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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: Lessons from the Bisons, finally safe at home

For the Buffalo Bisons, Thursday's home opener against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was a chronological milestone, even if the meaning was hardly on a lot of people's minds. Still, Glen and Patricia Albig and their fellow officers with the Bisons Booster Club, many around to watch the team almost since the beginning, understood the essence of this anniversary.

Until 40 years ago this month, Buffalo had seemed a baseball graveyard, with professional baseball gone for almost a decade. A team finally returned in an against-the-odds way, in a tale team historian John Boutet loves to tell.

The story begins with Pete Calieri, a local umpire, calling Eastern League president Patrick McKernan with a question about tax forms. That was in February 1979, Boutet said, two months before the season began. McKernan mentioned casually that his league was in need of a franchise. Calieri quickly called Don Colpoys, a city firefighter with a deep baseball pedigree. He enlisted Mayor Jimmy Griffin, a guy already dreaming of bringing baseball home.

The only possible playing field was the old War Memorial Stadium, whose vast disintegration had helped chase the old Bisons out of town. The city patched it together quickly enough for baseball to resume that April. Luis Salazar won the home opener with a ninth inning homer, and Bob Rich Jr. sparked a baseball renaissance when he bought the club a few years later.

Certainly, it is a happy Buffalo story. "We made friends who changed our lives," said Glen Albig, 69, recalling Thursday how he and his wife, Patricia, built enduring connections that began at the War Memorial with such present day boosters as Fran Barry, the Rev. Charlie Greene, Pam Asarese and Mike Dugan.

It was a long way from the Rockpile to Sahlen Field, the national trendsetter of a downtown ballpark that opened in 1988. That makes it worth remembering on this anniversary how Buffalo lost baseball in the first place, especially because history in this town often seems to run in one great loop.

[Related: Sean Kirst: At Bisons finale, ballpark 'legends' say goodbye til next year]

The Pegulas, owners of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, are looking at several potential sites for a new football stadium whose costs would likely soar beyond $1 billion. Indeed, this headline would hardly jolt any of us is we saw it in our newspaper tomorrow:

“Civic leaders urge city speed stadium project.”

That story appeared on July 30, 1958, on the front page of the old Buffalo Courier-Express. A coalition of business leaders and elected officials supported the idea of a new stadium potentially capable of hosting an NFL franchise and a MLB team.

Clippings from the late 1950s about a stadium proposal with corollaries to today. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

What stopped me when I stumbled into these old clippings at the Buffalo History Museum is where that stadium was meant to be: The proposed borders were Scott Street, South Park Avenue, Michigan Avenue and Main Street. In other words, it was in the same general district being considered for a stadium again today.

While that 1958 "Crossroads" proposal never happened, it matters for the tumbling dominoes it helped accelerate. On that same summer day more than 60 years ago, city leaders said the stadium plan would make it possible to raze both Civic Stadium – the old name for the War Memorial – and Offermann Stadium, a much-loved jewel of a ballpark where the Bisons set an attendance record in 1959 with more than 413,000 fans.

The idea was replacing those structures with city schools, since a new stadium would make the old ones expendable. The War Memorial survived. Offermann was leveled by 1962, a decision that still evokes sadness for those who loved the place.

“To the casual observer,” wrote Bill Marcus, a Courier-Express columnist, in 1959, “it would appear now that the School Department initiated the proposal to move the baseball Bisons to Civic Stadium in order to make room for a new school.”

“But as a matter of record,” he wrote, “the proposal emanated from the office of the parks commissioner and was made originally in order to clear the way for construction of a new stadium on lower Main Street.”

That stadium idea faded away. By early 1959, faced with multiple obstacles, Mayor Frank Sedita was saying it might take 10 or 20 years to get a new one, which turned out to be a pretty accurate forecast. Yet the ripples from that short-lived proposal reverberated for years.

A program from the Buffalo Bisons, 1979. (Courtesy of John Boutet)

If that stadium had gone up, how different might our sports history have been? In 1959, baseball executive Branch Rickey floated plans to create baseball’s upstart Continental League. Baseball hurried to expand in response, and Buffalo is now the only city from Rickey's short-lived idea for a league that in one way or another did not receive a big league team.

City officials also said in 1958 that an NFL team was ready to relocate to Buffalo if the new stadium were built. Instead, the new American Football League established itself here two years later, when Detroit businessman Ralph Wilson brought the Bills to the War Memorial.

For the Bisons, as their boosters pointed out Thursday, the worst maybe worked out for the best. "I'm glad we never got a Major League team," Patricia Albig said. "I don't think we could have sustained it. People wouldn't have come."

In the 1960s, the old Bisons struggled in the War Memorial and left for Winnipeg, leaving the city without baseball until that optimistic gamble of 40 years ago. With little time to prepare, Broadway Market candy merchant John Sikorski put up a $40,000 advance to secure the franchise, while dozens of others in the community kicked in smaller amounts.

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

"It was just so thrilling to have the professional game back in Buffalo," said Tom Girot, the Sahlen Field beer vendor best known as Conehead. In 1979, he and a close friend spent $500 apiece to buy a share in the team. Girot, who worked at the time in a stamping plant, still wears a big "79" on his jersey to honor that original season.

As for the Bills, much of their history has been shadowed by stadium worries. While they left War Memorial Stadium in 1973 for a new home in Orchard Park, all the old questions are prominent again: Can they or should they stay put? Should they finally return to the city?

Among potential sites identified by a recent study are the Cobblestone District and the Old First Ward, both not far from the 1958 location envisioned by then-city parks commissioner Pat McGroder Jr. As the circle comes around, then, the question is: What lesson might be learned?

Maybe the obvious one is simply really knowing what you have, and what you want. The Bisons of 1958 led the league in attendance in a ballpark beloved for its intimacy. While they succeeded at the gate in that era on a level that would not be matched again until the 1980s, civic leaders were so worried about what might come next – and about the chase to match or exceed what other cities were doing – that they lost sight of what makes Buffalo, well, Buffalo.

As was clear Thursday, in the warmth and community of Sahlen Field, the reborn Bisons emphatically found their way back to it.

For all the differences in money, scope and consequence, that same goal will be the judgment on what happens for the Bills.

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

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