By Budd Bailey
Buffalo’s baseball history is surprisingly rich, particularly in its early days. You probably know that a minor-league team has been around almost every year since 1878. The city also had a team in the National League for part of the 1880s, the Players’ League in 1890, and the Federal League in the 1910s. It’s always impressive to me how often Buffalo comes up with stories are written about baseball highlights that go way, way, back.
Sure enough, the other day another baseball fact popped up in my reading, and Buffalo was in the middle of it.
The Federal League began in 1914, and Buffalo was part of it. It was an eight-team league, featuring teams from Indianapolis, Chicago, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and St. Louis as well as Buffalo. When a rival league challenges an existing organization, the fun begins … if you call it “fun” to see two teams battle in court over contracts. Such was the case here. The highlight was one of the most bizarre days in Buffalo’s sports history.
Hal Chase was a likely candidate to jump leagues. He arrived in the majors in 1905 with the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees), and quickly became the team’s top player. He’s been called the franchise’s first star. Most of that was because of his fielding; he quickly established a reputation as the best fielding first baseman in the sport’s young history. Think Keith Hernandez in wool. By 1908, he also had started to earn a reputation for one of the great clubhouse cancers in the game. Sometimes he was accused of throwing games. Chance once left his team to play in a league in California. He thought he should have been manager of another team – and at one point in his career, did have a job as player-manager.
That brings us to 1914. Chase’s antics had left manager Frank Chance wondering if his first baseman was throwing games for money. Finally, the Yankees traded him to the White Sox in early June. On June 20, Chase went hitless in a game for Chicago in Comiskey Park during the afternoon, and signed with Buffalo that night. That was convenient, since Buffalo had a game of its own in Chicago the next day. Chase played with the Buf-Feds, as they were called.
The White Sox headed to court on Monday, June 22, and an injunction was issued against Chase playing for anyone but Chicago’s American League team. The Buf-Feds escorted Chase back to Buffalo, although a plan to fly him east fell through. Then they held him in Canada so that a process server couldn’t give him an injunction. A game on June 25 was Buffalo’s next home game on the schedule, and the Buf-Feds announced that “Hal Chase Day” would be celebrated then and that the first baseman would be in the lineup. Chase was taken to the Country Club of Buffalo (now Grover Cleveland G.C.), and given women’s clothing for the trip to Federal Field at Northland and Lonsdale (a block from Jefferson near Canisius University).
It all worked, and Chase showed up ready to play. But how could the Buf-Feds guarantee that he’d actually play before the police showed up with the injunction? Easy. In those days, the home team of baseball games had the choice of hitting first or last. Almost always, it went second. But this time, the Buf-Feds chose to go first in their game with Pittsburgh, and put Chase in the No. 2 spot in the lineup. He struck out. Then in the bottom of the second, Sheriff Fred Becker of Buffalo personally delivered the injunction, and Chase walked off the field. His teammates went on to win the game in a tidy hour and 40 minutes … even without a pitch clock.
The legalities of the situation needed a month to play out, but eventually Chase was declared legally free to suit up with the Buf-Feds. He ranked as one of their top players for their rest of their existence, which ran through the end of the 1915 season. Then the Federal League folded, and Chase jumped back to the National League with Cincinnati. He finished his career with the 1919 New York Giants.
Now comes the statistical oddity. The option of the home team hitting first, which was never popular, fell completely out of favor after “Hal Chase Day.” The rules were changed in 1950 in the American and National Leagues to prevent it. Therefore, the Buffalo-Pittsburgh contest was the last game in the 20th century in which the home team hit first. Drive by that neighborhood today, and you see where this sliver of baseball history took place.
But the 21st century has been different. Games have been moved out of stadiums for a variety of reasons – weather, concerts, civil unrest, a pandemic – into opponents’ ballparks. In such cases, the “home” teams have been ordered to hit first. The first of those games took place in 2007, when a series between the Indians and Mariners was snowed out. One of the games was made up as part of a double-header in Seattle – and the Indians hit last in one of the games played in Safeco Field. That ended Buffalo’s 93-year reign as the last home team to hit first in a major league (the Federal League eventually was granted that status by historians) game.
Another of those games took place in 2020. It’s worth noting here that the the Red Sox were supposed to play the Blue Jays in Buffalo on August 27. Boston voted not to play that game to make a statement about racial injustice. The game was moved to the Red Sox home as part of a double-header on September 4. In the second game in Fenway Park, the Red Sox hit first. That was the first time Boston had done that in its home of 108 years.
(Information for this story comes from Gary Belleville’s article, “The Death and Rebirth of the Home Team Batting First,” in the Spring 2023 edition of Baseball Research Journal from the Society for American Baseball Research, It’s a fine look at a subject I can’t say I ever even thought about in the past. Jack Zerby’s on-line article on the June 25, 1914 game for SABR (https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/june-25-1914-buffalo-and-the-sheriff-greet-hal-chase-on-his-day/), and “The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball 1857-2020” (Edited by James H. Overfield.) also were used.