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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: Saving Buffalo Baseball

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Review by Budd Bailey

Sometimes you just have to sit back in awe and admiration of someone else’s literary effort.

That’s the case with Howard W. Henry’s book, “Saving Buffalo Baseball.” If you need to know anything about this team of baseball players from the International League that represented Buffalo in 1956, well, you’ve come to the right place.

Henry spent years tracking down facts and information for this book. It’s easy to wonder how his vision is after looking at so much microfilm and other papers to fill this publication out.

The back story to this particular season needs a little explanation. Minor league baseball had exploded after World War II, as the population was ready to return to leisure activities. Every good-sized town in American seemed to have a team of some sort.

That couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t. Attrition took care of some of the teams, of course, but there was a greater problem on the horizon: television. Suddenly, people could watch major league games as they happened. How are you going to keep the people in, say, Batavia, engrossed if Mickey Mantle is as close as the television set? The economics of minor league baseball started to fall apart. The old system, which featured teams that owned some of its own players who could be sold to higher levels, was starting to crack.

The changes hit the Buffalo Bisons for the 1956 season. The Jacobs brothers had sold the team in 1951 to the Detroit Tigers when the franchise was starting to drown in red ink. But owner Walter O. Briggs had died in 1952, and that had triggered an examination of the baseball organization’s structure. Then Walter Briggs Jr. was forced to sell everything in 1956 – which the Bisons saw coming and had to react accordingly. There were no guardian angels available who could swoop in and make financial problems disappear with a simple signature on a check.

The only answer, at the time, was community ownership. A group got together to put together enough money – a few dollars at a time from local fans and businesses – to keep the team going. Reginald Taylor, John Stiglmeier and Harry Bisgeier led the new organization, which had the twin tasks of finding players and selling tickets. That sounds a great deal like a major league team’s mission statement then and now. The difference, of course, is that the Bisons had to take any players they could find. That was no small task, especially when the Tigers didn’t quite meet their original commitment of talent to the Bisons.

Henry steps in with the play-by-play of how the team came together. The author summarizes the newspaper accounts of the time in the lead-up to the season. Then the actual season starts, and every game, rainout, and other development are covered completely. (I might have restricted stories to a page per game, but it’s not my book.) If that’s not good enough for some, and I find it hard to believe that it won’t be, Henry has all of the box scores from the ’56 season on a website. It’s all quite impressive and overwhelming.

One of interesting parts of the recap is that it’s amazing how local sportswriters covered the team and the league as if it were the majors. There are previews about the other teams in the league, emphasis on finishing “in the first division” (the upper half of the league standings), and so on. Heck, Buffalo-based visitors to road games even were mentioned in the paper. It’s a far cry from the few paragraphs most Bisons’ game receive in the newspaper today. That’s not necessarily inappropriate or worse; it’s just really different.

The team wasn’t too good. It ran on a financial shoestring, and injuries caused big holes in the lineup. The Bisons sank to the bottom of the International League relatively quickly, and stayed there. But they finished the season – their greatest accomplishment – and lost a handful of dollars (less than $100) that season.

The sad part of the story is that the 1956 season didn’t prevent Buffalo’s Triple-A team from eventual collapse; it merely delayed it. The franchise had a revival in ticket sales through the rest of the 1950s, but a move to War Memorial Stadium proved less than helpful. The times, and neighborhoods, were changing. The franchise was off to Winnipeg in 1970. It took the financial support of Bob Rich for organized baseball to be a strong part of the local sports scene again.

Still, 1956 was a unique season. Henry obviously fell in love with the game because of the team from that year, and his passion shows through on every page. Self-publishing is an obvious choice for a book like this which doesn’t figure to have wide appeal. It’s a professional-looking publication, with some good illustrations. I particularly liked the drawings of all of the stadiums of the International League. Nitpickers obviously will point out a couple of uses of “today” and “yesterdays” in the midst of the daily recaps. I’m not sure how that happened, but a little forgiveness must be used in a book that doesn’t have a bunch of professional copy editors at the ready.

Your enjoyment of “Saving Buffalo Baseball” obviously would be helped by having lived through that era. But I was zero years old at that point in my life, and I enjoyed the team’s story as well as reading names that were either on old baseball cards I had from the 1950s (“Where have you gone, Carl Sawatski?”) or that were local political or public figures from the day who still come up from time to time. That includes Pat McGroder, who did a great deal of behind-the-scenes work and who later popped up as the Bills’ general manager for a short time.

Those days aren’t coming back. It’s nice to have a record of them on the bookshelf.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

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