By: Brian Frank
Dave Gallagher starred for the Bisons when they were in the Double-A Eastern League in 1983. When he looks back at his time in Buffalo, the memories come flooding back. “When I got to Buffalo, I felt for the first time that I was a professional baseball player and I think the entire roster felt that way,” Gallagher said in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “We were treated professionally by that organization and by the Rich family."
“I just loved the way everything was run,” he continued. “I felt like a professional. I felt like I had earned something with my talent and all the work that I’d put in for the first time there. In fact, sad to say, but back then the Cleveland Indians at the major-league level, were often referred to as a minor-league team – and it was kind of like, man, if it wasn't for the difference in money – how you got paid – I might rather play there than in the big leagues. It was that good. That was pretty special.”
Gallagher remembers War Memorial Stadium fondly. He believes the ballpark, affectionately nicknamed ‘The Rockpile,’ contributed to making him a better hitter due to its unique dimensions.
“I loved it,” Gallagher said of the Bisons former home ballpark. “I loved the history behind it. And even though the stadium itself with the short right-field porch that was inviting to all hitters, not just lefties – when I look back at it, I really think that changed my career as a hitter.”
Gallagher at the Rockpile in 1983 with the inviting right-field wall in the background.
The combination of the inviting right-field fence and a speedy baserunner ahead of him in the lineup helped Gallagher learn to to hit the ball to the opposite field. Bisons leadoff batter Dwight Taylor stole a team record 95 bases that summer.
“I batted second behind him,” Gallagher said of Taylor. “He was almost a guaranty to steal second and third. I had to let him do that. I wanted to let him do that, so I would take a lot of pitches. Sometimes they would pitch out once or even twice, so I would get ahead in the count. I was always willing to take a strike, sometimes two strikes, to let him steal those bases. And then often, he'd be on second with nobody out to lead off the game, or leading off an inning and my job was to get him over to third. So I had a choice, I could bunt him over or I could try to drive a ball to the right side. When I look back, having to see a lot of pitches, having to hit the ball to the right side, meaning I see pitches longer, it allowed me to lay off of off-speed pitches.”
“My demise was the slider,” he continued, “and that's probably the first time that I put those things together that when I tried to go to the right side, I actually see the pitch – I don't know how far, maybe it's several feet longer – and I'm able to recognize a slider as being a slider number one, as opposed to what my brain and my eyes are saying that it's a fastball. So I actually see it start to turn and then lay off it when it's out of the zone.”
He credits his improved walk to strikeout ratio in 1983 to his new approach. The season before he played in Buffalo, he had 46 walks and 65 strikeouts (split between Single-A Waterloo and Double-A Chattanooga). In Buffalo, he improved to 83 walks and a mere 21 strikeouts. “I think that was critical that year,” he said, “as a number two hitter that's trying to get the job done – moving guys over taking a lot of pitches – but also table setting for the guy hitting behind me and Dwight. That made me a better offensive player. It helped me define who I need to be.”
Gallagher's Buffalo memories include watching the Butcher ham it up while fielding balls off the screen behind home plate. “I remember Butcher catching the foul balls. My wife, who does not like baseball, loved going to games in Buffalo with the cheerleaders (the Bisonnettes) and the Butcher and all the things between innings. It was just a fun place to go. I loved it."
He also recalls the generosity of former Bisons super fan Frank "Fremo" Valone. "We had Fremo’s – the wing place (Valone owned Merlin’s Pub on Elmwood Avenue.) He would have us there every homestand and he would never take any money from us.”
Gallagher's season with the Herd was also memorable in the Queen City because The Natural was filming at the stadium and other locations throughout Buffalo and Western New York that summer. Bisons players began to hear rumors early in the season that they may be used as extras in the movie, which starred Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Robert Duval, and Kim Basinger, among others.
“That was the plan, but the film crew didn't realize that they could only film while we were on the road,” Gallagher remembered. “That was the only way that the stadium would be vacant – and once they understood that – I think they used Joe Charboneau (who played 11 games for the Herd in 1983) and Chris Rehbaum (a Buffalo native, St. Joe’s graduate, and former Batavia Trojan). Rehbaum got a great part. He was the pitcher. He was actually an outfielder, but he was a left-handed pitcher in that movie, and Charboneau also had a huge part in the film.”
Although they didn't appear in the movie, Bisons players were able to watch some of the filming that took place at the stadium and see some of Hollywood's biggest stars.
“There was a time when they allowed us to go way up in the seats and watch some of the filming. We just had to be really quiet and if we wanted to, we could go up in the seats way up in the top and just watch – which I did,” Gallagher said.
He was struck by how small Redford looked on the field. “I just remember thinking, wow, he's a tiny man,” Gallagher recalled. “I had no idea. Because I'm sure in the movies that he was in they probably made the people around him and whatever they needed to do to make him look like a decent sized guy. He was little, he was athletic, his swing looked pretty good.”
Even though he had a smooth stroke, a little Hollywood magic was still used to transform Redford into slugger Roy Hobbs. “What they would do is – he'd swing, the ball would leave his bat, and then they would stick a ball in a cannon and shoot it out and they would film the flight of the ball. And while we were watching they had it cranked up too far – too high, I guess – and a ball shot out and didn't even have an arc, it just went and smashed into a seat. I'm not sure if that's the one they used (in the movie).”
Redford enters a Bisons game wearing his New York Knight's jacket. Photo Credit: Larry G. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Gallagher enjoyed seeing Redford around the ballpark, but another ‘80s star he ran into at the Rockpile may have made an even bigger impression on him. "I was walking into the stadium prior to a game one day and there was the tunnel where we would walk in and then go to the locker room," Gallagher said. "I was with my wife and I saw Morgan Fairchild. I had heard she was dating one of the cameramen. I guess I stared at her a little bit too long, and my wife just said, ‘Dave!’ I didn't even know what to say at that point, because that's the only time I can ever remember gawking at somebody. (laughing) All of us got pictures taken with her. Yeah, they're the two that I remember the most – Redford and Fairchild. But again, she wasn’t even in the movie.”
“I enjoyed it,” Gallagher said of having a major Hollywood movie filmed at his team’s ballpark. “And it goes down as one of the top baseball movies of all time.”
On the playing field, Gallagher recalled a story involving another future major-league star that began painfully in Buffalo and eventually ended happily in the big leagues. It all began on a Sunday afternoon at the Rockpile, with Buffalo leading the Reading Phillies 7-0 in the sixth inning. Speedy Dwight Taylor was at first, Gallagher was at the plate, with southpaw Frankie Griffin on the mound and future Phillies star Darren Daulton catching.
“I don’t know how many pitches were thrown, but on the second strike, he stole second base,” Gallagher said of Taylor. “And he stole at a time where you're not supposed to be running with that big of a lead – and I knew it, like as soon as he went I knew it. I remember Darren didn't throw the ball. Didn't even come out of his squat. I kind of glanced down at him. Again, I knew this was wrong on Dwight’s part to do this. I saw Darren look over at his dugout. His manager was a guy named Bill Dancy. I just saw Bill Dancy nod his head yes and then Darren threw the ball back to the pitcher. So I'm thinking this most likely means I'm going to get drilled, not because I stole the base, but I just happened to be the hitter. And the problem was I had two strikes on me. I remember thinking in my head, just be ready, be careful. He’s probably going to throw this at you, so be ready to duck – but I can't just back out of the way because I have two strikes. If he throws the ball right down the middle, I'm striking out. So here comes the pitch, and it's right at my head. I ducked my head, but I left my hand up there and forgot to pull the bat down, and it hit my thumb right against the bat and broke my thumb.”
After the benches emptied, the game continued. In pain, but not knowing his thumb was broken, Gallagher began jogging to first base. However, home plate umpire Bob Serino had other ideas.
“The umpire said, ‘Woah, woah, woah. What are you doing? It’s a foul ball!’ And I remember screaming at the umpire. I took my batting glove off and said, ‘It hit me on the thumb!’”
Unable to convince Serino that the pitch hit him, Gallagher remained at the plate. He then promptly lined a run-scoring double off the right-center field wall. The next batter, Shanie Dugas belted a 450-foot home run to put the Herd up 10-0. Buffalo went on to win the game 11-0.
The next day, Gallagher boarded the team bus for their road trip that began in Lynn, Massachusetts. “Guys were playing cards and my hand was throbbing,” he said. “I remember just trying to squeeze it thinking, am I going to be able to play? I showed the trainer and the trainer said, 'I wish you would have done this yesterday, we could have taken you to a hospital in Buffalo.’”
Obviously, any player would be disappointed that an injury was going to keep them out of action, but the broken thumb came at a particularly bad time for Gallagher. He was off to a scorching start to the season, having hit in all nine games the Bisons had played, and had a robust .344 batting average.
“I started thinking in my head, how I was going to handle it when I come back,” Galagher said. “I made up my mind – I didn’t tell anybody, I didn’t even tell my wife – I looked at the schedule and we played the Phillies in Reading. I decided I'm going to finish that series and then I'm going to go into their locker room and talk to their manager. And I'm going to say, 'You know, you just set my career back and I had nothing to do with that stolen base.' That was my goal – but it didn't happen like that.”
The injury kept him out of action for about a month. After he returned, Buffalo played at Reading in mid-June. The first day of the series was a doubleheader. Gallagher’s plan to approach Phillies manager Bill Dancy after the series would be ruined by the day's events.
“In the first game I got hit in the helmet twice,” he remembered. “And here's the weird thing – I don't think they were throwing at me. I think it was more that I used to really get on top of the plate. On the first one, I turned my head and it was a glancing blow off the helmet. It didn't hurt, it just glanced and shot and I go to first base. Then I think I got a single, and in my third at bat, I got hit pretty good in the helmet again.”
This time, he'd finally had enough – and he let the Phillies know it. “I took the heel of both of my hands and I pumped them into Darren Dalton's facemask – like I punched him in the facemask,” he said. “I just popped him in the facemask and he fell backwards. Then the gentleman in me was like Okay, first of all it probably isn't fair to pop somebody when they're in their squat – and it certainly wouldn't be fair to jump on him – so I let him up. Big mistake. He is strong. I found out later that he was a wrestler in high school. Bottom line is, thankfully, all this happened quickly. I got him in a headlock. He had me in a bear hug. I could feel I'm about to lose this headlock when we got to the ground. I could feel him kind of start to crawl over on my back. Then, thankfully, both dugouts pound us – it's a bench clearing brawl at home plate. And we work our way out, everything happens, and nobody gets hurt too bad in the brawl.”
However, that wasn’t the end of Gallagher’s day. He and Dalton were both ejected from the game, but Gallagher started the second game of the twin bill in centerfield.
“Think about how weird this is – I start the second game and I am booed unmercifully by the Reading fans every at bat,” he said.
“So – my change of plans. Right after that game I decide I'm going over there,” he said. “I don't tell anybody on my team. I don't tell any players. I'm still in uniform. I walked through their dugout, up into their clubhouse. The guys on that team looked at me like I must have a gun or something – What am I doing in there? And I walked right to Dalton's locker. This is pretty classy on his part. I tap him on the shoulder and I said, ‘Darren, do you have a few minutes? I'd like to talk to you and the manager.’ He turned around and he said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And he stood up – like that could have gone really bad, really quick for me. He stood up, he walks over to the manager's office and knocks on the door. They say come in. He opens it and the manager and the coaching staff, they're sitting around a table and they see me and Darren walk in. I said, ‘Listen, guys, I just needed to address this.’ And I closed the door behind me. I said, ‘Look, what you did (when he was hit in Buffalo) was wrong. You hit me and you cost me six or seven weeks of my season. I was doing so well. This is my chance to get to the big leagues and make a living out of this game.’ I said, ‘You know that was wrong.’"
A situation that could have gone bad quickly ended up working out. Gallagher remembered that “to his credit, the manager Bill Dancy said, ‘Listen, we talked about it as an organization – as an entire organization – and we decided if it ever happens again, and it will – somebody does something like lays down a bunt for a base hit with a big lead or steals a base – we will wait to hit the person who committed the act. Even if it's the next year that we have to do it. 'I said, ‘That's good enough for me. Appreciate your time,’ and I walked out.”
The story doesn’t end there. Twelve years later, after both Gallagher and Dalton had established themselves in the majors, Gallagher signed as a free agent with the Phillies, where Dalton starred throughout his career.
“In 1995 I'm a free agent in the big leagues,” Gallagher said. “I get signed by the Phillies. I go in and the clubhouse guy, Frank Coppenbarger, said to me, ‘Galley. I don't know why, but Darren Dalton asked to have your locker next to his.’ And I said, ‘That's so cool.’ I think he just really respected the way that I handled it. I didn’t go over with five of the biggest guys on my team and say, ‘Let's go.’ So, I was just like – How does that even happen? That's a vivid memory of Double-A at Buffalo.”
Galagher continued his hot hitting when he returned to the Bisons lineup from his broken thumb. He finished the season slashing .338/.461/.426. His .338 batting average led the Eastern League.
“You're always looking to separate yourself from everybody else. I looked at that as a way to separate myself not just for the Indians, who were our parent club, but for all clubs to know that – there's not that many minor leagues, and in one of them, I won the batting title. Also that year, I was voted one of the top three defensive outfielders in the league by the other teams’ managers. So when I combine that, I thought, Okay, now what else would you like me to do? That was my own attitude towards Cleveland. Okay, what else can I do? Let me get some recognition here. I'm thinking maybe I can even get an invite to major-league camp next year.”
He remembers being pulled out of the game during the season’s final contest by manager Al Gallagher, so fans could have a chance to salute the league batting champion. “He let me go out to center and then called timeout, and took me off the field so people could cheer for me – and they may have even announced it,” he beamed. “That was pretty cool.”
As for the defensive honor he received – he enjoyed playing centerfield at the Rockpile. “I loved it there,” he said. “I think there was a lot of room to roam. You did have to learn the carom off of the right-center field wall, kind of hustle over there all the time, because what would be a routine fly ball in some ballparks. The right fielder goes to the wall, it might hit five feet above his head and then bounce in, so I had to always be there. In fact, Shanie Dugas, our second baseman, would always go out too. So you had to play that different, but I always liked, even in the major leagues, I always liked a huge outfield and knew that I was really good at it. I did everything in my power – I knew I could see the signs from the catcher. I studied who the pitcher was who was on the mound that day – how they were pitching the hitters. I was not afraid to move on my own, as much as 30 feet sometimes if it was like a 2-0 changeup to the pull side.”
After playing the next three seasons at Triple-A Maine, Gallagher returned to Buffalo at the beginning of the 1987 season, when the Bisons were the Triple-A affiliate for Cleveland. He received the surprise of a lifetime during the season opener.
“I was pulled off the field in Denver, because – I didn't know it at the time – but Brett Butler got hit by a pitch in Cleveland and broke his hand,” he said. “So I was being sent to Cleveland to play center field. And the manager, Orlando Gomez, said, ‘Go head into the locker room. I'll be in there in a couple of minutes.’ I still didn't know why I was going into the locker room. Then as I was on my way, our bullpen all stood up and were giving me a standing ovation. They knew – they were giving me thumbs up and clapping. So I went in and the manager came in and told me, ‘You're going to the big leagues,’ and then he said, ‘I don't want to see you back here,’ and he left.”
Unfortunately, his first stint in the big leagues didn't go nearly as well as he would have liked.
“I went up and I had so many emotions, a combination of excitement and fear of failing,” he said. “I don't know what this is going to be like. Do I belong? That was all bottled up and I got off to such a bad start. I remember even thinking, you know, I just don't want to embarrass myself. I've seen people hit ground balls to short – as long as I can just do that. And sure enough, I did it alright. I was playing not to fail. I went four for my first 36 at bats – 4-for-36 and I got sent down (to Buffalo). I was only there a little while and they traded me to Seattle. I felt terrible, because when I look back I think you put in all that time and coaching – and I went up for three weeks. Surely I’m not the only guy who went up to the big leagues and got overwhelmed the first time. I think even Mike Trout did.”
Gallagher with Cleveland in 1987.
After being traded to the Seattle organization. he spent the rest of the season at Triple-A Calgary, before finally getting another shot in the majors with the White Sox the following season.
“I remember on my flight into Chicago making a deal with myself – if I fail, I’m going to fail getting after it this time,” he said. “I will not fail out of not giving it everything I have. And I did really well. I hit over .300 as a rookie. There was no change in my batting stance. It was really all mental – having the chance to fail, examine it, and then make some adjustments. And for me the adjustments were all – okay, I don’t know if I belong or I don’t but I’m going to get after it. If I showed you swings from ’87 with Cleveland and ’88 with Chicago, even foul balls, you would see a swing that’s more attacking, not playing it safe. So it was a good learning experience in ’87.”
After his successful rookie campaign, he went on to hit .271 over nine major-league seasons, playing for the Indians, White Sox, Orioles, Angels, Mets, Braves and Phillies. He retired after the 1995 season, but remains actively involved in the game.
“There are only three programs that I know of that Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association do cooperatively and I do all three of them,” he said.
“I’ve done one for getting close to thirty years now,” he continued. “It’s called the Rookie Career Program, where every organization sends their top four rookies – with the criteria being you think this player is going to make an impact the coming year. It’s four days. It used to be at a resort in Virginia and now the last few years it’s been in Miami. We do very little talking on baseball and that type of instruction. It’s more topics that will help these kids make the transition. So there’s professionals for finances, there’s media like Peter Gammons – they bring people in for live interviews and tell them the dos and don’ts, how they can help themselves. I go as a resource player. There’s probably about a dozen of us. So after they talk about a number of topics as an entire group – which would be well over 100 players – they go into what they call breakout sessions with about 10 to 12 players and a resource player, such as myself. In those small rooms the players can ask about anything. I always tell them, whatever will make you feel more comfortable, please ask me. Because I remember when I got called up, I didn’t know – Is it okay for me to go ask the hitting coach if I can hit early tomorrow, or should I wait for him to come to me? Do I tip trainers? When you have all this weird stuff on your mind, all it does is pull from your focus and you can’t have anything pulling away from your focus at that level.”
“I also do a program called the Hank Aaron Invitational,” he said. “That’s amateur youth from around the country that are underserved, that we bring at no cost to them. They go to Dodger Town in Vero Beach and we mentor and teach them the game for a week. It’s a fantastic program for the kids. They get a week of all of us helping them, mentoring them, and teaching them the game.”
He even had a connection to his days in Buffalo through this program. When Gallagher played for Buffalo in 1983, future big-league star Juan Samuel played for Reading. Samuel was also an instructor at Vero Beach, and Gallagher was able to share his admiration for him.
“I was able to tell him, ‘You have no idea what you've meant to me in my career,’” Gallagher said. “And he had a big smile on his face… I knew he was the best player on the field when we played them. So I had to always try to measure myself up to him. And here it is years later, we're on the same team trying to help underserved kids and I got to tell him that.”
“Then the third program is Healthy Relationships. It’s a talk on domestic violence. Obviously I’m not a professional counselor, so my role is to introduce the professional counselors. I take maybe the first ten minutes. You know, it’s 8:00 in the morning and players don’t want to be in a meeting at 8:00 in the morning. They want to be out on the field trying to make a team or if it’s a veteran, they’re trying to get their work in. The last place they want to be is in a meeting hearing about domestic violence. But I try to bring a different angle. I just say, look I know you don’t want to be in this meeting. I know you want to be out on the field, but this in a way can protect you. And I come from a different angle, I say look guys, everybody in this career, even in a good season, we ride this emotional rollercoaster. Hopefully in your best seasons, your down times are very short, where you’re struggling at the plate or whatever. But you will have them. And I know that we’re all the most vulnerable when we’re in the midst of a down streak. You get on edge – and if somebody says something to you that hits you the wrong way when you’re in that frame of mind, you’re not in a good position to make the best decisions sometimes. And when I say that, it’s realistic to them and they listen.”
“Outside of that I’m a senior advisor for a company that’s in New Jersey, that’s where I’m living. I live in Cape May, New Jersey, now and the company is called Center Court. There are eight franchises throughout the state of New Jersey. It’s perfect for me. I’m a senior advisor. I don’t involve myself with day to day operations but I can help mentor the coaches, the training staff, the kids, their families on how to navigate the path to get into college ball. And the ownership group have ownership in a couple of professional teams. What I also really like is they purchased a youth development industry, and I thought all right, this is fantastic. That’s where I want to be right now. I want to be involved.”
He enjoys passing along all that he's learned in his many years in the game to today's youth and helping young players succeed at all levels of the sport.
“Everyone says, ‘I’d like to give back,’ but I actually am involved and have the ability, and have had it for a long time, to give what’s been given to me,” he continued. “Everything that I’ve been taught about the game all those years as a player – what a waste it would be to sit around on the beach and not tell young kids who have the mind and body to use that great information. I have been given the opportunity to pass that along. It’s been great.”
Even after playing in nine major-league seasons and having a successful post-playing career, Gallagher still looks back on the summer of 1983 and his season with the Double-A Bisons fondly: “It was a really enjoyable time. The team – we all got along, we were successful. I just think that was without a doubt the most fun I’ve ever had in a minor-league city. I really believe that.”