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Sean Kirst: At Sahlen Field, Luke Easter tribute would be a perfect match

Ted Wyatt, in one sentence, defined the problem the Buffalo Bisons hope they finally solved.

Wyatt was there, more than 30 years ago, on the day Bisons owner Robert Rich Jr. joined such public officials as Mayor Jimmy Griffin and Gov. Mario Cuomo in breaking ground for a ballpark that touched off a national trend in throwback style.

Wyatt recalled that moment by telephone from his Virginia home, speaking of a landmark initially known as Pilot Field. He started to make a point about that ballpark as it is today, why it still makes sense to include a new tribute to the great Luke Easter, when he paused and asked:

“What do they call it now?”

He had good reason to be puzzled. Before Tuesday, when Bisons general manager Mike Buczkowski announced the ballpark has been rechristened as Sahlen Field, the place had four different corporate names in 30 years.

For a lot of reasons, this is one the Bisons think might stick.

Sean Kirst: A year from now, in Buffalo, how about Luke Easter Park?

The decision is the result of a naming rights agreement between the club and a Buffalo-based hot dog empire, commonly known as Sahlen’s. Joe Sahlen, 66, the company president, decided to skip the apostrophe on Sahlen Field because he wanted to make one point clear.

The apostrophe implies the singular, he said. The ballpark is being named for his family, not for any individual, and he sees long-term potential in that larger bond:

A place defined by the aroma of hot dogs is now named after them.

“I think we can do the Bisons quite a bit of good,” Sahlen said.

Donald Palmer, the fabled "Butcher" of Bisons lore, at the groundbreaking for the city's new ballpark, more than 30 years ago. (Buffalo News/file art)

One immediate dream is simple staying power. The commitment to the Bisons, for an undisclosed sum, covers 10 years. Joe Sahlen’s company is about to celebrate its 150th birthday. He said his family “certainly intends to be there” beyond the initial deal.

Maybe it will last long enough for “Sahlen Field” to someday evoke the sense of place that many retirees feel when they say “Offermann Stadium,” conjuring up the scent and sounds of the lost, beloved home of the old Bisons.

Which brings us back to Wyatt.

At 87, he has deep baseball roots in Buffalo. As a child he was a regular at Offermann, sometimes watching games through a hole a buddy drilled in the fence. He became an All-High outfielder at Fosdick-Masten Park High School, then played in adult baseball leagues after returning from the Korean War.

Wyatt grew close to Jimmy Griffin, at one time a teammate. "We had a friendship that lasted forever," said Wyatt, who worked both for the U.S. Postal Service and as an educator in the city schools while Griffin – who died in 2008, and whose statue now commands a plaza outside the ballpark – ascended in politics.

As the mayor helped minor league baseball regain its footing in Buffalo, he invited Wyatt to such events as the Pilot Field groundbreaking. The place became a national template, a Buffalo-born renewal of the idea that ballparks ought to mesh with the city around them.

At best, they are also engines of community. For much of his life, Wyatt lived on the East Side. He recalls when Easter, a legendary Bisons slugger of the late 1950s, resided in the neighborhood. Easter, like Wyatt, was African-American at a time when baseball was just opening its doors, and he served as a communal bridge like few athletes in the history of this city.

Easter's number is retired, and his name is on a ballpark wall. While Wyatt hoped against the odds that the ballpark's new name might somehow incorporate Easter, he joins many longtime Bisons loyalists in dreaming the club will find a way to celebrate and reaffirm the larger meaning of a singular legacy.

“I have no qualms about a stadium being named in that way,” Wyatt said of Sahlen's, and of agreements that help ball clubs sustain themselves. Still, he believes there is room for a distinct way of honoring Easter, a mythic figure in minor league history who was released by the Bisons exactly 60 years ago next spring.

“I have watched many fine players for the Bisons over the years, but there is none that stand out as much as Luke Easter, just with fan reaction and the way people cared for him during the time that he was here,” Wyatt said.

With thanks for Buffalo baseball and role played by 'The Butcher'

Over the years, similar thoughts have been expressed by many others, including the late Joe Overfield, dean of Buffalo baseball historians. At Tuesday's announcement, a mention of Easter and his legacy intrigued Joe Sahlen.

He remembered how Easter once sold sausages in Buffalo that carried his name – a point of fascination, as you would imagine, for a hot dog executive. That history by itself was enough to get Sahlen’s wheels turning.

His product, in scent and taste and nature, often invokes the past. Sahlen spoke of how his company carefully preserved the old Red Star trucking logo on a building it restored. He said Sahlen's is embracing a throwback logo that recalls the 1950s.

“That was his era,” Joe Sahlen said of Easter. Mayor Byron Brown, too, described Easter “as a great, iconic name,” and said it is always wise for a city to honor and remember transcendent accomplishments.

“There are a lot of opportunities,” Sahlen said.

Luke Easter, with the Buffalo Bisons. (Photo courtesy John Boutet, curator of the Bisons Hall of Fame room)

A possibility, then, for that list: Many readers, including former Bisons general manager Mike Billoni, envision a statue of Easter in front of the ballpark. I would simply add that if we do it, do something beyond the typical.

In an outpouring of notes and letters expressing reverence for Easter, one theme is constant: The guy loved children. He would go to the Michigan Avenue YMCA and shoot baskets with kids. He would pause after games, just outside Offermann, to spend time with wide-eyed boys and girls awaiting autographs.

Even on the day the Bisons let him go – just before Easter went to Rochester and kept slamming home runs – he said his dream was helping children learn to love the game.

Sixty years later, why not grant his wish? Rather than erecting a sculpted figure swinging a bat on a pedestal, have Easter in a crouch, arm extended, a gesture of greeting near the gate. Every parent could take photos of a son or daughter within that ground-level embrace, which means children posing with Luke would almost certainly pause at some point to ask:

Who is that?

In that question is the secret. If the soul of the game lies in stories that connect us, who better than Luke Easter to welcome us to Sahlen Field.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

 

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