Opening day for the Buffalo Bisons in 1945 was an unhappy one for me. I sat in my sixth-grade class completely unable to understand why I should be kept in school on this day of days. I loved baseball, loved the Bisons and wanted to be part of the excitement at Offermann Stadium.
Many years have flown by since then and while baseball itself hasn’t changed much, its culture has. It has become a game played by wealthy men. That was not so back then.
Even baseballs themselves were semi-precious objects then. A team might go through 10 or 12 during a game instead of the 100-plus used today. I used to lurk outside the right-field fence on Woodlawn Avenue during batting practice hoping to corral a ball hit over the wall because it could be exchanged for a ticket to a game. Of course, I would only use it for a Sunday doubleheader.
During the week, I paid 15 cents to sit on a bench nailed to the roof of a garage that overlooked the left-field fence along Masten Avenue. There I learned many of the game’s finer points from the old hands I met there: “Kid, it’s better to steal on a 1-2 count than a 2-1 count because …”
My big baseball thrill as a boy came from a long-forgotten radio show, Sherm Wright’s “Batters Up,” where kids were invited to compete to see who could answer the most questions about baseball. I won the contest one week and my prize was to sit in the press box at Offermann Stadium, high above home plate. I got free hotdogs and drinks during the game, but didn’t take much advantage of that since that would have meant leaving my precious seat to get them.
A great memory from those long-ago days is of a Sunday doubleheader in which the Bisons played the Montreal Royals. The Royals second baseman was a young Jackie Robinson. He was spectacular, by far the best player on the field. Robinson, of course, became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball and is now immortalized in Cooperstown. Another memory is seeing Luke Easter’s unique titanic clout over Offermann’s towering center field scoreboard.
Back then, AAA teams were a mix of promising young players on their way up, and Major League veterans stretching their fading careers. People knew the players and identified with them. Two boys who were sons of veteran Bison players were members of the Little League teams I played on. They were anything but wealthy.
The 1949 club was the best Bisons team I remember. Paul Richards, a future Major League manager, guided the club to the International League championship and to the Junior World Series. Offermann attendance records were set that year and I decided to cash in on the crowds in 1950 by getting a job vending food in the stands. The 1950 Bisons were terrible and attendance was even worse, ruining my first attempt at financial planning.
Today, Offermann Stadium is just a fading memory. It closed in 1960 and the Bisons became nomads, briefly playing in Niagara Falls before settling into the old Rockpile, where the movie “The Natural” was filmed, then moving on to today’s Coca-Cola Field.
Those old Bisons teams left me with a treasure trove of memories and filled my youth with great fun and excitement. They ignited a love of baseball that still burns bright in me today.