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Memories of Offermann Stadium

It was the quintessential neighborhood ballpark. Offermann Stadium, originally named Bisons Stadium. For over a generation this was the home of the Buffalo Bisons. Much of the team’s lore and history and great moments were etched and framed in this venue’s confines.

And even today, almost half a century since the stadium held its final game, old timers and lifelong Buffalonians still wax poetic about Offermann Stadium. It has a hold, a grip on people and is still a part of many people’s hearts and memories.

This coming Wednesday (August 20), the Buffalo Bisons will pay homage of sorts to their fabled old home. In the third of a series of promotional giveaways, the first 4000 lucky fans through the gate for that night’s Bisons game (7:05PM start) will receive a replica statue of Offermann Stadium.

The Bisons have always been proactive when it comes to such promotions, with cap days and the ever popular bobbleheads, but the ballpark replicas have been an especially coveted item. In 2006, the team gave away replicas of Dunn Tire Park, and last summer it was a War Memorial Stadium statue, affectionately remembered as “The Old Rockpile”. These were no ordinary trinkets – both items weighed almost half a pound and were stunning in their likeness and quality. This year’s Offermann giveaway promises to be more of the same.

So why does Offermann Stadium resonate so strongly, even today?

After all, it was just another ballpark, just a place to play baseball, right?

David Torke is a social studies teacher at Turner-Carroll High School and a community activist working to sustain and reinvent Buffalo’s distressed neighborhoods. Living on Woodlawn Avenue (“In a house I bought for a dollar and fixed up”), Torke is very much aware of how much the stadium was such a vital part of this city.

“Imagine the area bordered by Main, Best, Jefferson and Ferry. That’s a roughly 50 block area that has gone through so much change and stress this past half century, and the stadium was right in the middle of it.”

Torke is admittedly not much of a sports fan, but clearly understands the hold that sports has on this community. “Back in the day there was a seven block stretch of Masten Avenue connecting the Old Rockpile (War Memorial Stadium) to Offermann Stadium. There were stores back then, there were taverns and churches and shops. When both stadiums had events, like September when football and baseball overlapped, or there were playoff games, these streets were bustling. It was electric. The neighborhood was jammed with activity. Now there is no economy there. Not a single business or establishment. The stadium would have anchored that economy, although having the school there does somewhat fill that void.”

At 93 years of age, Madeline “Queenie” Bates no longer lives in the neighborhood, now residing at a nursing home in Pennsylvania, but she lived, grew up and spent the first 65 years of her life in the shadow of Offermann Stadium. “I remember when the stadium first opened up. There was always a ball field on that land but now they built a grand grandstand. It was so big, and so beautiful. And people came. They came from all over just to see the green grass and that big scoreboard. It was the prettiest sight you’d ever want to see.”

Queenie and her two brothers sold pencils and scorecards outside the stadium, as well as fresh fruit from a vending cart. “We would grab a great corner and catch the fans as they came off the trolley. Five cents for a scorecard, and for ten cents an apple and a pear. I was just a little kid but the fans thought I was adorable” Queenie laughed. “And I remember all the great players – Ollie Tucker, Frank Pytlak, whose family lived right here in Buffalo, you know, and of course the best of them all, Ollie Carnegie. I wish you could see the many ways how people would manage to see the game. Ticket money was hard to come by during the Depression, but everyone wanted to see their heroes.”

Torke echoed that sentiment. “When I first moved here an older neighbor invited me to sit with her, and pulled out a frayed scrapbook with old pictures from the neighborhood. The one photo which really made an impression with me was one of the rowhouses along Woodlawn Avenue, taken probably in 1952. And there, on the flat rooftops, were people, lots of people, sitting on chairs and watching the game from their perch. And I thought to myself, ‘how special it must have been to be a part of all that.’”

Thumbing through the archives, and looking through the late Bisons historian Joe Overfield’s voluminous works, many great stories and anecdotes about the magical days of Offermann Stadium come alive. Some of those moments are shared right here...

Buffalo Opens a New Stadium

What was first named Bison Stadium, located on the corner of Michigan and East Ferry, was christened and opened on a cold and rainy day on April 30, 1924. The Bisons had played for over thirty seasons at the old Olympic Park on Richmond Street, a ballpark which had been built, rebuilt, destroyed by fire, rebuilt again and expanded a number of times, but its best days had long since past. In 1923, most of the grandstand was demolished during the season, yet the team continued to play there while makeshift viewing areas were cordoned off from the field for fans to watch the game.

Meantime, across town and just steps from the Main Street trolley line, a gleaming new stadium seating 15,000 fans was quickly taking shape. Built at a cost of $265,000, the venue would introduce new amenities unknown to Bisons fans, including a canopied roof. A real pressbox was installed behind home plate, and the first Bisons radio broadcasts were called from this perch.

Despite the lure and attraction of a new ballpark, 1924 was a disaster for the Bisons, both on and off the field. Continual bad weather resulted in rainouts and cancellations, in fact 15 games were washed out by July 4th, including the Independence Day game that was billed to be the grand opening celebration for the stadium. Manager George Wiltse was given the axe in the middle of the season, and the Bisons wound up with an 84-83 record only because of a late season winning streak. Attendance for the entire season was a paltry 126,300 fans.

Playing under the lights

Back in the 20s and 30s, the concept of night baseball, played under lights, was a truly novel concept. In Major League Baseball, Cincinnati’s Crosley Field holds the distinction of being the first stadium in the Bigs to ever host a night game. But as for the high minors, Buffalo has bragging rights for introducing night games to the game of baseball.

The night sky glowed on the night of July 3, 1930, as Buffalo, thirty years after being dubbed the “City of Lights” during the Pan American Exposition, hosted its first ever night game. 11,262 Bisons fans gazed in awe at the floodlit ball field and watched their team drop a game to Montreal by the score of 5-4. On September 20 of that year, a 40 year old pitcher named Dave Danforth set what was then an International League record by striking out 20 Rochester players, a feat that would stand for over three decades.

The Ollie Carnegie Era

It was one of those obscure late season signings that nobody really pays much attention to. Some guy named Ollie Carnegie from Pennsylvania, who lost his railroad job in the teeth of the Great Depression, decided to try his hand at baseball, and at the age of 30, instantly became the team’s oldest rookie. By his first full season with the team in 1932, Carnegie electrified the Bison Stadium faithful with his long ball, hitting 36 home runs with 140 RBI’s.

While Carnegie was the heart and soul of the team during the 30s and under manager Ray Schalk, his greatest season was 1938. Many assumed that Carnegie’s best days were behind him, yet at the age of 39 showed everyone that he was still the best in the game. Carnegie hit 45 home runs that season, a Bisons record, which was more impressive considering that the outfield wall at Offermann had been raised from the original 12 feet.

Carnegie was given his outright release on January 22, 1942, in a move that general manager John Stiglmeier said “was the hardest thing I ever had to do.” With over 1300 hits, 1000 runs driven in and 254 home runs, Carnegie took his place as the best Bison ever. In 1945 he returned for one last hurrah with the team, and at age 46, still managed to hit 4 more home runs and bat .301.

The Night The Great Depression Stood Still

1933 was arguably the greatest and most memorable season in Offermann’s storied history. With Ollie Carnegie hitting 29 home runs that season and “The Other Ollie”, Ollie Tucker hitting .323 with 27 home runs of his own, Buffalo managed to sneak into the playoffs on the final day of the season by defeating Rochester.

This improbable team of underdogs then went on a playoff tear, first sweeping Baltimore, three games to none. In the Governors Cup championship series against Rochester, the Bisons headed back to Bison Stadium leading the best of seven series three games to two.

That night, September 22, 1933, is referred to in the Bisons history books as “The Night The Great Depression Stood Still”.

The box score will reflect the official attendance at Bison Stadium as 23,386. This, in a stadium that seated about 15,000. Buffalo’s industry had been hit especially hard during the Depression, and fans looking for a respite from their miseries flocked to Michigan and Ferry to take part in their city’s destiny with history.

With the streets outside packed with fans seeking tickets and many more grabbing perches on garage roofs along Masten Avenue, Bisons broadcaster Roger Baker used a bullhorn to shout down to the throngs of people “Please go home! We’re putting the game on radio!” Many decided to stick around anyway, and the local fire marshals had to cordon a path along East Ferry to allow for emergency vehicles. Inside the packed ballpark, fans sat in alcoves, in the aisles, and standees lined up behind ropes along the baselines to get a glimpse of the action.

Queenie remembered that night very well. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in high school and everyone wanted to be there, and by the time school let out you could not move in the streets, that’s how packed it was. The whole city turned out to see the Bisons.”

On this night, it was all Buffalo, a huge 8-1 win over their rival Rochester team which set off a raucous celebration on the streets of Buffalo. The Bisons had themselves their first Governors Cup.

“Grown men were weeping in the streets and hugging each other. I can tell you that there was such a celebration which went all night long. Mayor (Charles) Roesch declared a civic holiday and there was a parade through the neighborhood” said Queenie. “Understand that this was such a bad time for families. There were no jobs. People were losing their homes and some going to bed hungry at night. But this was baseball. Baseball was magical. And the Bisons winning like they did brought such joy to people that year at a time when people needed some joy.”

The Making of a Replica

Building this year’s version of the stadium series, a replica of Offermann Stadium, posed unique challenges for the Bisons team in charge of that project. After all there are scant few photographs of the building available, and with the passing of time there are fewer and fewer people who actually witnessed a game there in person.

“Last fall we went to the Historical Society and said ‘give us everything you got on Offermann Stadium” explained Director of Entertainment and Promotions Matt La Sota. “In all they had about 25-30 pictures, most that we could use, and an aerial shot”.

La Sota said that every pillar, alcove and tunnel was counted to give the replica its accuracy. “We wrote out a list, of every feature, every discernable part of the building.”

The Bisons contracted with a company out of Scranton, Pennsylvania, who they have worked with in the past to manufacture their other ballpark replicas and their bobblehead figurines. “They’ve done a lot of old stadiums too” said La Sota.

“They came up with an initial clay model, and the base. It’s not perfect and we went back and forth and added detail. We called on people such as Paul Offermann Jr., who assisted us greatly. He had a few pictures and a map of the ballpark. He was big on the coloring.”

La Sota is especially proud of the detail on the lightposts and the colors. “The posts look like oil derricks. And we matched the outside wall colors nicely. They were beige and brown, with green shutters.”

So what will the Bisons do for an encore, now that all three ballparks have been so elegantly replicated? “We’ll talk about that during the offseason” said Brad Bisbing. “I come from Niagara Falls, and the Bisons once played at Sal Maglie Stadium” La Sota added. “Maybe we’ll give that one a try. We’ll see.”

-AK

A Stadium Gets Its Name

Frank J. Offermann was the principal investor in the Buffalo Bisons, purchasing the team in 1920, and took the helm of the team presidency in 1928. His untimely death at the young age of 59 happened before the 1935 season. Offermann had been one of the guiding forces in the planning and development of the new Bisons Stadium, and the team’s board quickly voted to rename the stadium as Offermann Stadium in his memory.

Four years later Offermann’s widow, Isabelle Offermann would sell her stock in the club and the ballpark to an investment group headed by Marvin Jacobs, for the sum of $225,000. While the stadium would keep the Offermann name in perpetuity, the family who was such an integral part of Bisons baseball was no longer a part of the team.

Meanwhile, on the field Ollie Carnegie’s average dropped below .300 for the first time as a Bison during the 1935 season, yet he still managed to hit 37 home runs while driving on an astonishing 153 runs. Despite an exciting pennant race which went to the final day, the Bisons would go down quietly in the first round of the playoffs.

The Color Barrier Broken

1946 was sort of a renaissance for the Bisons as well as the International League, as the end of World War II brought fans back to the ballpark. But another factor stimulated interest in the game that season, as an exciting new Negro player by the name of Jackie Robinson was tearing up the league for the Montreal Royals. In that year, Robinson hit .349 while stealing 40 bases, and came close to winning the league’s MVP award. Attendance at Offermann that season was 293,813, the highest in almost four decades. But Buffalo’s own color barrier got broken almost a decade later, when a first baseman named Luke Easter joined the club, the first Negro player on the team since 1888. Easter almost immediately became a fan favorite with his charming personality and his unique talent for the long ball. On June 14,1957 he launched a mammoth towering blast which not only cleared the fences and the centerfield scoreboard, but landed somewhere out on Masten Street, a tale of the tape that could be measured at over 500 feet. That dinger stands as the most legendary home run ever hit by a Buffalo Bison.

Financial Chaos Ensues

The sale of the Bisons in 1951 set off a chain of events which would lead to the team’s eventual departure from Offermann Stadium. The Jacobs brothers sold the team to the Detroit Tigers for $100,000, but retained ownership of the stadium under their umbrella company, the Ferry-Woodlawn Realty Corporation. Only after the sale was it revealed that the franchise was on the brink of bankruptcy. By 1955 the Tigers threatened to fold the franchise and it appeared that the Bisons would be no more.

But during that offseason a community group led by John Stiglmeier championed a grassroots drive to sell stock to the public in a community attempt to save the team. Their efforts succeeded, thanks to the deep pockets of some wealthy Buffalo citizens, including the Jacobs brothers, and the team was brought back from the brink.

The team actually paid a dividend of 10 cents a share, its first and last one, to shareholders in 1958. And in 1959 the Bisons set an attendance record at Offermann Stadium, drawing 413,263 fans, the best ever at the time for any Buffalo team.

Goodbye Offermann Stadium

By 1960 Offermann Stadium’s fate had been sealed – the city wanted the site to build a new school facility, and negotiations began with Ferry-Woodlawn Realty Corporation to acquire the stadium. The Jacobs controlled corporation had no interest in selling, wanting to keep the Bisons there in perpetuity. But the city would not be swayed, and playing hardball, began condemnation proceedings. The taxpayers of Buffalo eventually acquired the stadium for $835,000, and the stadium was demolished a year later.

History will state that the final game was played there on September 1, 1960, with Toronto defeating Buffalo 5-3 in a playoff game. While Mayor Frank Sedita boasted in the Courier-Express that there would be “a great era for Buffalo baseball at War Memorial Stadium”, most fans knew better, and the team would hit rock bottom in their new digs, that would result in the team’s folding just 10 years later.

Even almost 50 years after the stadium was demolished, it still has such a great hold on this city. Bisons Public Relations Director Brad Bisbing seems to know why. “Kids grow up and then bring their kids to the ballpark. The team and the stadiums are what binds Western New Yorkers and the generations together.”

At 28 years of age, Bisbing’s direct memories of Buffalo baseball are linked to Dunn Tire Park. Said Bisbing, “But I’ve heard the stories of the good old days. How kids used to sneak in, look over the fence posts. The fans sitting on the rooftops. Then there was Luke Easter who really made that stadium what it is. One could say it was the ‘building that Luke built’. How fun it is to compare now to 50 years ago? How would Luke Easter fare against pitcher Aaron Laffey today? That’s what makes all this so neat.”

At next Wednesday’s game a rare two minute video of actual Offermann Stadium footage will play on the Big Board prior to the first pitch. “It looks like Opening Day from 1959” said Matt La Sota, Bisons Director of Entertainment and Promotions. Actual seats from the stadium will be on display in the concourse.

La Sota’s advice? “Get there early if you want your own Offermann replica. Last year’s War Memorial Stadium replica line stretched all the way down to Exchange Street.”

For the record, gates open at 6PM, and replicas will be distributed at the Swan Street gate only.