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From the archives: The Butcher, a ballpark slice of life

The Buffalo Bisons announced Tuesday that Donald Palmer, a batboy well-known as "the Butcher" during the team's time at War Memorial Stadium, has died.

Gene Warner wrote this story on Palmer during his adult years. It was published August 9, 2004.

By Gene Warner

War Memorial Stadium might have been the only baseball park in America where a batboy was more recognizable than any of the players. Or where a foul ball drew as much attention as a fair ball.

Whenever a ball was fouled off behind home plate in the old ball yard, conversations would cease in midsentence. Thousands of eyes would be riveted on the backstop, where a larger-than-life batboy hustled over to catch the ball off the screen.
Sometimes, the ball would take a crazy hop off the screen and over the outstretched glove on his right hand.

Then the batboy, always playing to the crowd, would throw his mitt down in mock disgust as the fans filled the Old Rockpile with good-natured boos.

He was the Butcher, one of Buffalo's true characters -- a sideshow that preceded the Buffalo Bisons' move to Pilot Field, back when the Bisons dreamed of the major leagues.

At the height of his popularity, in 1985, the Butcher -- aka Donald R. Palmer -- was an 18-year-old showman, surprisingly agile for his 350 or so pounds, a good athlete who often caught balls behind his back.

Nineteen years later, at age 37, Palmer no longer shags foul balls off the screen.

He is now a seasonal laborer for the Buffalo Streets Department, co-owner of a hockey pro shop, a softball umpire, a husband and a father.

And, yes, Palmer has grown from a big kid into a big man, still weighing about 350.

With the hindsight of almost 20 years, how does Palmer think he was viewed?

"I think some people were laughing at me, and some people were laughing with me," he said. "I think they started out laughing at me, and then when people started to get to know me, I think they realized I was a happy-go-lucky kid.

"I'm still a happy-go-lucky kid at age 37. I come to work every day with a smile on my face."

When the Bisons moved into their downtown ballpark in 1988, they abruptly took the Butcher off the field and made him a clubhouse man.

As they jockeyed for a possible major league franchise, Bisons officials acknowledged that the Butcher might have been too much of a distraction, that his clownlike antics might have gone too far.

"As I look back now, I think it ended up ultimately being a good decision for me," he said. "It was time to grow up. I just wish it hadn't been so sudden."

Palmer, a lifelong Buffalonian who lives in Black Rock-Riverside, has grown up. He has diabetes and survived a heart attack.

He and his wife, Suzanne ("without her, I'd be laying in a gutter somewhere"), have a 12-year-old son, Robert Ray Palmer; he's named for former Sabres tough guy Rob Ray, who was duking it out with Tie Domi in a televised game the night the boy was born. Palmer and his father, Encil R. "Porky" Palmer, a longtime Sabres employee, run a hockey store, Butch & Porky's Pro Shop, in Depew.

Palmer also has all those memories of the days when he was a phenomenon in Buffalo.

How does he think the Butcher should be remembered?

"People paid their hard-earned money and wanted to be entertained for 2-1/2 hours," he said. "I hope they got their money's worth. If the ballgame was boring, I hope I made them smile."

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