There Used To Be A Ballpark

added 5/31/2008 by Gene Elston

She was 33 years old when she died in 1961. Still, thoughts remain in the minds and hearts of the many thousands of die-hard fans that passed through her turnstiles.

It was 1928 when she replaced her antiqued predecessor and became one of the finest plants in the minor leagues. She was tabbed Buffalo Stadium and thus the beginning of the Houston Buffaloes, so named after Houston's Buffalo Bayou. Moving aside in this shining hour of the Texas League was West Side Park, Houston's home base downtown, a park that seated a mere 4,000 in an unfenced area and still showing ravages of an August 15, 1915 hurricane that hit both Houston and Galveston forcing both teams to play their remaining games in Austin, Brenham and Corpus Christi. The exact location of West Side Park is not known to me but it was believed to be on Andrews Avenue somewhere East of the Fourth Ward.

The St.Louis Cardinals acquired majority interest in the Houston franchise in 1925 to add to their growing farm system and three years later opened Buffalo Stadium on a tract of land on St. Bernard Street (now Cullen Boulevard) next to the old interurban tracks (which later became the Gulf Freeway). It was built at a cost of $400,000 with a seating capacity of 14,000. The opening day dedication was honored by the attendance of baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Following the ballpark's completion Cardinals' General Manager Branch Rickey was quoted, "When I built that stadium, people were saying I built it too far out of town."

The entrance to Buff Stadium in 1928.

There were to be many fun days at Buff Stadium, a park that possessed a charm rarely found in major league facilities at the time. Where else could you find the aroma of fresh bread drifting in from the bakery on the wings of the southeast winds? Or the sound of train whistles that periodically filled the background as trains passed behind the outfield fences, fences that helped make it a pitchers' park (344 to left, 434 to center, 323 to right and fences that were 12 feet high)? The Spanish-style entrance was a show-place in itself, topped with a tile roof above the ticket windows and turnstiles, with offices above, ringed with a myriad of plaques, each with a buffalo figure in a row ringing the whole facade. In 1953, after August Busch bought the Cardinals, the park was renamed Busch Stadium however many fans persisted in calling it Buff Stadium. It was at this time the fences were moved in 20 feet closer to home plate.

Baseball in Texas first surfaced in the early Civil War years of the 1860s and on April 21, 1867 one of the first games played showed the flavor of that conflict when the Stonewalls of Houston engaged the R.E. Lees of Galveston. The first Texas League season was played in 1888 and Houston (then known as the Babies) racked up a first-place finish in 1889. The league did not operate in 1891 but resumed play in 1892 with Houston taking their second pennant. There was another period when the Texas League did not operate (1893 and 1894) but started up again in 1895. Once again the league went on a three-year hiatus (1900-1902). Houston joined the South Texas League in 1903 in a four team circuit (San Antonio, Galveston and Beaumont) under new owner Claude Rielly who renamed his team "The Wanderers" (though he preferred the team to be called "Rielly's Wanderers"). He would own the Houston franchise for six years, winning pennants in 1905 and 1906. Even though Rielly owned the team through 1908, the team became better known as "Moore's Marvels" because of the popularity of their catcher/manager Wade Moore. By 1907, the South Texas League was gone and Houston was back in the newly formed eight-team Texas League with their old Class-C rating. In 1911, their classifications began to show the leagues popularity with a rise to Class B, Class A1 in 1936 and Class AA in 1946.

"Rielly's Wanderers", 1904.

In 1909, the Houston team won its first pennant since 1906 racking up their fifth flag in Texas League history. First place finishes followed in 1912, 1913 and 1914. The war years would cause playing problems with only six teams representing the league in 1918 during World War I (Dallas, Fort Worth, Waco, San Antonio, Shreveport and Houston) playing about an 80 game schedule and closing down completely during World War II (1943-1945).

Between wars, Houston would open play in their new stadium and win their first pennant since 1914. The year was 1928 and it was a banner year for the Buffs, also winning the playoffs and taking the Dixie Series. It wasn't an easy season for the Buffs in spite of their 104 wins, as Wichita Falls also won 104 games. Houston would win again in 1931, 1932, 1933, 1939 and 1940.

Following the war, Houston led the league in attendance in eight of their twelve final seasons with a high of 401,383 in 1948. During that period the Buffs finished first in 1947, 1951 and 1956 and won the playoffs in 1947, 1951, 1954, 1956 and 1957. Going back in history (beginning in 1889, their second season in the league), Houston finished in first place a total of seventeen times and won four of their eight appearances in the Dixie Series against the Southern Association.

Future stars dot the 1931 roster.

1958 would be Houston's final season in the Texas League and they were moved to the Class AAA American Association by their new owners who had purchased the Buffs after the exit of the Cardinals following their 33-year ownership. In late 1960, the Houston Sports Association was awarded their franchise in the National League and, in 1961 after much negotiation with the new owners, purchased the Buffs franchise to clear the way for the Colt .45s, who began play in 1962. With the arrival of the majors, Houston brass rendered Buff Stadium useless and began construction of Colt Stadium for usage until the Domed Stadium was completed. This move allowed the Houston Buffs to live another season in 1961.

The Buffs finished fourth in the American Association 13 games behind Indianapolis with a record of 73-77 but defeated the Indians in the first round of the playoffs four games to one before losing to Louisville in the league championship series - four games to two. The farewell game in the minor leagues was played in Busch (Buff) Stadium on August 28, 1961 with a season attendance of 120,104. Before the year ended, she would be torn down and replaced by a multi-million dollar shopping and office complex developed by Aaron Finger the head of the group of investors owning the land. The remains were sold at auction for $19,750 with A.W. George, owner of Wood George & Company making the final bid. At first, the auctioneer had offered separate pieces of the remains to some 75 bidders and on-lookers gathered at the Rice Hotel for the stadium's last rites. The total amount bid for the individual pieces was only $18,805 and, at this point, the auctioneer withdrew all original bids and placed the total package up for auction with bidding to begin at $19,750. A.W.George, the salvage dealer, made the only bid and Buffalo Stadium's demise was at hand.

The field and fence in later years.

History allows us to occasionally turn back the pages of time - and baseball is second-to-none in giving us what became our National Pastime - the wealth of information from the game's very infancy. I have used these sources to fit into this story to highlight some of those players over the period of the stadium's lifetime in the Texas League.

The first player of note to represent Houston in pro ball was a native Texan, born in Hubbard City, the same year the Texas League began play in 1888. As an 18-year old, he began his professional baseball career with Cleburne in the North Texas League and one year later was the batting champion of the Texas League with Houston in 1907 - hitting .314. At season's end he was purchased by the Boston Red Sox to begin the first of his 22-years in the majors. This youngster was Tris Speaker who topped off his career entering the Hall of Fame in 1937.

He is not the only Houston player to enter the Hall - Jim Bottomley played for the Texas League Houston franchise in 1921 and Chick Hafey for Houston in 1924. Both played for Houston before the team was the Buffs or Buffaloes prior to 1928. Two others made the Hall of Fame - Joe Medwick (1931-32) and Dizzy Dean (1930-31).

Many others moved on to the majors - I'll drop in a few names - Pepper Martin, Gus Mancuso, Danny Murtaugh, Carey Self, Ken Boyer, Homer Peel, Harry Brecheen, Murry Dickson, Bill Hallahan, Vinegar Bend Mizell, Red Munger, Fred Martin, Al Papai, Solly Hemus, Ted Wilks, Howie Pollet, Jerry Witte, Howie Krist, Cloyd Boyer, Hal Epps, Clarence Beers, Jack Creel, Heinie Schuble, Wally Watkins, Don Bollweg, Jim Lindsey, George Payne, John Grodzicki, Johnny Bucha and others. Also to be remembered are managers Eddie Dyer, Johnny Keane, Al Hollingsworth, Dixie Walker and Harry Walker as well as presidents Fred Ankenman and Allen Russell.

As minor league baseball began to flood the nation back in the late 1800s the major leagues continued to scan the rosters for talent as they continue to do today. The best of the competitors would eventually reach the top - most of them would not gain that plateau. However, millions of fans in cities big and small across the country were given the opportunity to experience the thrills and fun the minor leagues gave to the nation. In those early days, baseball players were not held in high repute. Yet one newspaper in a minor league city constantly reported both the game and the players in a most positive fashion. In the spring of 1888 when the Texas League took root, the Dallas News reported:

"The organization of the Texas League has had the effect of attracting first-class players from various parts of the country, and if properly conducted, as it doubtless will be, the sport will prove healthful to the youth of the land. The game is wholesome and manly barring occasional disfiguration of faces and fingers, and even the patrons who attend must feel its effect. A good baseball player must need be a lusty, swarthy, sinewy specimen of manhood; agile, elastic, of well-knit frame and thorough physical development. The sport is exhilarating, if not always exciting, and the exercise resultant is a lesson of physical upbuilding."

Gene Elston is the former play-by-play voice of the Houston Colt .45s and Houston Astros (1962-1986) and the 2006 recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award given by the Baseball Hall of Fame. For more of Gene's remembrances and historical perspectives, visit Gene Elston's Journal.