The 1878 Buffalo Bisons: Was It the Greatest Minor League Team of the Game’s Early Years?

This article was written by Joseph Overfield

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in the 1991 SABR convention journal (New York City).

 

In baseball’s modem era there have been many outstanding minor league teams. Coming to mind immediately are the 1937 Newark Bears, the 1934 Los Angeles Angels, the 1925 San Francisco Seals, the 1939-1940 Kansas City Blues, the 1933 Columbus Red Birds, the 1928-1931 Rochester Red Wings, and those special minor league dynasties, the 1919-1925 Baltimore Orioles of Jack Dunn and the 1920-1925 Fort Worth Panthers of Jake Atz.

To choose one as dominant from such a galaxy is a formidable task. Instead, a nomination will be offered for greatest minor league team of the game’s early years. Certainly the Eastern (International) League, which traces its beginnings back to 1884 and is still going strong, boasted several outstanding teams in its early years, including George Stallings’ pennant and Junior World Championship Buffalo clubs of 1904 and 1906. The Western League of 1899, which became the American League in 1900 and then achieved major league status in 1901, was loaded with major league players, past and future. The records of these teams and leagues notwithstanding, the vote here goes to the 1878 Buffalo Bisons of the International Association.

THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION

The International Association, the game’s first minor league, was organized at Pittsburgh on Feb. 20, 1877, when representatives of various clubs met to formulate rules of operation and to elect officers. William A. (Candy) Cummings, reputedly the first curveball pitcher, representing Lynn, Mass., was elected president; Harry German of London, Ont., became vice president and James A. Williams of Columbus, Ohio, was elected secretary- treasurer and chief administrative officer. Also represented were clubs from Guelph, Ont., Manchester, N.H., Rochester, N.Y., and Pittsburgh. These were the seven which had paid an extra fee and would be competing for the championship. They were to play a set schedule of games, very short by modern standards, but there was no limit to the number of outside games. Twenty-five cents was the admission rate for championship games, and the visiting clubs received a $75 guarantee, or half the gate, whichever was larger.

The league survived its first season and it is an oddity of baseball history that the first minor league championship was won by a Canadian ball club, the Tecumsehs of London. Its players, however, were American. Their roster included Joe Hornung and Fred Goldsmith, the league’s leading pitcher with a 14-4 mark. According to averages compiled by SABR member Ray Nemec, the leading batter was Steve Brady of Rochester with a .358 mark. More famous names were the aforementioned Candy Cummings, who fared poorly for Lynn (1-7), King Kelly, who appeared in three games for Columbus, and Jim Galvin of the Alleghenies, who hurled the minors’ first shutout—2-0 over Columbus on April 30.

During the winter, elaborate plans were made for the 1878 season. Not only was the league expanded to 11 teams (four including, the champion Londons were to drop out during the season), but also concerted efforts were made to sign National League players. The New York Clipper was a strong supporter of the Association and offered to donate a championship pennant and gold badges to players with the best fielding averages at each position.

Buffalo, one of the new cities, had been represented by a professional nine only since August of the previous summer. The 1877 Buffalo club was not league affiliated, but played an ambitious schedule against National League, International Association and independent clubs. While its record was unimpressive (10-27 with three ties), it did number on its roster three players who were to make names for themselves in the future—John Montgomery Ward, Larry Corcoran and James Roseman.

ASSEMBLING THE TEAM

Buffalo management cleaned house completely after the disappointing 1877 season, even dropping the promising teenage pitcher Corcoran (“He was a poor team player and showed no sympathy for his catcher”) and proceeded to round up a group of young and promising players plus a sprinkling of experienced hands. With no reserve clause in effect, it was possible to negotiate with any ballplayer once the season was over. The distinction between major and minor league was not important, if indeed there was any distinction at all. That the National League of the day was a major league and the International Association a minor league was not recognized then, but was decided by historians long after the fact. It was therefore possible for the Buffalo club to sign the diminutive Davey Force, a capable shortstop with eight years’ experience with National Association and National League clubs, as well as second baseman Charley Fulmer, a seven-year veteran.

But it was in the signing of young players that the Buffalo club showed its greatest perspicacity. Signed was the young battery of the Alleghenies of Pittsburgh, 22-year-old Jim Galvin and his 19-year-old catcher, husky Tom Dolan.

Center fielder Dave Eggler was recommended by Alfred Wright, sports editor of the Philadelphia Mercury, and agreed to come for “seven months for seven hundred dollars.” Another Philadelphian, Cyrus (Dick) Allen, a dental student-ballplayer, was signed for third base; Steve Libby, a rangy hard-hitter from Scarborough, Maine, was the first baseman, and Bill Crowley and Bill McGunnigle were the other two outfielders. McGunnigle was also the “change” pitcher, while John “Trick” McSorley was the substitute on the squad. During the season second baseman Denny Mack and outfielder Joe Hornung were added to the team. George L. Smith was the manager and Fulmer was the captain, later succeeded by Force and then Galvin.

The payroll was substantial for the times. Salaries ranged from the $700 paid to Eggler, McGunnigle and McSorley to the $1,000 for Allen and $1,200 for Force. The year-end financial statement of the club, which is on record in the Erie County Clerk’s Office in Buffalo, shows a total expenditure of $11,068.23 for salaries of players and employees. From the total, $81.77 for “fines imposed on players” can be deducted.

Almost as challenging as assembling the team was the task of getting a new ballpark ready. During the winter, a block of land on the city’s west side had been leased, and there was precious little time considering Buffalo’s disagreeable winter and spring weather. But by the dint of unflagging efforts by the contractor, Riverside Park was ready for practice by mid-April.

The practice game on April 15 against a local amateur nine was the first of a 116-game schedule that was not to end until Oct. 25. In that six-month period, the Bisons (they were called that from the beginning) won not only the International Association championship, the New York State championship and the bitter intercity competition between Buffalo and Rochester, but also defeated National League clubs in 10 of 17 games. Every one of the six National League clubs, including the famous Bostons, who were 41-19 in league play, were victimized at least once as the Bisons were 1-2 with Boston, 2-1 with Cincinnati, 2-2 with Providence, 3-2 with Chicago, and 1-0 with both Indianapolis and Milwaukee. Against all competition, the Bisons were 81-32 with three ties. They registered 17 shutouts and were shut out themselves just five times.

The Buffaloes were not a particularly hard-hitting team, relying instead on sharp fielding and the incredible pitching of Jim Galvin. With the pitching distance at just 45 feet and a dead ball in use, home runs were a rarity. The Bisons hit but two the entire season. The first, off the bat of Steve Libby, came on June 21 in a game at Buffalo against Binghamton and was reported as follows in the Buffalo Express: “Libby struck the ball squarely and it went on a beeline to the left field comer. For a few seconds the crowd did not comprehend the magnitude of the hit. Suddenly the fans became frantic and the applause was the loudest ever heard here, lasting several minutes. Several ladies threw bouquets at the blushing Libby as he crossed the plate.” The other Buffalo home run was hit by Galvin at Utica. His drive bounced past the center fielder and lodged itself in the spring of a carriage parked against the fence. Before the ball could be retrieved, the Buffalo pitcher was able to round the bases.

On June 12 in a game at Buffalo, the Bisons suffered their most humiliating defeat of the year, bowing to the bitter rival Rochester, 16-3. Local fans, many of whom had bet heavily on the game, gave vent to their frustrations by attempting to mob umpire George Campbell at the end of the game. Only prompt action by two stout policemen prevented serious trouble. A few days later, the Buffalo Express reported that the Buffalo club had hired two private detectives to investigate Campbell and that they had uncovered some shocking information. They learned that Campbell had sold out to two gamblers (one from Rochester and one from Syracuse) for $200 with a resultant profit to the gamblers of $1,600. Campbell, who lived in Syracuse, denied everything and immediately brought suit for libel against the newspaper.

The legal papers for this action are inconclusive because Campbell never showed up for the trial. It will never be known if he was the game’s first dishonest umpire. Two of the year’s most exciting games were played against National League clubs. The first was a 13-inning, 4-2 victory against the Chicago White Stockings played at Buffalo on Aug. 19. It was a bitterly fought game and at one point manager Bob Ferguson of Chicago became so incensed at the umpire that he threatened to pull his team from the field. Only the soothing words of Cap Anson (“Of all things don’t leave the field, Bob,” according to the Buffalo Courier) kept him at his post. In this game, Galvin demonstrated his mastery of the pick-off play by knocking off no fewer than five White Stockings runners. The second notable game against a “league” club took place in Boston on Oct. 2, when Buffalo beat the champions in 12 innings, scoring six runs in the bottom of the 12th after Boston had scored one run in the top half.

THE IRONMAN PITCHER

The real story of the 1878 Bisons was Jim Galvin, the stocky, mild-mannered pitcher with a buggy whip for an arm. It is doubtful if any pitcher in baseball history, including Charles Radbourne in his epochal year with Providence in 1884, ever had a season to match Galvin’s ironman performance in 1878. Of the 116 league and non-league games played by the Bisons, he pitched in 101, of which 96 were complete games. He won 72, lost 25 and tied three. Seventeen of his wins were shutouts and he was 10-5 against National League clubs. He started and finished the first 23 games the team played and was finally relieved by McGunnigle in the 24th. The next day he “rested” by starting in right field, but then came on in relief. From Sept. 2 to Oct. 4 , the Bisons played 22 games and Galvin started and finished every one of them.

On Oct. 2 he beat Boston in the 12-inning game previously mentioned; the next day he beat Providence in 13 innings and then the following day was the loser in another game at Boston, after which it was announced he had a sore arm. McGunnigle pitched the next two games, but Galvin came back on Oct. 8 to beat Utica in the game that clinched the International Association pennant for Buffalo.

How many innings did Galvin pitch that season? Unfortunately, the box scores of five of his incomplete games do not indicate the number of innings he pitched. It can be stated, however, that he pitched a minimum of 895 innings and a maximum of 905.

Five players on the Buffalo team—Force, Libby, McGunnigle, Hornung and Galvin—were chosen on the New York Clipper all- star team, with the selections being based solely on fielding averages. With the exception of Steve Libby, whose record shows just one game for the 1879 Buffalo National League club, all of the 1878 Bisons went on to major league careers of varying lengths. Galvin, of course, became a Hall of Famer. Force continued in the majors until 1886 and Joe Hornung until 1890. The old campaigner returned to Buffalo in 1891 and 1892 to play with that city’s Eastern League club, still disdaining the use of a glove. Bill McGunnigle played and managed off and on in the majors until 1896 and along the way gained the distinction of being one of the first managers to be fired after winning a pennant (Brooklyn, 1890). Dick Allen, after a year of major league ball, became a dentist and later a lecturer in dentistry at Buffalo Dental School. Fulmer was in the majors until 1884 and later became a magistrate in Philadelphia.

Despite the team’s great record, the 1878 season was not a howling financial success. The team’s bank account at season’s end showed a balance of just $248.94. Apparently this was enough of a nest egg to permit the team to apply for membership in the National League. The application was accepted and the team went on to play “league” ball until the tag end of the 1885 season, when the franchise was sold. It is interesting to note that the Bisons, with much the same team that won the International Association pennant in 1878, finished in a tie for third place in their first year in the National League.

As for the International Association, it struggled along for two more seasons before fading into oblivion. But it had played its role in the game’s history: it has been the first of the minor leagues and one of its teams, the 1878 Bisons, were baseball’s first great minor league club.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved