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The Worst Bisons Team Ever?

Things could be worse. Much worse.

Heading into this year’s All Star break, watching the Buffalo Bisons stumble and bumble and get swept at home by the Louisville Bats was almost too painful to watch.

The Bisons were shut-out, 1-0 and 2-0, in back-to back games to open the homestand, and while they finally plated a run in the third game, a comedy of errors and defensive miscues resulted in a 9-3 loss. The team made the final game close; down 6-2, they cut the deficit to 6-5, and after the game infielder Todd Linden actually suggested that the team was making progress because they’d battled back.

Don’t tell Linden that his team went down quietly in the eighth and ninth innings and didn’t mount any threat.

As the team limped out of the ballpark for some much-needed down time, one could just hear Manager Torey Lovullo’s usual “Tor-realities.” “These guys are competitors.” “Things might be going bad right now but tonight they battled.” “They’re professionals, they know what they need to do to get the job done.” “We’ll turn things around.”

It’s hard not to poke fun.

But while only the most diehard optimists think that the Bisons can mount any threat for a playoff spot—or, for that matter, a .500 finish—one might rather look at the Buffalo Bisons long and illustrious record, dating back to 1879, and ask: Can this squad make a run to be named the worst team ever?

Nah, not even close. Go through the record books, and it’s not hard to find Bisons teams in much more dire straits.

For example, 1885 was a nightmare year for the Bisons, their last in the National League. (Yes, Buffalo was a National League city at one time—imagine that!) Playing at Olympic Park on the corner of Richmond and Summer, the team fell apart when ace pitcher Jim Galvin stumbled badly after a stellar 1884 season; he was sold mid-season to Pittsburgh. Fans bailed in droves, and in the closing weeks of the season, Bisons president Josiah Jewett announced that he was selling the franchise and all the players to Detroit for $7,000. The Bisons limped to the finish line with amateurs and Detroit castoffs, ending at 38-74.

While the Great Depression was a golden era of sorts for the Bisons, in which they won two league championships and their first International League Governors Cup during the Ray Schalk era, 1931 was not a kind season for the Herd.The team lost 105 games that year, a team franchise record that will probably never be broken.

After finishing first in the International League in 1949 and coming oh-so-close to capturing the Governors Cup, expectations were high for the Herd in 1950. But the team fell hard and fast, losing 97 games and finishing dead last. One of those losses happened on May 7, a cold night at Offermann Stadium, when the umpire declared Baltimore the winner after five innings, because the sparse crowd of Buffalo fans kept peppering the field with hot chocolate cups.The team had led the league in attendance in 1949 (393,843 through the gates) but in that dreadful season the number dropped to under 100,000.

Some fans still remember the late 1960s as the dreariest in Bisons history. And why not? The team had departed the friendly confines of Offermann for War Memorial Stadium. Violence erupted during the race riots of that time, and attendance plummeted. Even the emergence of future Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bench as the Bisons catcher couldn’t help the horrible on-field product, and the team consistently finished at the bottom of the standings.

By 1970, the team had a new parent team, the Montreal Expos, and a new team president in Don Labbruzzo, but lack of interest (opening day attendance was 1,319), stadium issues, and mounting financial losses were just too much to overcome. By June of that season, with a record of just nine wins and 29 losses, the team was declared forfeit and turned over to the Expos, who promptly relocated the franchise to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Professional baseball in Buffalo was, for the time being, dead.

In the modern era at Dunn Tire Park, 1994 stands out as one hideous season. Like this year’s squad, only one Bisons hitter, big Rich Aude, went to double digits in home run scoring. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield blew up before our eyes every fifth day, and by the end of the year the Rich family had seen enough and sent the parent Pittsburgh Pirates packing. The record that year was 55-89, the worst since moving downtown.

While things have been bleak for most of 2008, coming off the break this past weekend, the Bisons’ offense came to life, and the team took three of four against Richmond, plating 26 runs in the first two games. Lovullo had this to say: “We’re satisfied with the way we’ve done a lot of things. Internally, up until some of the finer points in that second game, I think we’ve been playing some pretty good baseball.”

Happy, happy “Tor-realities.” We can only imagine what Torey would say if the team were packing and moving to Winnipeg. Or reaching loss #100. Gratefully, we’ll never get that chance.

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