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Bisons Barnstormers Played Negro League Legends

By: Brian Frank

During the era of segregated baseball, Negro League teams often played games against each other in Buffalo as they crisscrossed the country. But a unique situation occurred following the Bisons’ 1934 season when two of the greatest Negro League teams of all time played a group of Bisons players who’d formed an offseason barnstorming team.

It used to be common for major and minor-league players to barnstorm to make extra money during the offseason. After the Bisons 1934 International League schedule was completed, a group of players stayed in Western New York for a couple weeks to play games and earn extra income. Originally led by catcher Buck Crouse, the barnstormers played some local teams around the area. They also played three games against two of the most storied teams of all time – the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays.

The Bison played one game against the Crawfords at Niagara Falls. The Crawfords had an incredible roster, led by future Baseball Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, and Judy Johnson.

The contest was played at the 24th Street Stadium in Niagara Falls. The stadium was about three-quarters full, with about 700 fans in the stands and approximately an equal group of enthusiastic fans outside the ballpark. The crowd outside could see the action, because, according to the Niagara Falls Gazette, "the canvas was ripped off the fence in many places long before the game started and at its conclusion, was almost all down.”[1]

Johnny Wilson, who went 11-11 with a 4.47 ERA for Buffalo during the regular season, took the mound for the Herd. On the day of the game, the Niagara Falls Gazette reported that Satchel Paige would “likely start tonight’s contest and may work the entire game... .”[2] However, for whatever reason, Paige didn't take the mound that evening – instead, 23-year-old Bert Hunter made the start for the Crawfords.

The stadium had unique dimensions. It had a short fence in right field, with balls that cleared it counting as singles. The Crawfords took advantage of this ground rule early, jumping on Wilson for three runs in the first inning, with three of the hits “being over the right field fence and two of them at least would have been easy outs on a proper diamond.”[3] They picked up another run in the second, “finding little difficulty in solving the assortment of slants being served by Johnny Wilson.”[4]

Bert Hunter fanned fifteen Bisons batters.

Hunter was dominant early on for the Crawfords. He had the Bisons “eating out of his hands” as he was “breaking their backs with his fast breaking curves.”[5] He struck out the side in the second inning and then struck out the first two batters of the third inning. The young right-hander ended up recording 15 strikeouts in the game. The Buffalo Times reported that Hunter “made the Bisons think they were batting against (Detroit Tigers star) Schoolboy Rowe for seven innings.[6]

Wilson settled in and “got better as the game went on but was helped out of two difficult situations by smart double plays.”[7] The Crawfords were able to scratch out another run in the fifth to increase their lead to 5-0.

Hunter took a two-hit shutout into the eighth inning, when a key misplay and a big blast turned the game around for the Bisons. Greg Mulleavy “boosted the ball over the short fence for a single” to lead off the eighth for the Herd.[8] After Marv Olson flew out, Bud Clancy hit what looked like an inning-ending double play when he hit a groundball toward second base, “but Johnson was making the play to first before he had the ball and an easy double play was lost and all runners were safe.”[9] The misplay proved costly as the Bisons continued to rally. Buck Crouse was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Fabian Kowalik then slammed a single to center to bring home two runs and cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 5-2. Dick Gyselman singled to load the bases once again. George Milstead, a pitcher who hit just .063 with no home runs in 48 regular season at bats, “took a toe hold and took a vicious cut at one of Hunter’s speedy slants. He met the ball squarely and it sailed far over the center fielder’s head to clear the fence in the deepest part of center field for a homer.”[10] Milstead’s grand slam capped a remarkable turn of events and gave the Bisons a 6-5 lead.

The mighty Crawfords did not go quietly in the ninth. Hunter started the inning with a leadoff single. The next batter, William Bell, hit into a fielder’s choice. Bell then stole second and advanced to third when Crutchfield hit a single over the fence in short right field.

Sarge Connally, a veteran of twelve big-league seasons, was summoned from the Bisons' bullpen to try to close things out. Connally had no easy task, with runners at the corners and two of the greatest hitters of all time stepping to the plate – Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson.

After Crutchfield stole second to put both the potential tying and winning runs in scoring position, Connally fanned Charleston for the inning’s second out. He was then able to get Gibson to pop out foul to Clancy, “the Bisons first-sacker making a circus catch of the high pop fly” to preserve the Bisons 6-5 win.[11]

Despite the fact Gibson made the final out, his overall play in the game made quite an impression on Western New York baseball fans. The Niagara Falls Gazette heaped praise upon the Crawfords’ young backstop, writing: “The fine receiving of Josh Gibson was one of the outstanding features of the contest. He handled the pitching in fine style and his pegging to the bases was of major league caliber. He tossed out the only would be Bison stealer at second with apparently little effort and also caught Clancy off third although the umpire missed the play and ruled the runner safe.”[12]

Charleston was also credited for his outstanding glove work by the Gazette, who wrote, “Charleston also shone at the initial sack.”[13]

Josh Gibson was impressive against the Herd.

Later that week, the Bisons played the Homestead Grays on back-to-back nights at Bison Stadium – which would be renamed Offermann Stadium the following season. The Grays were led by future Hall of Famers Ray Brown, who pitched and played the outfield, and slugging first baseman Buck Leonard. They were coming off a big win at Bison Stadium, having defeated their rivals, the Kansas City Monarchs, 6-5 during the previous week.

The Bisons Barnstormers lost a key contributor before their series with the Grays, as Buck Crouse had to return home to Indiana. Shortstop Greg Mulleavy and second baseman Marv Olson took Crouse’s place as the new leaders of the team.

The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American newspapers, commented on the Grays series with the Buffalo barnstormers, writing: “Interest in these two games is nation wide because of the high-class brand of baseball that is played by these two clubs. The Grays rank among the peers of colored baseball and the Buffalo entrant in the International League have proven themselves exponents of heady baseball play and their team is supposedly of major league caliber.” They added, “At any note, it will be interesting to watch who will come out the victors in this series.”[14]

About 2,200 fans showed up the first night, to watch what W.S. Coughlin of the Courier-Express described as “a rousing baseball show” and “a nip-and-tuck duel fought with diversified action.”[15]

Buffalo sent Fabian Kowalik to the mound. He led the team in wins during the regular season, going 18-14 with a 4.17 ERA. He faced Joe Strong, a 31-year-old right-hander, who pitched for numerous Negro League teams during his career.

The Grays fielded the following lineup in the first game of the series: Pat Patterson, second base; Harry Williams, shortstop; Buck Leonard, first base; Jim Williams, right field; Ray Brown, left field; Jabbo Andrews, center field; Joe Strong, pitcher; and Tex Burnett, catcher.

The box score shows that the Bisons patched together a hodge-podge lineup. Notably absent from the Bisons regular season squad were any of the team's outfielders – including Ollie Carnegie, Ollie Tucker, Ray Fitzgerald, and Frank McGowan, none of whom took part in any of the barnstorming tour. So the barnstormers had three pitchers playing the outfield, including George Milstead – fresh off his grand slam against the Crawfords – in center field. He was flanked by Edward Honeck in left and Sarge Connaly in right. The infield had Olson and Mulleavy up the middle, with Gyselman at third, Clancy at first, and Link Wasem behind the plate.

The Grays used three hits, including an RBI single by Brown to score a run in the first inning. The Bisons answered back by scoring two runs in their first at bat. The big blows for the Herd were a one-out triple by Olson, an infield single by Gyselman, and a double by red-hot Milstead.

Jim Williams helped the Grays tie the game in the fourth inning, when he doubled, advanced to third on a fly ball, and scored on a groundout.

Kowalik surrendered two runs on five hits through five innings, when he switched places with Milstead – with Kowalik moving to center field and Milstead, the hero in Buffalo’s win over the Crawfords, coming in to pitch.

George Milstead came up big for the barnstormers.

Milstead played the hero’s role once again. He “completely baffled the Smoky City club” over the final four frames.[16] His “sweeping curve ball” flummoxed the opposing batters.[17] The only runner to reach base against him was a “scratch hit when Gyselman scooped up Patterson’s slow roller and plunked the runner in the ribs with the ball.”[18] The Bisons lefty retired 12 of the 13 batters he faced and didn’t allow a ball to leave the infield.

Not only did Milstead shut down the Grays bats, but he continued his blistering hitting. He tripled in the sixth for his second extra-base hit of the game, and then came around to score on Wasem’s double to put the Herd in front 3-2.

Buffalo scratched out an insurance run in the seventh. Mulleavy and Olson singled to start the inning and Gyselman sacrificed each up a base. Strong then handed the ball to southpaw Willie Gisentaner. The first batter he faced, Bud Clancy, hit a fly ball to center that brought home Mulleavy. Gisentaner then retired Milstead to end the inning.

Milstead “climaxed his stylish performance” by striking out the side in the ninth, fanning Jim Williams, Ray Brown, and pinch-hitter Johnson to end the game.[19]

The Buffalo Evening News called the contest “one of the best struggles here in a month”.[20] The Courier-Express noted that “Sensational field plays abounded as the Bisons outhit their rivals thirteen to six but had lots of difficulty in scoring, partially because of two rattling double plays engineered by the visitors.”[21]

Milstead once again led the Herd to victory. He not only fired four shutout innings, allowing only one infield hit while striking out five, but he also tripled, doubled, had an RBI, and scored a run. Grays right fielder Jim Williams starred for the visitors, cracking two hits, including a double. Williams also “negotiated the feature defensive play of the evening by leaping high against the right field fence to make a leaping, gloved hand stab of a ferocious drive that looked sure to net Bud Clancy at least two bases.”[22]

The next night, the Bisons sent Johnny Wilson back to the mound, fresh off tossing 8 1/3 innings against the Crawfords just three days earlier. The Grays countered with future Baseball Hall of Famer Ray Brown, and a similar lineup to the night before – with the exception of Rynd replacing Brown in left field and Brown dropping to eighth in the order on an evening he was pitching. The Bisons lineup was also similar to the first game, with Kowalik replacing Honeck in left field.

After falling in the first game, the Grays bounced back to give the Bisons barnstormers a “choice shellacking” as their ace, Ray Brown, “twirled invincible baseball.”[23]

The Grays got three hits off Wilson in the first inning, including a solo home run by all-time great Buck Leonard to take a 1-0 lead. Brown took a little while to find his control, walking three Bisons batters in the first, but he ended up striking out three batters to escape the inning unscathed.

Wilson “proved no enigma” to the Grays, as they increased their lead in the third inning, capitalizing on two errors by shortstop Greg Mulleavy.[24] Leonard once again had the big hit in the frame with a two-run triple. By the time the dust had settled in the third, the Grays led 4-0. That spelled the end of Wilson, as Eddie Honeck, a “Williamsville lad,” pitched the rest of the game for the Herd, allowing another run on six hits and four walks, while striking out five.

Ray Brown mesmerized Bisons batters.

The story of the game was Brown, who showed why he's one of the greatest pitchers in the game’s history. He retired 18 of the final 19 batters he faced, with a walk in the sixth being the only glitch on his record during that period. W.S. Coughlin noted that the Bisons “pried just two meek singles” off Brown and that he “was a complete mystery to the local hitsmiths.”[25] Frank Wakefield wrote in the Buffalo Evening News that Brown displayed “a blazing fastball and a nice curve” and “twirled superb ball”.[26] Brown ended up firing a complete game, allowing just two hits while walking four and striking out eleven in the Grays 5-0 win.

However, Brown wasn’t the only shining star for the Grays, as fellow future Hall of Famer Buck Leonard also had a big day, finishing 2-for-3 with a home run, triple, and three RBI. Grays second baseman Pat Patterson had two doubles and an RBI, and center fielder Jabbo Andrews chipped in with three singles.

Buck Leonard had a big day at the plate.

Despite falling to Brown and the Grays in the final game of their three games against Negro League opponents, the Bisons barnstormers had to be satisfied with the fact they’d managed to take two out of three against two of the most storied teams and some of the greatest players of all time.

More important than the scores was the fact that the games were even played. At a time when major- and minor-league baseball were still observing the reprehensible color barrier, a group of Bisons players played against teams made up of black players – and in so doing, played against some of the greatest players of all time, adding another incredible chapter to the history of Buffalo baseball.

[1] Mike Quinlan, “Buffalo Bisons Rally in Eighth to Beat Pittsburgh Team by 6-5; Milstead Homers with Bases Full,” Niagara Falls Gazette, September 12, 1934. [2] “Buffalo Bisons Barnstormers to Meet Pittsburgh Colored Squad at 24th Street Stadium at 5:30,” Niagara Falls Gazette, September 11, 1934. [3] Quinlan. [4] Quinlan. [5] “Bisons Defeat Crawfords at Niagara Falls,” Buffalo Courier-Express, September 12, 1934. [6] “Bisons Defeat Crawfords…”. [7] Quinlan. [8] Quinlan. [9] Quinlan. [10] Quinlan. [11] Quinlan. [12] Quinlan. [13] Quinlan. [14] “Grays Top Kay Sees; To Play Buffalo,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 15, 1934. [15] W.S. Coughlin, “Bisons Score Over Grays in Exciting Duel,” Buffalo Courier-Express, September 14, 1934. [16] Frank Wakefield, “Herd Makes Final Bow Here Tonight,” Buffalo Evening News, September 14, 1934. [17] Wakefield. [18] Wakefield. [19] Wakefield. [20] Wakefield. [21] Coughlin. [22] Coughlin. [23] W.S. Coughlin, “Brown Twirls Great Ball to Blank Bisons,” Buffalo Courier-Express, September 15, 1934. [24] Frank Wakefield, “Carnegie Second Driving in Runs,” Buffalo Evening News, September 15, 1934. [25] Coughlin, “Brown Twirls Great Ball to Blank Bisons”. [26] Wakefield, “Carnegie Second Driving in Runs”.


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