Buffalo in the 1880s: Bisons’ 2B is baseball’s earliest black star

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Bisons-1887FrankGrant
Buffalo Stories archives

He is often heralded as the best player the Bisons had in the 1800s, which is no small feat, as he was being matched against four Hall of Fame players. But even after his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame in 2006, 120 years after he first joined the Bisons, few know the name Frank Grant.

A 1915 story in the Buffalo Courier reads, “He played for years for The Buffalos, gained the sobriquet ‘The colored Dunlap,’ and was regarded the equal of any second baseman in the country.” The Dunlap referenced was Fred Dunlap, baseball’s highest paid player of the 1880s, and the game’s best (white) second baseman of his time.

Many believed it was Grant’s prowess on the field that effectively barred African-Americans from major league baseball for the first half of the twentieth century.

When Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of baseball was making headlines in the late ’40s, one man wrote a letter to the editor with his memories of the sport’s first crack at integration.

“As a boy, I attended games at the original park at Richmond and Summer,” wrote Ed Rother. “This was in 1886-88. Our Colored second baseman, Frank Grant, had everything our present day Jackie Robinson had, and was the idol of Buffalo fandom.”

The Bisons’ manager, John Chapman, always referred to Grant as “a Spaniard,” fearful of fan and player reaction to the truth.

His style was described by The News as “full of vim and abandon.” Grant played second base without a glove — only his bare hands — but he had to create his own special wooden shin pads from the numbers of opposing base runners who seemed to find a way to run into second (and the second baseman) spikes first. In 1888, his last year with the Bisons, his teammates refused to sit for a team portrait with him. The next season, he was playing with barnstorming teams and was an early star in the Negro Leagues.

One of very few known photos of Frank Grant comes from the Bisons' 1887 team photo. The following year, his teammates refused to sit with him for the portrait. (Buffalo Stories archives)

One of very few known photos of Frank Grant comes from the Bisons’ 1887 team photo. The following year, his teammates refused to sit with him for the portrait. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Grant visited area ball diamonds at least twice after his Bisons days. In 1894, Grant and the Cuban Giants — a barnstorming black team — played Buffalo’s amateur Oakdales at the Bisons’ home field, Olympic Park. Two years later, Grant and the Giants took on the Niagara University varsity squad.

There are historians and baseball enthusiasts who take up the case for Grant as the “greatest ever Bison,” and there is a case to be made, but the man who gets more of those than Grant is the Bisons’ second African-American player: Luke Easter. Easter broke the modern-era color barrier for the Herd after a long career in the Negro Leagues, the big leagues with Cleveland starting in 1949, and then with Rochester and Buffalo in the International League.

What it looked like Wednesday: Getting beers at Pilot Field, late ’80s

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Regardless of what the temperature is or how much snow is in the forecast, the Bisons’ first home game is as sure a starting point for Buffalo’s spring as any other measure.

Buffalo News archives

Part of what makes a trip to the ballpark so enjoyable is the communal nature of thousands of baseball fans getting beers from the same vendors for decades.

Buffalo News archives

Conehead:

One of Buffalo’s all-time most popular sports personalities, Conehead — known as Tom Girot when deconed — has been wandering the stands of Buffalo sporting events with ice cold beer since the early ’70s. His all-time record sales day came at a Bisons exhibition game at the Rockpile. Fans tossed back 59 cases, all served up with the Conehead guarantee, as the Bisons played the World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979.

 

Buffalo News archives

The Earl of Bud:

Though he’s been gone from the stands for almost two decades, Earl “The Earl of Bud” Howze is still a household name and a testament to how much Buffalo loves its beer and beer vendors.

He started hawking beer to Bisons fans in 1979, the same year the team returned to the field after a decadelong hiatus. For almost two decades, it was his style as much as his product which endeared him to a generation of thirsty sports fans. His white tuxedo tails with his nickname emblazoned in red were sponsored by Heidie’s Tuxedo.

Even my unflappable, no-nonsense grandfather — a longtime season ticket holder for the Bills and the Sabres, a man who was rarely impressed with any notion of pageantry or exhibition beyond what the game on the field or the ice, was really impressed with The Earl of Bud.

“They should get rid of that Pee-Wee Herman,” grumbled Gramps, “This guy is 10 times the dancer.”

Of course, as little as Grandpa Coyle liked nonsense, he loved ice-cold beer — which likely explains it all.

 

Buffalo News archives

There have always been beers on the concourse, too. In fact, that’s where most of Buffalo knows they can find Conehead at the arena these days. In 1989, choices on the concourse were limited to only a few bottled varieties not carried around the park by roving vendors.

Today, the selections include a dozen or more local craft brews if that Blue or Blue Light — even served by the Conehead — doesn’t get the job done for you.

Buffalo in the ’60s: Luke Easter’s 500-foot home run

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s spring in Western New York. For most of the last 137 years, that has meant getting ready for Bisons baseball.

Buffalo News archives

This 1957 photo shows Offermann Stadium, home of the Bisons from 1924 to 1960, and the path of Luke Easter’s record 500-plus-foot home run over the scoreboard that year. It was the first time that it have ever been done during a game in the park’s 33-year history — although legend had it that Babe Ruth once hit a ball over the scoreboard during an exhibition.

The outfield billboards are an interesting snapshot of life in Buffalo in 1957 as well.

WKBW’s clock advertises the station that wouldn’t become Buffalo’s top 40 rock ‘n’ roll leader for another year yet. Weber’s Mustard remains a Buffalo favorite, but Madison Cab, Don Allen Chevy and the rest all only exist in Buffalo memories.

Buffalo in the ’80s: Now pitching for the Bisons, Larry King (and Mike Billoni)

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

In some cynical Western New York circles, when the announced crowd seems to be a bit higher than the actual attendance figure, someone is bound to ask, “Did Mike Billoni do the counting?”

Buffalo News archives

It’s probably not what talk show host Larry King was talking over with Bisons Skipper Rocky Bridges in the dugout, but Billoni’s magic played no small part in the meeting in the first place.

It was Bisons executive Billoni’s marketing and public relations prowess which helped whip Western New York into a baseball frenzy in the late ’80s. Triple-A level ball was back for the first time in 25 years, seats at the brand new Pilot Field were the hottest ticket in town, and the you-could-almost-taste-it hope of Major League Baseball coming to the new ballpark were amplified by the former Courier-Express reporter’s panache for promotion.

Ten-thousand tickets sold within an hour-and-a-half of the first Pilot Field passes going on sale. The nationally televised old timers’ game and the Triple-A All Star game, both seen on ESPN that year, were also sellouts. With 22 sellouts for The Herd in the 1988 season, Buffalo shattered the all-time minor league baseball attendance record with just shy of 1.2 million through the turnstiles in Pilot Field’s first season.

So, when Larry King — whose national radio show had been heard overnights on WBEN in Buffalo for a decade and was becoming more famous for the CNN talk show he’d been hosting since 1985 — came to Buffalo to throw out the opening pitch, it wasn’t good enough that it just be a random Friday night at the ballpark.

Billoni was pitching King’s appearance as the “formal dedication” of Pilot Field on May 19, 1988. That’s not to be confused with the first game, which was played a month earlier, when Governor Mario Cuomo, Mayor Jim Griffin, and the whole cadre of politicians wanting to claim some credit for the erection of the ballpark showed up to be a part of the ribbon cutting.

There’s no doubt that was alright with Billoni — who three decades later, remains one of Buffalo’s great molders and shapers of public opinion.

Buffalo in the ’20s: Lacrosse at Buffalo’s Baseball Park

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

From 1889 to 1960, the International League Buffalo Bisons played at East Ferry, Masten and Michigan.

For the first 35 years, Buffalo Baseball Park was barely more than glorified wooden bleachers. But under the direction of team owner and Erie County Sheriff Frank Offermann, Bison Stadium opened in 1924. The park was renamed in Offermann’s memory when he died unexpectedly at the age of 59.

The city owned Offermann Stadium, and in 1960, the land was reclaimed to build Woodlawn Junior High, which today is Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts.

As a city-owned facility, Offermann Stadium and its predecessors were open to far more than just baseball. This 1920s photo shows a lacrosse game, and outfield ads for, among other items, Buffalo-brewed Phoenix Beer.

Buffalo News archives

The extreme right side shows some players standing behind the play, an outfield ad for baseball tickets, and several homes — including one with a distinctive turret.

While sports fans no longer look at the house, it doesn’t look much different 90 years later for students staring out one of the Woodlawn Avenue windows at Performing Arts.

Buffalo in the ’40s: Father & son baseball stars

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Dr. William T. Clark, a former Buffalo Bisons pitcher and the director of Meyer Memorial Hospital (now ECMC), is photographed with his son Bill Jr., a pitcher for Amherst High School.

April 29, 1984: Son of ex-Bison hurler carries on: Bill Clark Jr. pitches no-hit game

“Dr. Clark hurled for Buffalo in the International League in 1924. Today, he is proud of the achievement of his son, Bill, 16, a sophomore at Amherst Central School, who, for the second time in as many years gained credit for the season’s opening no-hit, no-run game.”

The Butcher and Preservation

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

I was saddened to hear of the death of Donald Palmer, forever etched in Buffalo’s memory as “The Butcher.” He will remain forever one of Buffalo’s sports and pop culture icons. Rest in Peace. -Steve Cichon 11/22/16

BUFFALO, NY – I love preservation and giving current context to Buffalo’s old stuff. My attic is a testament to my single handed efforts at saving our city’s past.

Sometimes, though, I’m frustrated that we don’t celebrate things as a city until they are moments from the wrecking ball.

The Bisons have been here forever. They aren’t going anywhere. They have beer and peanuts and baseball. And a giant TV screen. Do we have to wait to show them massive amounts of Buffalove until they decide to move to Carolina with Carborundum or Arizona with Teds?

It’s hard to believe that the Bisons just wrapped up the 26th season of baseball at PilotNorthAmericareDunnTireCocaColaJimmyGriffin (sorry if I left one out) Field.

TheButcher1986

The Bisons’ Most Famous “Bat Boy”: The Butcher at War Memorial Stadium, “The Rockpile,” in 1986.

Also hard to believe: if any good Buffalonian were on Family Feud, and RichardDawsonRayCombsLouieAndersonTheGuyFrom-HomeImprovementJohnOHurleySteveHarvey (sorry if I left one out) asked, “Name a Bisons’ Bat Boy,” we’d all have an immediate number one answer.

No other baseball city in the country has a bat boy turned bat man who lasted through two baseball stadiums and became an icon like our Butcher, shown above in 1986 at War Memorial Stadium.

We love our Bills and Sabres, but our Bisons are a much more Buffalo organization at the heart of it.

Mayor Griffin’s brass ones built the ball park. He just started building it, and sending some of the bills to Albany. And they paid.

The most famous Bisons of the last few decades include the Butcher, Conehead, The Earl of Bud, Larry the peanut guy, and Irv from the 7th inning stretch.

For the record, that’s beer, beer, peanuts, and shouting obnoxious things in unison during Gary Glitter’s Rock’N Roll Part 2. There’s some genuine, real article Buffalove.

It’s too late now, but maybe next season we can get all hipster and act like we just unearthed this amazing gem that is soooo Buffalo that we need to go and look at it, and drink beer. It’s at Washington and Swan.

Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers worked in grain mills or steel plants and nothing will bring them back. But guess what? They also watched the Bisons at Offerman Field.

And many of us went with our dads to the Rockpile. And the “new” ballpark.

It’s like preservation, without having to strap yourself to anything!

I love finding new-old stuff to rally behind, but I like the old-old stuff, too.

So, I hope I’m not alone in grabbing my Red&Blue/Green&Red/Blue&Orange/backtoRed&Blue (sorry if I left one out) Bisons gear, and looking forward to opening day at a home grown institution that screams Buffalo by screaming “WHO NEEDS A BEER…”

Charge!

Originally appeared on Trending Buffalo on September 3, 2013