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In Buffalo, the curse of Ban Johnson trumps even Cleveland's losing record

Jim Overfield laughed when he heard the comparison. Today is Parade Day in Cleveland. Hundreds of thousands of people have gathered to say farewell to an epic sports curse that some observers see as traveling eastbound on Lake Erie, headed straight to Buffalo. Jim is happy for the Ohio city. He knows how good all of this must feel. A part of him is always a Buffalo guy, and he fully appreciates what a championship can mean to a region that has struggled.

Yet Jim understands as well as anyone that this curse is hardly something new for Buffalo.

He is a history professor emeritus, a former chairman of history at the University of Vermont. He is also the son of the late Joe Overfield, the legendary Buffalo baseball historian and author. From early childhood, Jim heard firsthand about the sweeping and heartbreaking power of the sports malady that Buffalo confronts:

Even Cleveland wasn’t faced with the curse of Ban Johnson.

The New York Times did a piece this week maintaining the heartbreaking nature of Buffalo's long championship drought makes it the "most cursed city" – at least for a major sport – of any big metropolitan area in the nation. Until LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers won the National Basketball Association title last weekend, it had been 52 years since that Ohio city was at the pinnacle: The Cleveland Browns were National Football League champions in 1964.

“Compared to Buffalo?” said Jim Overfield. “Come on. That’s nothing. Not even close.”

Because in Buffalo, Jim contends, the curse really extends to: Never. As in ever.

"Never is a hard record to beat," he said.

FILE PHOTO BY MARK MULVILLE -- 7/10/1994 -- Bison historian Joe Overfield (left) shakes hands with Vince McNamara (right) at Pilot Field after being inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame.

Joe Overfield, left, seen here during his induction into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, shared the story with his son of how Buffalo lost out on a major-league baseball team. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

This is his point: The Bills were champions of the old American Football League in 1965, which marked their second straight title. That was before the NFL-AFL agreement that created the Super Bowl, giving professional football an undisputed champion. The Bills would come within a step of that big game in the 1966 playoffs, but they were knocked out in a Jan. 1, 1967, AFL title game by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Even when the Bills won AFL championships in ’64 and ’65, Jim Overfield said, “it wasn’t quite the same.” The AFL was an expansion league, and Buffalo fans dreamed out loud about a chance to play the NFL champs. The Bills were certainly great – pro football researcher Ken Crippen considers them full-blown champions, historically – but there was a certain nagging absence to those AFL crowns:

Without a showdown with the NFL, you couldn’t prove those titles were fully major league.

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There it is. That is the terrible essence of the curse of Byron Bancroft "Ban" Johnson, a mystical anxiety Buffalo natives have felt many times, in so many different ways. Jim Overfield remembers the story vividly. His dad knew more about Buffalo baseball than anyone. Joe was powerfully familiar with this account:

In the late 1890s, Johnson decided to challenge baseball's established and powerful National League. He decided to transform the old Western League into a true major league. Buffalo had a franchise, and Johnson promised the city would retain its place. It would be part of this new circuit, which he’d call the American League.

Buffalo kept that spot right into the final league meetings that established membership. But Johnson double-crossed the city. He sent Connie Mack -- as in the Connie Mack -- to see if there was room to build a new ballpark in Boston. At the last second, Johnson stabbed Buffalo in the back. In 1901, the team that should have been the Bisons instead became the Boston Americans, soon to be known as the Red Sox.

In 1903, against the Pittsburgh Pirates, they won the first World Series.

What's more: Every city that had a franchise in the original American League still has a team in the majors, in some way.

“Think of that,” said Jim Overfield. “If it happens, the entire course of Buffalo sports history might be different.”

Instead, it was derailed by the curse of Ban Johnson, who decided Buffalo was not truly major league.

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More than a century later, isn’t that the implicit judgment -- in a much more sweeping way -- that grates at us, a harsh sentiment that so many of us seek to overcome? Isn’t that why we remind the nation of how the greatest architects and planners and writers did celestial work, as in big league work, in this town? Isn’t that what we truly seek from the Sabres or the Bills, and why we suffer with wide right or a skate in the crease?

Isn’t that what we long for with such passion, that one moment when – beyond all doubt – Buffalo rules as the indisputable best when set directly against the greatest cities in North America, the kind of ranking offered so clearly in sports?

And isn’t that opportunity exactly what Johnson, that baseball two-timer, so cruelly took away from us?

Step back and think of it: Buffalo’s big league baseball history goes back to 1879, when it had a team in the old National League. Never once, in all those years, has a team from this town ruled as the undisputed champion at the absolute peak of any major sport.

As Jim Overfield, a career historian, put it so well: Every other sports curse pales when set against a time span of 137 years.

Joseph J. Lannin, Byron Bancroft Johnson, John Kinley Tener, August (Garry) Herrmann - baseball magnates at Boston game. Oct. 9, 1916. (Library of Congress)

Ban Johnson, second from left, is seen with fellow baseball magnates, from left, Joseph J. Lannin, John Kinley Tener and August (Garry) Herrmann at a Boston game in 1916. (Library of Congress)

He remembers his father talking about Johnson's great double-cross. He remembers how Joe Overfield, who died in 2000, hung an enormous image of Offermann Stadium, the beloved and demolished home of Bison baseball, over the family fireplace. Jim also remembers his father as an intensely loyal guy, with a distinct routine:

Joe would go to work each morning at Monroe Abstract and Title. Every day, he’d visit his wife, Clara, who was stricken by devastating multiple sclerosis, in the McAuley Residence, a nursing home in Kenmore. Then Joe would sit behind home plate with his buddies at Bison games, whether they were at the old Rockpile, the Parthenon-like War Memorial Stadium, or – in Joe’s final years – at the gleaming downtown ballpark known first as Pilot Field, a ballpark that is now named for Coca Cola.

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Joe Overfield understood the emotional aspects of Buffalo’s baseball history – how sports intertwined with struggle, with national identity, with the jolts of an up-and-down economy. Being realistic, Jim Overfield wonders if an American League franchise could have survived all the Western New York financial tumult in the 20th century, especially the collapse of heavy industry  that began a decade or two after World War II.

Still, Jim appreciates how big-league baseball gives a city an almost ephemeral allure, a mystical aura that was taken away from Buffalo, in 1901, in a harsh surprise. There’s no way of knowing how the city’s journey might have changed if Buffalo, from day one, was a true big-league town. But Jim Overfield is familiar with the fledgling sense of overall ascension and renaissance in this city, and he hopes to live long enough to see one wrong finally made right:

In all ways, it’s time to shatter the curse of Ban Johnson.

Sean Kirst is a contributing writer for The Buffalo News. You can leave a comment below using your Facebook sign-in, follow him on Twitter or send a message to seanpeterkirst@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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