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COMMENTARY

The balls and strikes that connect generations of Buffalo's first family of baseball

SAN FRANCISCO — Francis J. Offermann III, better known as Bud, keeps the baseball tucked safely in a plastic cube, set so you can see the Buffalo Bisons logo. And why not? It might as well be the family crest.

His grandfather, Francis J. Offermann Sr., owned the Bisons back in the day. When he died in 1935, at the age of 58, the public outpouring of grief was so great that Bisons Stadium was quickly renamed Offermann Stadium in his honor.

Bud’s father, Francis J. Offermann Jr., was 9 at the time. Weeks later he would throw out the first pitch on opening day. Imagine the pressure: His would be the first official act of a newly rechristened ballpark.

The brave boy lived up to the moment. The Courier-Express ran a photo of him in mid-windup and full uniform. “Frank J. Offermann Jr.,” the caption said, “pitches the first ball right smack over the plate like a veteran.”

The photo of Francis J. Offermann Jr. that ran in the Courier-Express in 1935 when he threw out the first pitch in the stadium named for his father.

When Offermann Jr. died in 2013, at nearly 87 years old, the Bisons asked Bud to throw out a first pitch. That’s the ball Bud keeps in the plastic cube, a family heirloom made of magic and cowhide.

He is sitting in the living room of his San Francisco row house as he removes the ball from its plastic casing and rolls it around in his palm. It is, after all, as much talisman as baseball, connecting him from grandfather to father to son — and to the team and the town he holds dear from afar.

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Bud says the Bisons suggested he throw that first pitch from a spot in front of the mound. That’s where many people throw out ceremonial pitches, lest they bounce the ball in the dirt.

No, Bud said. He’d throw from the mound, just as his father had 78 years earlier. He’d go into a full windup, as his father had. But could he throw a strike, as his father had? Well, hang on, we’ll get to that.

Bud, 66, grew up on Beard Avenue in North Buffalo. He and his wife, Molly, moved to the city by the bay in 1980. They raised their two sons here. They love their adopted hometown.

But just as Offermann Stadium remains Buffalo’s home park of sainted memory, so too does the city by the lake remain Bud’s hometown of the heart.

“I haven’t lived there in forever,” he says, “but Buffalo will always be home to me.”

Bud graduated from Canisius High School and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and earned his masters at Stanford University. He is an indoor air quality scientist who runs his own company and often testifies as an expert witness in complex court cases.

Buffalo's old Offermann Stadium, home of the Bisons until 1960. (Image courtesy of John Boutet)

Offermann Sr. was among Buffalo’s most famous citizens when he died unexpectedly in 1935. He was sheriff of Erie County and widely popular for pioneering night baseball — in 1930, five years before it hit the major leagues — and for game day giveaways, keeping Buffalo baseball afloat during the Great Depression.

When the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame opened in 1985, 50 years after his death, Offermann Sr. was an inaugural inductee. Even now, almost 85 years since his passing, the Offermann name is beloved in Buffalo for its evocation of an era when Luke Easter walloped home runs over the centerfield scoreboard and into local lore.

Offermann Jr. was sent to Stella Niagara Cadet School after his father’s death. He would go on to Canisius College and Georgetown Law and practice law in Buffalo for decades, earning state bar awards for his prodigious pro bono work, including for the Sisters of St. Francis of Stella Niagara.

One day in 2012, on his 86th birthday, the family said they were taking him on an architectural tour of Buffalo. They were really taking him to a site behind the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts for the dedication of a historical marker where Offermann Stadium once stood.

"And there used to be a ballpark, where the field was warm and green."

Pete Weber cited the opening line of that Sinatra song in his address to the crowd that day. It was fitting for a former radio voice of the Bisons to emcee because Offermann Sr.’s Bisons were among the first minor league teams to embrace broadcast.

The Offermann Stadium Plaque, outside of the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. (News file photo)

John Boutet of the Buffalo Sports Museum spearheaded the drive to produce and place the plaque. He’s happy it got done when it did, as Offermann Jr. died the following summer.

Bud’s father was at Chautauqua Institution, sitting on a porch overlooking the lake, enjoying a morning cup of coffee and The New York Times crossword, when he simply closed his eyes and breathed his last. “We should all be so lucky,” Bud says.

Bud was back in Buffalo for his father’s funeral when the Bisons offered first-pitch honors to Bud and three other family members. Bud went first, with Buster Bison as catcher.

Bud wound up for a pitch to parallel the one his father had thrown a lifetime ago. He released the ball with a flourish and it traveled at an arcing angle, looking at first as if it would land high. But, wait, it quickly leveled out and squarely found Buster’s glove — whap!

Francis J. Offermann III felt a sense of elation wash over him in that moment, at home in a Buffalo ballpark as his pitch sailed over home plate.

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