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The 1950s

Untitled Document
Bisons History: The 1950s

1950 (Int.)

Record: 56-97 - .366 (8)
Mgr. - Frank Skaff, Ray Schalk

PENTHOUSE TO OUTHOUSE

No Buffalo baseball team has ever dropped from first to eighth in one season - except for "The Boys of 1950." The fall in the standings was matched by an equally unprecedented nosedive at the box office. From the record high of 393,843, attendance fell to 96,237, the lowest ever for a Buffalo International League club. (Note: no attendance records are available for 1916 through 1919.)

The ill-starred Bisons fell into the cellar on April 30, never to emerge. New Manager Frank Skaff, ex-Baltimore slugger, tried his best, but as with Jim Cooney in '31 and Greg Mulleavy in '43, his task was hopeless. On June 15 with the team at 16-32, Skaff was fired. He was replaced by Ray Schalk, who came out of baseball retirement as a favor to his old friend, Marvin Jacobs, the majority stockholder. The team improved somewhat under Schalk, winning 40 and losing 65.

First baseman Hank Biasetti (18 home runs), Coaker Triplett (.337 in 76 games), Gene Markland (.298) and shortstop Al Stringer (.303) were the hitters of note. Reliever Alex Carrasquel, Venezuelan veteran, was the only pitcher over .500 and he was just 6-3.

The most unusual of the Bison losses occurred on May 7 when umpire Gallin declared Baltimore the winner after five innings when Buffalo fans continued to litter the field with hot chocolate cans. It was a cold day and the Bisons were losing. Few, if any, in the sparse crowd shed tears of disappointment at their early departure.

1951 (Int.)

Record: 79-75 - .513 (4)
Mgr. - George Toporcer, Coaker Triplett

TRAGEDY

George (Specs) Toporcer, former Rochester manager and the first non-pitcher to wear glasses in the major leagues, was chosen by Marvin Jacobs to pick up the pieces. The second place position of the Bisons on Aug. 1 showed the choice was a good one.

Late in July, while coaching at third, Toporcer sent a runner home, only to see him thrown out by 15 feet. Within a few days, his baseball career was over. An eye ailment that was to cost him his sight had advanced to the point where he could no longer manage. He had been in baseball since 1921 as player, manager and executive. Now he was to begin a new career as writer, speaker and inspiration to everyone with impaired vision.

Herman (Coaker) Triplett, veteran leftfielder and pinch-hitter extraordinary, replaced Toporcer. He guided the team to a fourth place finish, but it was obvious that something was missing. The Bisons bowed out quietly in the play-offs, losing to Montreal, 4-0.

Archie Wilson continued the Buffalo tradition in left field. The New York Yankee farmhand batted .316, hit 28 home runs, 39 doubles and had 112 RBIs; then became the fourth Bison (after McGowan, Carnegie and Hutchinson) to win the MVP award. Centerfielder Wally Post, almost a carbon copy of Johnny Groth (he had his power and howitzer arm, but not his antelope speed and gracefulness), batted .306 and hit 21 home runs. Rudy Minarcin, a young righthander, sent to Buffalo by Cincinnati with whom the Bisons were now working, impressed with a 16-12 performance.

On Nov. 15 the Jacobs Brothers sold the Buffalo Baseball Club to the Detroit Tigers for $100,000. It was a sale of the franchise only and did not include Offermann Stadium, which was owned by the Jacobs-controlled Ferry-Woodlawn Realty Corp. The contract contained a reservation giving Buffalo interests a right of first refusal in the event Detroit sold the franchise at some future time. This clause was to become important a few years later. Thus, for the second time in its history (See: Joseph J. Lannin, 1916-1920) an absentee owner was in control.

1952 (Int.)

Record. 71-83 - .461 (5)
Mgr. - Jack Tighe, Schoolboy Rowe

NEW BROOM

The sale of the Bisons brought to light financial facts that were shocking, to say the least. The Buffalo club was on the verge of bankruptcy. Included in the debts of $326,000 were obligations of $78,000 to Sportservice Corp. and $90,000 to Ferry-Woodlawn Realty Corp., both Jacobs Brothers subsidiaries. As was their custom, Marvin and Louis Jacobs remained in the background. All statements came from Treasurer Lew Horschel. General Manager Leo T. Miller had not even been told of the impending sale. Oblivious to what was going on, he had finalized a new working agreement with Cincinnati and had acquired Chuck Harmon, a black player of great promise, who had been with Olean. If the Bisons had not been sold, Harmon, not Luke Easter, would have been Buffalo's first black player of the modern era.

The '52 Bisons, under Jack Tighe, a veteran of the Tigers' minor league system, were a team of some talent. They led the league in home runs (115), fielded a crisp .971 (with 149 double plays), and boasted the league's leading hitter in leftfielder Frank Carswell (.344). Carswell, a gimpy ex-Marine, also had 101 RBIs and led the league in home runs (30).

The team had no dominating pitcher (Milt Jordan at 12-9 had the best record); however, righthander Dick Marlowe made history at Baltimore on Aug. 15 when he retired 27 Orioles in a row. It was only the second perfect game (nine innings) in league history. (Chet Carmichael, also a Bison, had pitched the first on Aug. 10, 1910.) Announcer Bill Mazer, who was recreating the game via Western Union, could not stand the suspense, looked ahead on his tape and screamed: "It's a perfect game! It's a perfect game!"

The club doctor was busy, performing appendectomies on pitcher Wayne McLeland, third baseman Eddie Kazak and manager Jack Tighe. In Tighe's absence, Schoolboy Rowe managed the club.

The fifth place finish and the attendance (152,173) were disappointing. As a consequence, General Manager O.W. (Bill) Hayes felt the axe at the end of the season. This bright and enthusiastic young man had come to Buffalo from Temple, Tex., where he had been Minor League Executive of the Year for the lower minors. Replacing him was Joe Ziegler, a veteran of the Dodger organization.

1953 (Int.)

Record: 86-65 - .572 (3)
Mgr. - Jack Tighe

DID HE SPIT OR DID HE SPLUTTER?

On Aug. 8 at Offermann Stadium, Manager Tighe became embroiled in a violent argument with umpire Max Felerski over a ball hit by Frank Carswell. Tighe claimed it was a home run; Felerski said it was a double. In his report to the league, the umpire charged that Tighe had threatened to spit in his face, then, in fact, had spit in his face. Tighe was immediately suspended, but only after vehemently denying the charge. Said Tighe, "I didn't spit; I only spluttered." With Tighe facing a possible one-year suspension, General Manager Joe Ziegler suggested Tighe undergo a lie detector test. He agreed. The test took place, with much hoopla, at police headquarters, with Tighe and several players, including Carswell, taking part. The verdict of the machine: Not guilty! Almost at once, league President Frank Shaughnessy lifted the suspension, then slapped Tighe on the wrist with a $100 fine.

It was a recovery year for the Bisons. They won 86 games and finished third; but, just as in '51, they lost to Montreal in the first round of the play-offs - this time, 4-2. Jack Wallaesa (acquired from Springfield) surprised everyone by hitting 36 home runs. It was the one big hitting year of his career. The improvement in the team was reflected at the box office. Attendance improved sharply to 268,086.

Brightest star of the Bisons, apart from Wallaesa, was Frank Lary, a hard-throwing righthander from Alabama. His 17-11 record portended his long major league career that was to include two 20-game winning seasons and a propensity for beating the Yankees. Frank Carswell (323 and 23 home runs) again was the team's best hitter.

1954 (Int.)

Record: 71-83 - .461 (6)
Mgr. - Billy Hitchcock

NEAR MISS FOR LARY

On Aug. 27 Frank Lary retired 26 consecutive Toronto batters, only to see the 27th, ex-Bison Archie Wilson, hit a single through the box to spoil what would have been the league's third perfect game, all by Buffalo pitchers.

Under new Bison Manager Billy Hitchcock (Tighe was now a Detroit coach), the Bisons did some notable things in addition to Lary's near miss. On May 5 shortstop Sammy Meeks had five hits in five at bats. They won "Comeback of the Year" honors on July 31, when, trailing Richmond by 10 runs after four innings, they rallied late to win, 14-10. On Aug. 12 they hit seven home runs in one game against Rochester, including three by centerfielder Chick King. In a late-season game at Montreal, first baseman Harvey Zernia had 21 putouts to tie a league record held by two ex-Bisons, Del Bissonette and Gene Corbett.

Despite the occasional heroics, the Bisons finished an uninspired sixth, while the fans stayed away in droves (120,621). Exit: Manager Hitchcock and General Manager Ziegler. Enter: Manager Danny Carnevale and General Manager Hillman Lyons.

1955 (Int.)

Record: 65.89 - .422 (6)
Mgr. - Danny Carnevale

"THE HELL OF IT IS, THEY AIN'T HITTING"
(Joe Cantillon, old-time manager)

Buffalo boy Danny Carnevale, a Bison in '38 and '40 and a highly successful manager in the lower minors, had the bad luck to become skipper at a time when the Detroit farm system was bereft of talent. Of the 39 players he managed, only Jim Bunning achieved success in the majors.

The team was dead last in hitting (.249) and had only two players with any power at all - third baseman Steve Demeter (17 home runs) and veteran first baseman Charley Kress (19 home runs). There was not one .300 hitter (Chick King led with .295), and only one pitcher of attainment - Ben Flowers (12-9 with an ERA of 2.24).

A tough trivia question would be: Name a baseball team that had two catchers whose names begin with "Y"? Answer: The '55 Bisons, who had Tom Yewcic (also a professional football player) and Sal Yvars. The latter could also be the central figure in another trivia question. Who, in the last inning of the sixth game of the 1951 World Series, hit the low line-drive on which Hank Bauer of the Yankees made the sensational shoe-string catch to stop the Giants? Sal Yvars, of course.

By late August and with attendance dwindling, rumors of a Detroit pullout abounded. Shortly after the end of the season, the other shoe dropped. The Tigers said they were folding the franchise and that no buyers were in sight. It appeared that baseball in Buffalo was dead. But, as in 1918, the reports of its death proved to be greatly exaggerated.

1956 (Int.)

Record: 64-87 - .424 (8)
Mgr. - Phil Cavarrella

COMMUNITY OWNERSHIP

Taking advantage of the "first refusal" clause in the 1951 agreement between the Tigers and Jacobs Brothers, veteran minor league executive John Stiglmeier, along with Harry Bisgeier and Buffalo Evening News sports editor Bob Stedler, spearheaded a drive to sell stock to the general public for the purpose of buying the franchise. The campaign succeeded, but only because Lou Jacobs and other wealthy citizens came up with substantial investments, and Buffalo baseball once more was saved.

Phil Cavarretta, a Chicago Cub institution since 1934 and the only manager ever to be fired in spring training (Cubs, 1954), was given the Herculean task of converting a nondescript crew of veterans and youngsters into a representative Triple-A club. He did not succeed (the team finished last); but he did not fail, either. Despite a paucity of talent, the team played a competitive, never-give-up kind of baseball. The fans rallied behind them, cheering long flies and even strikeouts. It was the New York Mets syndrome, in advance. "Can't anyone around here play this game?"

First baseman Luke Easter, Buffalo's first black player since Frank Grant in 1888, almost immediately became a local hero. He was the ideal man for the situation, with his outgoing personality, his charisma, and his ability to hit the long ball. He batted .306 and led the league in home runs (35) and in RBIs (106). Additional home run power was supplied by second baseman Lou Ortiz (25) and third baseman Bill Serena (24). Fleet Joe Caffie was the team's leading hitter at .311.

Pitching was a problem. Only Karl Drews (13-11) and Larry Donovan (11-10) were at all dependable. Surprisingly, the team fielded .978, highest ever in Buffalo baseball history.

A dividend for stockholders at the end of the year? Not quite - attendance improved to 186,811, but the books showed a loss from operations of exactly $36.

1957 (Int.)

Record: 88-66 - .571 (2)
Mgr. - Phil Cavarretta

CINDERELLA STORY

Second place, one-half game out of first, with the issue not decided until the final day; victories over Richmond and Miami in the play-offs; almost record-breaking attendance of 386,071 - that was the Cinderella story of the second year of community ownership. But again, as in '27, '33 and '36, the clock struck 12 in the Little World Series, as the Bisons lost to the awesome Denver Bears of Ralph Houk, 4-1.

The last failure notwithstanding, there was sufficient glory to be spread among President Reginald B. Taylor, Executive Vice-President John C. Stiglmeier, Vice-President Harry Bisgeier (all of whom worked without salary), General Manager Dan Carnevale, Promotions Director Don Labbruzzo and, of course, Manager Phil Cavarretta.

On the field Luke Easter again dominated. He batted just .279, but led the league in home runs (40) and in RBIs (128). On the warm, hazy evening of June 14, off lefty Bob Kuzava of the Columbus Jets, Easter became the first batter ever to hit a ball over the center-field scoreboard at Offermann Stadium - a feat he was to duplicate later in the year.

Another league-leader was rightfielder Joe Caffie, who batted .330. Shortstop Mike Baxes, who, on Aug. 4 against Havana, hit two grand slam home runs, a double and a single, and had 10 RBIs, won the league's MVP award. Walter Craddock, the team's best lefty since Al Smith in '39, was 18-8 and was voted International League Rookie of the Year. Colorful and popular Glenn Cox was 12-5 and was the winning pitcher in Buffalo's only victory over Denver. In three successive appearances (May 26 and 31 and June 5), he hit five home runs (two in succession on May 31), a double and a single, and drove in 10 runs.

1958 (Int.)

Record: 69-83 - .454 (7)
Mgr. - Phil Cavarretta

HALF-MILLION-DOLLAR FRANCHISE

At the annual meeting held in March, Treasurer Frank Cannon told the stockholders their club was worth $500,000. The directors then voted a 10 cents a share dividend - the first (and last) the club was to pay. John C. Stiglmeier, now the president (R.B. Taylor had become chairman of the board), predicted major league baseball for Buffalo, and then introduced the new general manager, Donald V. Labbruzzo. (Dan Carnevale had left after a rift with Stiglmeier.)

The euphoria of '57 soon faded. Rumblings in the front office were but one symptom. The Bisons were scheduled to open in Havana, then deep in the turmoil of the Castro revolution. At first, the Buffalo players refused to board the plane, but finally did so upon assurances from league President Frank Shaughnessy. Said infielder Pete Castiglione, "There is not one man going on this trip who is happy about it."

There were many lineup changes through the year, and the team never seemed to settle into a winning groove. Winning 19 games fewer than in '57, it dropped, disappointingly, from second to seventh. Luke Easter remained the team's constant. He raised his average to .307 and led the team in home runs (38) and in RBIs (109). Baseball's only Filipino, Bobby Balcena, acquired late in the year, impressed with his hustle and sharp hitting. Ray Noble, the burly Cuban catcher who had hit 21 home runs in '57, came back with 20. Good hitting-pitcher Glenn Cox (16-9) added seven home runs, giving him 14 in two seasons. Lefty Buddy Lee Daley had a record of just 4-6, but was brilliant in every appearance, as is shown by his ERA of 1.58.

Despite their seventh place finish and a drop in attendance to 286,480, the Bisons still outdrew every other team in the league.

1959 (Int.)

Record: 89-64 - .582 (1)
Mgr. - Kerby Farrell

GOOD-BYE, LUKE

The first problem that faced new Manager Kerby Farrell was what to do about Luke Easter. The Buffalo legend was off to a terrible start at bat and was immobile in the field. Behind him was young Francisco Herrera, one of the bright prospects of the Philadelphia Phillies, with whom the Bisons were working. To accommodate Easter, Herrera was tried at second and third, but these experiments failed. On May 14 Buffalo fans were shocked to learn that Easter had been released. He took the news graciously by paying a nice tribute to Buffalo and its fans. In a few days he signed with Rochester, where he was to play and coach for several more years and to become as popular as he had been in Buffalo.

Herrera took Farrell and G.M. Don Labbruzzo off the hot seat by more than filling Easter's shoes. He batted .329, hit 37 home runs, had 128 RBIs, became the only Buffalo player ever to win the triple crown (led league in average, home runs and RBIs), and then won the league's MVP award.

The Bisons, under Farrell's no-nonsense leadership, were solid all year and won the pennant by 5½ games over Columbus. Ruben Amaro was brilliant at shortstop; infielder Bobby Morgan hit 21 home runs, as did strong-armed centerfielder Bobby Del Greco. No Buffalo pitcher, oddly, won more than 13 games. Lefty Ken Lehman was 13-8, Henry Mason 12-3 and Dallas Green (now president of the Chicago Cubs) was 9-5, with an ERA of 2.94.

Following the example of the '49 champions, the '59 Bisons flopped in the playoffs, losing 4-1 in the first round to third-place Richmond. That was the bad news. The good news was that the Bisons drew 413,263 fans, highest in all the minors and the best ever for a Buffalo team.