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 in 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 oddball clubs 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 jersey script is very similar to what the Federal League’s Buffalo Blues wore in the 1910’s, and I don’t know for sure if this set was ever worn by a team called Bisons. Either way, that B in Buffalo on the jersey 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’s 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 up a conservative aesthetic for the most part, 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 were 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 uniforms 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.
Double-A Days, 1979-1984
After the 1978 season, the Jersey City A’s of the Double-A Eastern League (not to be confused with the earlier moniker of the International League) chose to relocate to Waterbury, Connecticut. One hitch: the Waterbury Giants already played in the EL. This made for an “extra” franchise in the league, and an obvious choice was the large regional city that everyone had seemingly forgotten. The new Double-A team set up shop in old War Memorial Stadium, and a new phase of the Buffalo Bisons began.
The new Bisons signed on with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the two teams stayed together for four seasons. The most successful future big leaguers from this time are Tony Peña, Dave Dravecky, and Tim Burke, though it bears mentioning that Bill Buckner’s brother Jim (and his exceptional mustache) graced Buffalo with his presence. As was common in those days, the team’s uniforms were either supplied or inspired by the parent club. Yellow and black suits were paired with new B on the cap was rendered in Pittsburgh’s font. The Pirates experimented with variety of styles in the “We Are Family” era, and the Bisons followed suit, variously using full body yellow, pinstriped pillbox caps, and even a cap with swooping color panels in the style of the San Diego Padres.
In 1983, the Bisons returned to their original affiliate, the Cleveland Indians. This relationship lasted only two seasons, with Kelly Gruber being the biggest name prospect to toe the turf in Buffalo. The team took on a Cleveland aesthetic, switching to a block B for a cap logo and red/navy striped jerseys. A notable addition in this time was a cute new logo featuring a cartoon bison with a comically over-sized head. If this was the same beast from the sixties, he was a switch hitter–this one was preparing to hit the ball from the right side of the plate. The batting bison would survive the next big transition in Buffalo baseball.
And that transition would come quickly. The Wichita Aeros of the Triple-A American Association had seen their attendance dwindle in the eighties, and the league transferred their rights to Buffalo. I’m not totally sure what exactly happened to the Eastern League franchise, but the following season, Pittsfield, MA, had a club and Cleveland was affiliated with Waterbury. Either way, the Bisons were back at the top of the minors in 1985.
American Association, 1985-1997
Viewed in a vacuum, the move to Triple-A would seem somewhat baffling. In ’85, the American Association consisted of eight teams in America’s heartland, and Buffalo was the farthest northeast by a good margin–Indianapolis was the closest competitor. Even more surprising is that the Bisons were still playing in old War Memorial Stadium, the park that was deemed too run-down in the 1960s. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is easy to see that Buffalo belonged at the top level of the minors. More on that in a bit. Right now, let’s explore the first few years in the Association.
The Chicago White Sox took on Buffalo as their Triple-A affiliate, and the Bisons adopted the visual style of their parent club–right when the ChiSox were in the thick of their “beach blanket bingo” uniform era. Large red and navy horizontal stripes framed the team name across the players’ chests. Caps were tri-color, with a wide B on white flanked by navy side panels and a red bill. The cartoon bison logo survived the switch, though the furry fellow’s uniform was altered to match that of the players. The Chicago era lasted two short years, and was pretty devoid of future MLB stars. Randy Velarde is probably the biggest name prospect from this time, though others like Ron Kittle and Iván Calderon bounced between Buffalo and the big leagues.
Something that happened during these years was the emergence of a young man named Donald “the Butcher” Palmer. The Butcher began working as a bat boy for the Bisons in his late teens, and stuck with the team for several years. When the Butcher passed away in 2016, there was an outpouring of remembrance for the large fellow who would hustle out to grab bats and balls and generally entertain the crowd. The Bisons immortalized the Butcher with several baseball cards, and he seems to have been an integral part of Buffalo culture in those years.
In 1987, the Buffalo had a new MLB affiliation with the return of the Cleveland Indians. This was only a one-year stint, though some well known major leaguers came through upstate New York that year, including Jay Bell, Doug Jones, and John Farrell. Swapping out Chicago for Cleveland meant a change in uniforms. The beach blankets gave way to a conservative white, red, and navy look matching their parent club. The most interesting uniform element from this season was a cap logo with just the head of of the cartoon bison in place of Chief Wahoo.
Now is as good of a time as any to bring up the likely reason that the Bisons were deemed appropriate for the top levels of the minors. In 1986, ground was broken on a brand new ballpark in downtown Buffalo, a novel location at that time period. The stadium was designed by HOK Sport, and was sort of a training project for greater things. HOK would later change its name to Populous and lead a sea change of other downtown ballparks like Camden Yards in Baltimore. The new Buffalo park opened in 1988 with a seating capacity of nearly 20,000 fans, very large for a minor league park, and was designed with the capability for building on to double that number. Many in Buffalo were pushing for the city to receive an MLB expansion team, and there was a case to be made. The Bisons drew more fans that season than three major league teams, but the MLB bid was denied. The Bisons still play in that park today, which has gone through many different corporate names over the years.
With the change to the new stadium came another change in MLB parent club. The Pittsburgh Pirates returned, and stuck around for a solid six seasons. This was pretty productive period on the prospect front, with guys like Rick Reed, Orlando Merced, Moises Alou, Tim Wakefield, Jon Lieber, and Tony Womack suiting up for the Bisons. Buffalo did not copy the Pirates with their uniforms, choosing to hold onto navy and red, and going with cursive jersey script. Their cap logo was a retread of the cursive B they wore around 1950. In the early nineties, the cartoon batting bison was threaded through the B.
Yet another return to Cleveland came in 1995, and this would prove to be an affiliation with serious staying power. In the first few seasons back with the Indians, the Buffalo alum list swelled with the likes of 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.
In the mid-nineties, some major shifts were happening in the minor leagues. The Bisons were right at the center of change, and Buffalo dutifully began the next chapter of its long and winding story.
Back to the International League, 1998-present
After the 1997, minor league baseball made the decision to dissolve the American Association and assigned the league’s eight teams to the other two Triple-A leagues. Buffalo (along with Indianapolis and Louisville) joined the International League, and the Bisons were back home in their old circuit.
To mark the occasion, the Bisons redesigned their logos and uniforms, creating a style that was distinctly of its era. Primary team colors were switched from the traditional red, white, and blue to dark hunter green, bright orange-red, gold, and black. A bold new typeface–sort of an italicized comic book action font–was created, and appeared on sleeved jerseys as well a new B for the caps. Their new cartoon mascot was a friendly-looking bison usually seen sliding gracefully into home plate, though the same creature was also later seen in an awkward batting pose.
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 slanted B en route to the majors include 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; as well as future managers-of-the-year Dave Roberts and Torey Lovullo.
Change came again in 2019, when the Bisons inked a PDC with the Mets and reunited with their old Empire State parents. Buffalo took on New York’s blue and orange color scheme, and some jerseys mimicked the Mets’ typeface–worn alternately with a shirts with a sharp-edged blocky font. The new logos featured a menacing realistic bison, charging forward with horns bared. On the primary logo this scary beast was superimposed over Buffalo’s skyline, framed in a baseball-shaped circle, in a clear nod to the parent club’s logo. The Buffalo-New York relationship last for only four seasons, and the biggest-name alums from that time are Matt Harvey, Justin Turner, Jeurys Familia, Collin McHugh, Zack Wheeler, and Lucas Duda.
The fall 2012 PDC season opened with an anticipated announcement that the Bisons were abandoning New York in favor of a team with closer proximity, despite being in a different country–the Toronto Blue Jays. This switcheroo necessitated new branding, as the Mets-esque colors and logos were obsolete. The new team colors (or should I say colours) of blue and red not only parroted that of the Jays–they were a return to a traditional Buffalo color combo. New logos marked a return to the batting bison, this one a sharper update of the one from the American Association era.
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.
The coronavirus pandemic cancelled the 2020 Minor League Baseball season, and each team had a different experience with the jolting change. None were as notable or historic as the Bisons. In mid-summer of 2020, Canada had flattened the pandemic curve, but Covid-19 cases remained high throughout the U.S. As such, the Canadian government forbade the Blue Jays from playing games in Toronto. The Jays tried a number of possible alternate sites, but ultimately settled on the Bisons’ stadium (called Sahlen Field by that point) for their home games.
And this is where we sit today. The Buffalo Bisons are the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, competing in the International League. They have played in the same downtown stadium (now called Sahlen Field) that they have called home for over thirty years, and the turnstiles click an impressive average per-game attendance that rivals that of the lower-drawing MLB teams in a given year. The rich history of the teams that have called themselves the Buffalo Bisons, however, is nearly unrivaled by any baseball club in existence.