The Buffalo Bisons of Buffalo, New York, is a team that currently plays in the International League, serving as Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. Teams called the Buffalo Bisons have played professional baseball since the 19th Century, and have had affiliations with no fewer than a dozen major league clubs.
The earliest teams to go by the name Buffalo Bisons popped up here and there in the later 1800s, a time where the lines between major and minor league baseball were blurred. Buffalo competed the National League and short-lived Players’ League, as well as the Eastern League, an early name for what we now call the International League. In 1899, the Bisons joined Ban Johnson’s Western League, which changed its name to the American League at the dawn of the new century. After one season on the Junior Circuit, Buffalo was bumped in favor of Boston, and rejoined the Eastern League. This is where we’ll begin our minor league journey.
Eastern League 1901-1911
The earliest Bisons had played their home games at Buffalo’s Olympic Park, and that name had continued even when the baseball grounds were moved to another part of the city. The Eastern League Bisons were housed at this second Olympic Park, which was officially renamed Buffalo Baseball Park in 1907. The Bisons competed against the league’s well-remembered teams like the Baltimore Orioles and Montréal Royals, as well as odder ducks like the Providence Clamdiggers and Hartford Wooden Nutmegs.
Images are fairly sparse from this era, but in those days, it was common for teams to wear a variety of uniforms year-to-year. One image that I found purports to have been taken in 1901, and shows players in plain dark caps and flannel jerseys with the city name elegantly scripted across the chest. The B in Buffalo is one that would cycle back around many years later. Baseball cards from the famous T-206 sets show Bisons in white jerseys with black accents. A large B is on the chest, rendered similarly to what the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Red Sox would use. In some images, black diamond-shaped patches with a white B are on the sleeves. Caps are either white with black panel dividers or black. Some of the black caps had a white B on them–likely Buffalo’s first cap logo.
Of any ballplayers in these days, infielder Heinie Groh would go on to the most successful career. Groh was a roster regular with the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds for several seasons in the early 20th Century. There are some other interesting players from this era as well. One was David Brain, an Englishman who would go on to a journeyman career in the majors. Another was Dummy Taylor, a deaf pitcher with a deeply cruel nickname. Taylor joined the Bisons after a few successful seasons with the Giants and the American League Cleveland Bronchos.
International and Independent, 1912-1938
After the 1911 season, the Eastern League changed its name to what it has been known as ever since–the International League. The Bisons were one of the stronger clubs in the IL during the teens, despite having to compete against the likes of Babe Ruth and the Baltimore Orioles. Bisons of that decade include Joe McCarthy, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career as the Babe’s boss in the Bronx, as well as Herb Pennock, Bucky Harris, Wally Schang, Joe Judge, and Cy Seymour.
1923 was the last season the Bisons spent at Buffalo Baseball Park. A new concrete stadium with a capacity of 14,000 was built in Buffalo, and in 1924, the Bisons moved into what would eventually be called Offermann Stadium. The twenties weren’t very roaring for the club’s rosters. The most notable alum is Hall of Famer Bill Dickey, although he only played three games in Buffalo’s 1928 season.
1928 was also the first year of any MLB affiliation in the Int’l League, with the Cardinals and Cubs linking up with Rochester and Reading, respectively. The Bisons, retaining a major league sense of pride, held out as an independent for several more years. The Bisons kept a conservative aesthetic for most of these years, but they trotted out some fancy duds during the Depression, introducing the color red to their set. Some snazzy caps with candy-stripe piping lasted a few years before being replaced by plain, dark-hued lids.
On the diamond, the thirties more forgiving than the previous decade in terms of major league alumni. Hall of Famer Ray Schalk managed the team from 1932-1937, steering the Bisons toward two Governors’ Cup championships. During these years, Buffalo purchased a number of notable player contracts, including Billy Werber, Harry Danning, Elbie Fletcher, Rip Sewell, Mike Tresh, and Sal “The Barber” Maglie.
Affiliation Carousel, 1939-1970
1939 brought Buffalo’s first foray into the affiliation game, with the Bisons signing on with Cleveland. It was only a one-year stand, but the remarkable roster included Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau, plus future All-Stars Ray Mack and Al Smith.
In 1940, the Bisons took a tentative step back from the affiliated ranks, functioning as more of an independent or co-op club. They had a good smattering of players from their previous affiliation with Cleveland, as well as a handful from the Detroit Tigers, who would become their exclusive affiliate right around the time World War II broke out. The Bisons and the Tigers stayed together beyond the war years and through the decade, during which the International League was given the new “Triple-A” designation. Notable big-leaguers to pass through Buffalo in this era include Fred Hutchinson, Pat Mullin, Virgil Trucks, Vic Wertz, Andy Seminick, Billy Pierce, Saul Rogovin, Doc Cramer, and Jim Wilson.
The Bisons started the new decade as an affiliate of the Philadelphia Athletics, but that arrangement only lasted for one season in 1950. The most notable name from that year was probably Harry Byrd, who would go on to win the AL Rookie of the Year with Philly. 1951 was another independent season, though it seems that most young players (like Wally Post) were in Cincy’s system, while the roster was filled out with has-beens like Red Barrett.
Though these years were fairly tame on the uniform front, Buffalo started sewing fantastic bison-shaped patches onto the left breast of jerseys. Cap logos were typically a simple block-style B, though they also used a cursive version of the letter that had been seen in earlier uniforms, and would later return. Though there aren’t many color images from this era, Ebbets Field Flannels replicas and other ephemera indicate that navy and red were team colors.
In ’52, Buffalo signed on with Detroit once again, and this would prove to be a four-year pact. The most noteworthy Bison from these years was Hall of Famer (and Perfect Gamer) Jim Bunning, who suited up for twenty games in ’55. Other Bisons from the early fifties include Frank Bolling, Frank Lary, and Bill Voiselle. Buffalo took an aesthetic cue from Detroit, introducing midnight blue caps with an old English B and flannel jerseys with a cursive rendering of the city name across the chest.
1956 was another indy year, and included a managerial stint (and last gasp as a ballplayer) from one-time NL MVP Phil Cavarretta. More notably, however, was the first year that Luscious “Luke” Easter was a member of the Buffalo Bisons. Easter had a long and storied career in baseball, including stints with the Negro National League’s Homestead Grays and the American League’s Cleveland Indians. For four seasons in the late fifties, Easter called Buffalo home. In 1957, the Bisons were back with the Athletics, though by this point, the A’s were were wearing kelly green and gold in Kansas City. This was a two-year stint in which guys like Ray Herbert, Bud Daley, and Ken Johnson joined Easter in Buffalo.
By this time, old Offermann Stadium was showing its age, and Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium was being expanded to accommodate the Buffalo Bills’ admission into the nascent American Football League. The Bisons jumped on the bandwagon and played their home games in a professional football stadium. The team was an affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies through this transition, and the Buffalo-Philly connection lasted from 1959-1962. The biggest name alum to come from these four seasons is Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, while other notables include Rubén Amaro, Sr., Art Mahaffey, Chris Short, Bobby Wine, and Don Mincher.
In 1963, minor league baseball went through its major 20th century overhaul. The Bisons emerged from the transition intact, but change came in the form of a new major league parent club–the recently created New York Mets. This was merely a three-year stint, but several core members of the 1969 Miracle Mets team took their lumps in upstate New York, including Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones, Bud Harrelson, and Ron Swoboda. The Bisons updated their unforms during this time. Though they retained the old English B cap for a few more years, they whipped up some neat new jerseys, including a home top had the team nickname across the chest. Of course, the carousel keep turning, and before too long, both parent club and uniform had changed.
In 1966, Cincinnati linked up with the Bisons for two seasons, and the Reds sent some future greats through War Memorial Stadium. Another Hall of Famer was added to the alum list in the great Johnny Bench, possibly the best Bison of all time. Other future All-Stars in Buffalo in those years were Lee May and Hal McRae. In 1967, Don Zimmer ended one career and began another, working as a player and de facto manager. On the wardrobe front, the Bisons took a cue from the namesake hue of their parent club. Bench and his cohorts wore spartan red and white uniforms with block lettering. A closer look, however, reveals one of the hidden gems in Buffalo’s uniform history–a sleeve patch featuring a left-handed batting bison poised for the pitch. This furry little guy would become the team logo in these days, and would be redrawn and reinterpreted a few times down the line.
Continuing along in the string of short-lived MLB affiliations, the Bisons started up another two-year deal in 1968, this time with the final version of the Washington Senators. This was only a few years before the Senators were moved to Texas, and while Washington enjoyed a decent run in the late sixties under manager Ted Williams, their Triple-A club was largely devoid of notable players. The biggest names in those two years (for what it’s worth) were Paul Casanova, Gene Freese, and Ben Grieve’s father Tom. The biggest story from these years was that former Yankee Héctor López had his last gasp as a player in ’68, but then stuck around to manage the Bisons in ’69. López broke the International League’s managing color barrier, six years before Frank Robinson became the first black manager in the major leagues.
By the late sixties, a number of factors were conspiring against the Buffalo Bisons. War Memorial Stadium was by then little more than an old football stadium, and even the Bills were laying groundwork for moving out. Attendance was low for Bisons games, and this may have been due (at least in part) to the Buffalo sports market gearing up for the NHL’s Sabres and NBA’s Braves. Whatever the cause, the International League franchise went up for sale, and was purchased by a brand new National League team–the Montréal Expos. The Expos had no plans to keep the team in Buffalo. Though they started the 1970 season at War Memorial, the franchise was moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba in June. The Expos has intended to get the Winnipeg Whips into the American Association, but were rejected. Winnipeg was over 1,000 miles from the nearest IL city, and the weird Whips were doomed from the start. They only lasted one more season (making them a one-and-a-half-year wonder) before phasing out of existence, and being effectively replaced by the Memphis Blues when they were “promoted” to Triple-A. Meanwhile, Buffalo went without professional baseball for the better part of the Me Decade.
Pirates: Tony Peña, Dave Dravecky, and Tim Burke. Jim Buckner.
Cleveland: Kelly Gruber,
American Association or Back to Triple-A
White Sox: Ron Kittle, Iván Calderon, and Randy Velarde
1987: Jay Bell, Doug Jones (en route), John Farrell
“Buffalo’s 1990 MLB expansion delegation, which included New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Larry King, was upbeat about its chances to land a team after the minor league Buffalo Bisons set the all-time minor league attendance record in 1988. The Bisons drew 1.15 million fans, which was more than three major league teams, despite the fact that stadium capacity was less than 20,000. There were plans to expand the stadium to a capacity of 45,000 within 7 months if Buffalo was awarded a team. The delegation received nearly 10,000 deposits for season tickets, but the Bisons’ bid was denied.” from mental floss http://mentalfloss.com/article/29462/11-expansion-teams-just-missed-cut
Pirates: Rick Reed, Orlando Merced, Moises Alou, Tim Wakefield, Jon Lieber, Tony Womack, Jerry Goff
Cleveland: Ruben Amaro, Jr., Jeromy Burnitz, Brian Giles, Danny Graves, Sean Casey, Marco Scutaro, Richie Sexson, and the immortal Bartolo Colón, who hurled a no-hitter for Buffalo in ’97.
Back to the Int’l
Buffalo continued on with Cleveland up through 2008, making for an unbroken affiliation for fourteen solid years. Some of the big-name players to wear the ___ en route to the majors include Dave Roberts, Russell Branyan, Milton Bradley, Danys Báez, Jake Westbrook, Coco Crisp, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, Jeremy Guthrie, Franklin Gutierrez, Grady Sizemore, Asdrúbal Cabrera, and Edward Mujica.
Torey Lovello returned, both D’Amicos
The Buffalo-New York relationship last for only four seasons, and the biggest-name alums are Matt Harvey, Justin Turner, Jeurys Familia, Collin McHugh, Zack Wheeler, and Lucas Duda.
Thus far, the top players to pass through Buffalo en route to Canada are Kevin Pillar, Aaron Sanchez, and Marcus Stroman. Since the Bisons and Blue Jays are still affiliated as of this writing, there could be several players who will make an impact yet, including the trio of 2nd-generation stars who came through in the late teens–Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.