When Danny Jansen jogged towards home plate on Tuesday night, preparing to registering the first run by a Major League Baseball team headquartered in Buffalo since 1885, he was, unknowingly, treading where Mark Twain had gone before him. As Thomas Reigstad established in 1989, the first residence Samuel Clemens occupied upon arriving in Buffalo was Mrs. Randall’s Boarding House, at 39 Swan St., where Sahlen Field now sits.
Due the complications of traveling between the United States and Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays have temporarily taken up residence in Buffalo, previously the home of their minor-league affiliate, playing home games at Sahlen Field. Dr. Reigstad, a Professor Emeritus at SUNY Buffalo State and former Quarry Farm Fellow, who has written extensively about Twain’s formative years in Buffalo and his tenure at the Buffalo Express, begins his book Scribblin’ For A Livin’ (2013) by describing the neighborhood around Sahlen, as it was when Samuel Clemens arrived there in August of 1869. Between Mrs. Randall’s and the offices of the Express, only a few blocks away, he would pass William E. Storey Liquors, Long & Carpenter’s Oysters, and Church & Sons Jewelers.
Twain was co-owner and co-editor of the Express thanks largely to the beneficence of his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon. It was an early example of the author, already a celebrated journalist and humorist, trying to wrestle more control and more of the proceeds from the publications he wrote for. He would remain with the Express for only two years, eventually selling out to his partner, George Selkirk, at a loss. There were struggles in Buffalo, certainly, but the locale was also the site of crucial developments for Twain, personally and professionally. As Reigstad argues, Twain’s star rose and his style matured while writing for the Express and other local publications. As importantly, he adjusted to a bourgeois lifestyle, including marriage and childrearing, after decades of itinerancy as a printer, riverboat pilot, and the “Wild Man of The Pacific Slope.” What he learned in Buffalo would help him embrace life in Hartford, as well as be embraced by Hartford, when the family relocated there in 1872.
It is well-established that Twain was a baseball fan, who frequently attended games, and occasionally wrote about the sport (notably in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). During his time in Buffalo, the local professional team was the Niagara Base Ball Club, established in 1859. The Niagara Club would eventually transform into the Buffalo Bisons, the namesake of the current Blue Jays affiliate, and, from 1879 to 1885, an MLB franchise.
Throughout the 1860s, as one of Twain’s Express correspondents put it, “the mere mention of the Niagaras would excite a thrill of pride in the hearts of every Buffalonian.” But the club struggled to field a team in the early 1870s as their best players moved to more thriving leagues and others found more fruitful employment in what had become an economically thriving post-war city. Twain’s Express publicized fundraising efforts for the Niagarans, which were at least nominally successful, but financial struggles would resurface periodically over the next fifteen years.
In 1878 the Bisons joined a new league, the International Association, and acquired a 21-year-old starting pitcher named Pud Galvin. Galvin pitched in 101 of the teams 116 games in 1878, completing 96 of them and winning 72. It was a historically dominant season, which led Buffalo to the International Association Championship and attracted the attention of the nation’s most elite baseball organization, the National League.
Buffalo joined the so-called “Senior Circuit” in 1879. Galvin would win 206 games over the next six seasons. He threw the fifth no-hitter in the history of MLB in 1880 and another in 1884, only the second player to accomplish that fete. He would go on to become the first ever 300-game winner, setting a bar against which the careers of starting pitchers would be measured for more than a century.
The Bisons acquired another future Hall of Famer in 1880. “Big Dan” Brouthers was the premier power-hitter of the 1880s, who led the majors in slugging percentage all five years he was with the Bisons. In 1885 the Bisons sold the contracts for Galvin and Brouthers to settle ownership’s debts. Following the season they withdrew from the National League. As the brevity of the team’s tenure in the NL suggests, the Bisons were never a profitable team, nor a contending one. They closed their final season by losing sixteen consecutive games.
The Bisons played their last home game in Buffalo on October 7, 1885, losing to the Providence Grays. But, that was not actually the last home game of a Buffalo-based MLB franchise before the Blue Jays took up residence last night.
Following the October 7 game both the Bisons and Grays traveled to Elmira, New York. On October 10th they played a doubleheader at Maple Avenue Park, with Buffalo acting as the home team. Two years later, Twain would umpire a game on the same diamond. Maple Avenue Park would become Dunn Field, which now hosts the baseball games of Elmira College, home of the Center for Mark Twain Studies.
Long-suffering Buffalo sports fans will no doubt appreciate how the sportswriter for the Elmira Morning Telegram described the final performance of Buffalo’s short-lived MLB franchise:
UPDATE: Dr. Reigstad shared the following with me: a tidbit from the expanded edition of Scribblin’ For A Livin’ (available here). He also provided an aerial view of Swan St. from 1870, closer to the time when Twain was living there.
Shortly after Twain joined the Buffalo Express in 1869, the newspaper actually fielded a staff baseball team and played an exhibition game against one of their rival newspapers, the Buffalo Commericial. Twain does not appear to have played in the game. Perhaps it would have been strange for the paper’s new owner to fraternize in such a way. However, it is more evidence of how popular the sport was in Buffalo. The Express even published a box score from the game.