by the limited motion early in his career.
Also in 1884: The numbers of balls needed to constitute a walk was lowered to six. The number moved to five in 1887 and four in 1889, where it has remained since. Rulemakers hated pitchers, even back then.
So if you’re the ghost of Gentle Jim “Pud” Galvin and you’ve been wandering the streets of Buffalo since Oct. 7, 1885, waiting for the return of big league ball to the city (or 105 years, if you are gracious to the Federal Leaguers), your wait is finally over. Things might look a little different, but some of it will look eerily the same.
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