Exploring Buffalo’s baseball history as Blue Jays migrate to host city’s first MLB game in 105 years – CBS Sports

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Major League Baseball returns to Buffalo, New York, on Tuesday night. The Toronto Blue Jays, essentially kicked out of Canada because the federal government has concerns about all the travel into the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, will play most home games at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field this season. The Blue Jays will host the Marlins in Buffalo on Tuesday in the 2020 opener of their temporary home.

“I’m one of the guys who voted to play in Buffalo. Go the old school route and sack up,” Tanner Roark told reporters, including TSN’s Scott Mitchell and USA Today’s Gabe Lacques, during a recent conference call. “We’re going to be known as grinders and I love grinders because that’s what makes you who you are at the end of your career, or the end of the day.”

Sahlen Field has been home to the Buffalo Bisons since opening in 1988. It is the highest capacity minor-league park at 16,600 seats, though fans won’t be allowed into the stadium this year. The Bisons modern era began in 1979, when the franchise joined the Double-A Eastern League as a Pirates affiliate. The Bisons moved to Triple-A in 1985 and affiliated with the Blue Jays in 2013.

Long before the Bisons resurfaced in 1979 and long before Robert Redford filmed scenes as Roy Hobbs in “The Natural” at Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium, Buffalo was home to major-league baseball. It’s been a very, very long time though. Tuesday’s contest will be the first major-league game in Buffalo in 104 years.

With the Blue Jays set to call the City of Good Neighbors home these next few weeks, let’s go back in time and look at the history of major league baseball in Buffalo. Come with me, won’t you?

The Bisons years

The current iteration of the Buffalo Bisons takes its name from the first professional baseball team to call the city home. The original Buffalo Bisons began play in the semi-affiliated minor-league League Alliance in 1877 before being invited to the National League in 1879. The Bisons spent seven seasons in the eight-team National League and never finished higher than third place:

Win-Loss Record Run Differential Finish

1879

46-32-1 (.590)

plus-29

3rd place (10.0 GB)

1880

24-58-3 (.293)

minus-171

7th place (42.0 GB)

1881

45-38 (.542)

minus-7

3rd place (10.5 GB)

1882

45-39 (.536)

plus-39

3rd place (10.0 GB)

1883

52-45-1 (.536)

plus-38

5th place (10.5 GB)

1884

64-47-4 (.577)

plus-74

3rd place (19.5 GB)

1885

38-74 (.339)

minus-266

7th place (49.0 GB)

Total

314-333-9 (.485)

minus-264

The Bisons played their home games at Riverside Park (1879-83) and Olympic Park (1884-85). They were moved to the minor-league Eastern League in 1886 and were close to joining the newly formed American League in 1901, but were bumped from the league in favor of the Boston Americans (the Americans later became the Red Sox). The franchise remained a minor-league team until financial woes forced a relocation to Winnipeg in 1970. (The current Bisons are a separate franchise with the same name.)

In 1890, a separate Buffalo Bisons franchise was created as part of the Players’ League, which lasted one season. (The Players’ League is exactly what a sounds like: a rogue baseball league formed by players). Those Bisons were not considered part of the original Bisons — they reportedly used the team name without permission — and went 36-96-2 in their lone season. Hall of Famer Connie Mack was a co-owner and player for the outlaw Bisons.

The BufFeds and Blues years

From 1913-15, the Federal League operated as a third major league in competition with the American and National Leagues. The league fielded as many as eight teams at one point, including a franchise in Buffalo from 1914-15. The 1914 club did not have an official name and went by BufFeds. In 1915 the franchise became the Blues.

Win-Loss Record Run Differential Finish

1914 (BufFeds)

80-71-4 (.530)

plus-18

4th place (7.0 GB)

1915 (Buffalo Blues)

74-78-1 (.487)

minus-60

6th place (12.0 GB)

Total

154-149-5 (.508)

minus-42

The Blues were the last major-league franchise to play in Buffalo. Robert Swados, a Buffalo businessman and founder of the NHL‘s Buffalo Sabres, was part of a group that attempted to form a third major league in 1960, but their efforts failed and the league folded before ever playing a game. The league, known as the Continental League, would have placed a franchise in Buffalo.  

Notable players

Several Hall of Famers suited up for the 1879-85 Buffalo Bisons in their brief history, including righty Pud Galvin and first baseman Dan Brouthers. Brouthers hit .351/.391/.554 with 38 home runs in parts of five seasons with the Bisons. He later went on to star with the Detroit Wolverines, Boston Reds, and Brooklyn Grooms, among other teams.

Galvin started his career with the St. Louis Brown Stockings before landing in Buffalo in 1879. He threw 3,547 2/3 innings with a 2.63 ERA in parts of seven seasons with the Bisons. (Yes, over 3,500 innings in only seven seasons.) Galvin’s 1884 season is one of the most statistically incredible seasons in baseball history:

G-CG W-L ERA WHIP IP K BB

72-71

46-22

1.99

0.99

636 1/3

369

63

That was the second of two straight 46-win, 600-plus inning seasons for Galvin. He appeared in 72 of the team’s 115 games and completed 71 of them. By WAR, Galvin’s 1884 is one of the three greatest seasons in baseball history:

  1. Tim Keefe, 1883 New York Metropolitans: 20.2 WAR
  2. Old Hoss Radbourn, 1884 Providence Grays: 19.4 WAR
  3. Pud Galvin, 1884 Buffalo Bisons: 18.4 WAR
  4. Jim Devlin, 1876 Louisville Grays: 18.3 WAR
  5. Guy Hecker, 1884 Louisville Eclipse: 17.8 WAR

Radbourn is well known for his pitching exploits with the Grays but he started his career with the Bisons … as a second baseman. He went 3 for 21 in six games for the 1880 Bisons before being released and signing with Providence, where he became one of the greatest pitchers in the sport’s early history.

Galvin is the Buffalo Bisons franchise leader in WAR (59.0), ERA (2.63), wins (218), innings (3,547 2/3), and strikeouts (1,303). It is not even close in all categories. Brouthers is the franchise leader in position player WAR (24.8), batting average (.351), home runs (38), and runs batted in (343). Hardy Richardson is the franchise leader in hits (772), runs (473), and games played (618).

Four Hall of Famers played for the 1879-85 Bisons: Brouthers, Galvin, Radbourn, and Jim O’Rourke. O’Rourke, an infielder, hit .317/.353/.427 in parts of four seasons with Buffalo. He also served as player-manager from 1881-84. O’Rourke spent most of his career with the New York Giants.

Here are a few other notable Buffalo baseball achievements:

  • As a member of the Bisons, Curry Foley hit for the first undisputed cycle in major-league history on May 25, 1882, against the Cleveland Blues. It included a grand slam.
  • Galvin threw the only two no-hitters in Bisons history: Aug. 20, 1880 vs. Worcester Worcesters (yes, really) and Aug. 4, 1884, vs. Detroit Wolverines. The final scores were 1-0 and 18-0, respectively.
  • Ed Porray played his only three career games with the 1914 BufFeds. He is the only major leaguer on record who was born at sea. His official birthplace is “at sea, on the Atlantic Ocean.”

Efforts to bring MLB back to Buffalo

There have been numerous efforts to bring a major league franchise back to Buffalo over the years. Buffalo was one of seven cities identified as a potential expansion location by the American League in 1960, along with Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Oakland, San Diego, Seattle, and Toronto. A group from Buffalo submitted an expansion application to the National League as well.

Buffalo was so close to landing an expansion franchise in 1969 that the New York Daily erroneously reported the city, along with San Diego, had been awarded a major league team, according to Mark Byrnes of Bloomberg. The expansion franchise went to Montreal instead. Buffalo officials sought again to bring a major-league franchise to the city in the mid 1980s.

“We won’t be in the first run (of expansion teams),” Buffalo Mayor James Griffin told Gary Pomerantz of the Washington Post in 1985. “But we’ll get one. I’ll bet you the first beer on Opening Day that we do.”  

The retro-themed Sahlen Field, originally known as Pilot Field, was built downtown and featured major-league amenities, including a full service restaurant and a large video scoreboard, which were unheard of at the minor-league level in the late 1980s. The ballpark seated only 19,500 initially but was designed to allow for expansion to 42,000 seats (though construction was never going to be easy during the season).

Armed with a new state-of-the-art ballpark, Buffalo Bisons owner Bob Rich Jr. attempted to secure a major-league franchise in the late 1980s and early 1990s. MLB instead awarded expansion teams to Denver and Miami in 1991, and Phoenix and Tampa/St. Petersburg in 1995. 

“During our first meeting (in 1983), Bob set three goals,” former Bisons GM Mike Billoni told Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News earlier this year. “One, get the Bisons back into Triple A. Two, work with Mayor Jimmy Griffin to build a downtown ballpark. Three, do everything in our power to obtain a major-league franchise. Some say hitting 2 for 3 is a very good average. For Bob and (his wife) Mindy Rich and our entire team, the objective was always to achieve all three goals, and we almost did.”

The efforts to bring major-league baseball back to Buffalo have been held back by market size. With an estimated population in the 250,000 range, Buffalo is the 86th most populous city in the country, behind places like Toledo, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. It’s also not among the top 30 television markets. Rising expansion fees were a roadblock as well.

“You can’t do anything about it and we can’t do anything about it, but it would be great if you had another million people living here,” Pirates then-CEO Douglas Danforth said during a media briefing in March 1991, according to Harrington.

MLB has given no indication another round of expansion is on the horizon, though I would be stunned if the league goes through the entire 2020s without at least exploring the possibility. There’s too much money to be made. Buffalo could make another attempt at securing an expansion franchise, though larger markets exist as alternatives. For now, Buffalo gets the Blue Jays for 29 games this year, and hey, that’s pretty cool.