Posts Tagged ‘Buff Stadium’

We Once Had a Home Where the Buffalo Roamed

June 9, 2013
"You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd!"

“You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd!”

It was good to see Randy Harvey of the Houston Chronicle check in today on the side of doing something with the Astrodome other than tearing it down for more McNair/Rodeo parking space. His commentary is on the front page of the Sports Section in this morning’s Sunday, June 9, 2013 Houston Chronicle.

Perhaps, we may draw some lessons from the last great demolition of a venerable baseball park in Houston, and I don’t mean Colt Stadium, that fry-your-brains-in-the-sun skillet of a temporary venue that served as home to the new Houston big league club for three seasons from 1962 to 1964. The place wasn’t here long enough to have earned “venerable” as an attributed state of its emotional attraction to fans, nor was it ever intended as anything other than a game site drooling pad for fans to watch major league baseball (of sorts) as they also watched the birth of the Astrodome over a 36-month gestation period.

No. I’m talking about the loss of Buff Stadium, home of the Houston Buffs from 1928 through 1961. Not counting the three Texas League World War II seasons in which no Buff games were played (1943-45), Buff/Busch Stadium served as home of Buffs league play for 31 active seasons.

31 seasons was long enough for the patina of all that is venerable to have settled deeply into place cam over time to watch the fates of Buffs baseball rise and fall and rise again, over time.

When “Buff” Stadium went down to the wrecking ball in 1962, Houston was still neck-deep in the psyche of tear-it-down-and-build-a-parking-lot in almost every instance of anything “old”, but it escaped total ignominy because the baseball friendly Finger family bought the stadium and grounds for a new furniture store on the Gulf Freeway at Cullen that would include a new sports museum within the new facility. It was also built in an area that included an accurately retained spot where home plate at the ballpark actually still resided.

It was great. We almost forgot, at first, that we had lost the ballpark. Then the newness of this fairly good idea began to wear down. Long before curator Tom Kennedy came on board to breed new, dynamic life into the artifact displays at the Finger’s Museum, people began to tire of seeing the same old things each time they visited.

If you had seen it a few times in the 1960’s, you’d only have seen it grow slowly as the place began to add football and basketball items as it tried to become the “Houston Sports Museum.” There was nothing churning at the museum that would inspire a taste for return visits and this was happening at the same time that the furniture-shopping baseball public was beginning to shop differently and elsewhere.

Baseball historian, writer, and curator Tom Kennedy arrived in time to restore the museum beautifully, and dynamically, with the help of multi-media basic disks and recordings to its baseball roots, but the timing was unfortunate. The furniture store site was not working and would have to close, taking the museum with it.

The Finger family, aided by Mr. Kennedy, are now in the process of looking at ways to re-open the museum in some conjunctive partnership with the Sugarland Skeeters independent baseball organization.

My stadium point is much simpler. When Buff Stadium went down, it was lucky to have had anything done in its memory. The Finger family deserves the credit here, even if their desire to save the heart of Buff Stadium history was eventually consumed by other business realities. It went down because back in 1962, Buff Stadium was about the past and only the Astrodome was about the future. Today Buff Stadium might have survived to have served some other end, perhaps, as an athletic facility site for the neighboring UH program.

And today the developers do a little more public relations dancing in Houston before they call in the old wrecking ball. They have to. The voices of savvy, politically connected preservationists are alive and growing into a force of some reckoning power.

If you are among those who want to see the Astrodome preserved, pay attention to what’s going on in the near days to come – and especially to how Commissioners Court words any referendum they may propose to the voters.

A Buff Stadium Pictorial

April 13, 2011

Houston Sports Museum (on site of old Buff Stadium)

Buffalo/Buff Stadium was located on what is now the site of Finger Furniture Store on the Gulf Freeway at Cullen Boulevard. This ballpark was the home of the minor league Houston Buffs from 1928 through 1961. Technically, it was renamed by Cardinals/Buff owner August Busch in his own family image in 1953, but few of us old-time Buff fans ever made the emotional change to the full acceptance of its new identity as Busch Stadium from 1953 through 1961.

The mural featured above, plus a nice display of memorabilia from the era of the Buffs is on display at the Houston Sports Museum located in the Finger store. In fact, the original site of home plate is commemorated in place on the floor there. Drop inside sometime and take a look at the place and its collection of materials on Houston’s professional sports history.

Buff Stadium Home Plate Site at Houston Sports Museum.

First Opening Day, Buff Stadium, April 11, 1928.

Buff Stadium, 1928: Check out the buffalos on the left field wall.

Game Day, 1930s & 1940s.

Field of Dreams, From Early On.

Night Ball Lighted Buff Stadium through the Great Depression.

Lights Awakened Summer Nights of the 1950s too.

Note the circles above the front entrance to Buff Stadium.

Those eighty 36″ metal circles were medallions that each featured a buffalo silhouette. There were a total of eighty spread along the exterior walls of the ballpark and, when they tore old Buff Stadium down in 1963, they fell like a clanging steel rain upon the concrete surface below. Those that survived were sold for four dollars a piece to the few persons who showed up to watch Houston go through an everyday act of work for that era. It was called “tearing down the past to make room for the future.”

One of the survivors. Close to all my memories. Close to all in my heart.

Houston has changed. We still aren’t perfect and never will be, but we now live a more invested idea of preserving and restoring the past. If we were not that way, many of us would not be so upset today that Houston has been denied the opportunity of keeping one of the space shuttles as an artifact of our deep history with NASA and the space program. Those forces of community outrage weren’t so strong on the day they tore Buff Stadium down and threw out the Buffs as our historic baseball identity.

Sometimes our best energies are spent on researching and discerning the truth about our various local histories, whether its our legacy from baseball or space exploration. Good research and reporting live  at the heart of historic restoration and preservation – and each serves the end of any honest museum and hall of historic commemoration that is ever built on any deserving subject.

That statement will either mean everything to you or it won’t matter at all. Find your category and move on from there.

Ballpark Fences: The Art of the Distance.

March 17, 2010

The prevailing wind at Buff Stadium came from right field. Check the flag for proof.

When baseball promoters started fencing in their ballparks in the late 19th century, it wasn’t so their players would have  home run distances to shoot for. They were just trying to make sure that any crank or fan who watched their product on the field had a purchased ticket for the privilege. As most of you know, baseballs did not travel all that hard and fast during the pre-cork center days. Incredibly faraway acreage also dominated most outfields, except in certain parks, but that was OK. Baseball venues traditionally have been built to fit the land available. It’s one of the great urban culture stories about why baseball is the game it is. Once you get past Cartwright’s ninety feet distances between the diamond of bases to cover for a score, almost all other space-length marks, including the distance of the pitching rubber to home plate, have remained in flux.

Unlike most other sports, unless you include golf, baseball is built around variants to time and space that are unheard of in, say, football. The length of games and the total size of the playing space is always at variance from game to game, day to day, and place to place.

When Buff Stadium opened on April 11, 1928 as the sparkling new model for minor league baseball park development, the place featured incredibly distant fences as the hitting challenge for power hitters. It was 344 feet down both lines and 430 feet to dead center, a much better place for line drive gap hitters than it was as a breeding tank for any of the new Ruth-copying sluggers. Remember, the Yankees had built the original Yankee Stadium only five years earlier in 1923 with Babe Ruth in mind. Their right field distance down the line was only 297 feet, some 47 feet nearer home plate than the closest right field distance at 1928’s Buff Stadium.

Buff' Stadium's right field distance in the 1950s had "shrunk" to 325 feet.

In addition to the distance, a couple of other factors worked against left-handed batters at Buff Stadium. One of these is clearly visible in the first feature photo of the old ballpark and that was the prevailing wind. The Gulf of Mexico breezes blew in from the south across the right field wall like a steady gale throughout the summer months. Sometimes they blew straight in to home plate. Most of the time they took a right field to left field course, as is clearly shown by the straight out position of the center field flag. With high fly balls to right, you could sometimes see the effects best from the first base stands. What began as a sure-sounding homer to right would suddenly hang in the air before changing course, depending on the exact wind direction, either further to center field as an easy fly out – or back toward the infield as a Candlestick Park like fly ball out. Some of those catches were interesting. Buff Stadium simply lacked the constant swirl of the bay winds. Thank God.

Sometimes the prevailing winds at Buff Stadium helped a few home runs to left, but, most of the time, they were more of a factor in blowing balls foul that were hit down the left field line.

The other factor that worked against home run hitting early at Buff Stadium was the fact the Buffs started playing night games there on July 22, 1930. The early lighting was OK for its time, but some of the players of that era complained that they couldn’t see the ball as well at night. How much of that complaint was truth and how much of it was players coming up with another excuse for bad hitting is lost in time. All I Know is that I played on some night fields that were far worse lighted than Buff Stadium ever was. Sad to say, but badly lighted night baseball neither significantly helped my pitching nor hurt my batting over what it was in the bright of day. Sometimes things just are what they are.

By 1938, Buff Stadium fence distances had crept even higher to 340 feet in center and 345 feet down the lines. After World War II, new President Allen Russell quietly adjusted things to the needs of power hitters like Jerry Witte and Larry Miggins. Right field in this photo is only 325 feet from home. The same distance to left was shortened to 330 feet. Center settled in to about 424 feet. They could have come in closer down the middle, but nobody wanted to lose the flagpole from the playing area in center field.

Buff Stadium had character. As the character of the game changed, the face of the old ballpark took a few beauty lifts with the changing times as well.

One ongoing problem in Houston existed as younger players worked their way up to Houston from New Iberia of the Evangeline League. This vignette is the best argument I’ve ever encountered about why big league clubs need to be very careful where their raw recruits are starting out.

The New Iberia Cardinals of the 1930s played their home games in a football stadium. Home plate was located somewhere near the 50-yard line, leaving the players to play on a field that was under 300 feet to center field and about 600 feet to left and right. The dimensions taught batters to hit straight away and influenced pitchers to hope batters would pull the ball. These traits then had to be corrected once the players reached Houston.

Red Munger and Howie Pollet both came to Houston from New Iberia. Red used to say that the manager there tried to steer them away from those local tendencies, but he also admitted that it wasn’t easy. “When you’re standing on that mound,” Red liked to say, “you never forgot that the wall in center was less than 300 feet away.”

I could go on all day. The art of the distance at various ballparks has many stories to tell. We will re-visit the topic here again sometime. Before then, I hope you will leave us with some of your own thoughts on the matter of outfield distances. That’s what the comment section below is all about. The more we dialogue, the more we will be able to carry a topic to other levels of consideration.

The sun is hining. Spring is coming. Have a great day too with this thought: Opening Day 2010 is less than three weeks away!

And not just “by the way,” – HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY!

Seems Like Old Times.

February 8, 2010

Buff Stadium in Middle Right of Gulf Freeway, Early 1950s.

It was located four miles east of downtown Houston. When its first Opening Day came around on April 11, 1928, many Houstonians still grumbled over the fact that Buffalo Stadium, the new baseball home of the Houston Buffs had been built so far out in the sticks from the city. West End Park, after all, had been right there on Andrews Street, off Smith, near where almost everybody lived back in the booming 1920s. The old park may have found its way to some  dilapidation and it may have offered  inadequate seating capacity, but it was close. And close counted for something back in the pre-freeway days.

The city had rallied to the travel problem by making sure that rail service to the new ballpark from downtown was easy to use. Union Station, the current home site of Minute Maid Mark, in fact, was one primary place to catch the ballgame  train that went out to Buff Stadium on what was then known as St. Bernard Avenue in 1928. That same thoroughfare is called Cullen Boulevard these days. It’s been Cullen so long now that hardly anyone alive still remembers it by its earlier identity.

Buff Stadium was the brain child of Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey. Buffs President Fred Ankenman oversaw the ballpark’s construction in 1927-28, bringing in the project on budget at a cost of $400,000 much harder dollars then the kind we see today. Mr. Rickey even came down from St. Louis on the train to attend the 1928 grand opening of the new ballpark in Houston and he brought Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis with him. Judge Landis was most impressed too, pronouncing the new Buff Stadium as the finest new minor league baseball park in America.

Landis’s favorable impressions were important to Rickey. Rickey hoped to soften the old man’s heart from the idea that major league ownership of minor league clubs was bad business for the local community. The original 8,000 seat Buff Stadium stood as a symbol of progress and improvement in Houston minor league baseball under Cardinal ownership. To some extent, Rickey had accomplished his mission in bringing Landis to Houston in April 1928. Nothing ever really cured the contentious relationship between these two men, as Rickey would learn years later when Landis freed Pete Reiser and a few others from reserve clause capture by the St. Louis Cardinals, but that’s a story for another day.

Look at the Houston skyline in the picture. The Gulf and Esperson buildings were still the icons of Houston architecture in the 1950s – and that freeway and its rascally pal roadways had only begun to play their role in Houston’s massive spread to the hinterlands.

The Houstonians of 1928 thought that the four-mile trip to Buff Stadium from downtown was a major expedition. Today we drive four miles just to reach a Whataburger or rent a DVD movie. So where’s all this progress we keep talking about?