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Before the Blue Jays, Buffalo Was Home to Big League Teams From Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philly

Author: Jeff Z. Klein


Long before the Toronto Blue Jays came here, Buffalo served as place of refuge for displaced major league sports teams in hockey and football.

With the Jays at the halfway point of their Sahlen Field tenancy, it’s a good time to remember the other big league teams from far away that found a temporary home in the Queen City.

NFL clubs from Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia played as the home team in regular-season games at Civic Stadium, better remembered as War Memorial Stadium. NHL teams from Chicago and Pittsburgh played regular-season games at the hockey Bisons’ home rink in Fort Erie. (And as we have already seen, the Negro American League team from Indianapolis spent five years playing baseball at Offermann Stadium on East Ferry and Michigan in the early ’50s.)

Unlike our guests from Toronto, who are 5-4 downtown through Wednesday, those other major league teams lost almost every game they played here in the 1920s ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.

The Peace Bridge Arena, 1928-1936 (Fort Erie Public Library)

NHL: It all began in 1929. The National Hockey League’s Chicago Black Hawks needed a home venue while awaiting completion of the Chicago Stadium, so they played five regular-season games on the ice of the minor league Buffalo Bisons, the Peace Bridge Arena in Fort Erie. The one-year-old rink played a key role in Fort Erie’s status as Buffalo’s Prohibition-era adult playground — liquor, gambling, sports.

The first Fort Erie home game played by the Black Hawks (in those days the team nickname was two words, not one) drew an SRO crowd of 6,500 to the building. The Hawks lost the contest, and wound up winning only one of their games at Peace Bridge.

The next year, 1930, the struggling Pittsburgh Pirates, seeking bigger crowds, played three home games at the rink. They lost each one, including the season finale (“HOCKEY PIRATES DO USUAL STUNT” was the Pittsburgh Press headline), which turned out to be the last game for the Pittsburgh franchise.

Alas, in March 1936 the Peace Bridge Arena’s roof collapsed in a heavy spring snowstorm (no one was hurt), and the building was demolished soon after.

Below, a record of every regular-season NHL game played in Fort Erie. Each score links to an account of the game:

NHL (Peace Bridge Arena, Fort Erie)

Chicago Black Hawks (1-3-1)

02/09/1929 NY Americans 1-0 Chi Black Hawks (attendance 6,500)
Rabbit McVeigh scores the first NHL goal in local hockey history

02/14/1929 Mtl Canadiens 1-0 Chi Black Hawks (attendance N.A.)
Future Hall of Famer Aurel Joliat nets the lone tally

02/16/1929 Bos Bruins 3-0 Chi Black Hawks
Hawks’ record drops to 5-26-4

03/07/1929 Tor Maple Leafs 1-1 Chi Black Hawks
Leafs won’t see Peace Bridge again for another 41 years

03/09/1929 Pgh Pirates 0-1 Chi Black Hawks
Hawks beat fellow cellar-dwellers for only Fort Erie win

Future Hall of Famer Eddie Shore scored three points at Peace Bridge. (Wikimedia Commons)

Pittsburgh Pirates (0-3-0)

02/12/1930 Bos Bruins 4-3 Pgh Pirates
A goal and two assists for Bruins’ fang-and-claw defenceman Eddie Shore

03/08/1930 Chi Black Hawks 4-3 Pgh Pirates
Pirates fall to 5-34-5

03/18/1930 Det Cougars 4-2 Pgh Pirates
Last game ever for Ice Pirates; next fall they move to Philly for a year, then cease to exist

NFL: Civic Stadium hosted several regular-season National Football League games over a 20-year span, starting in 1938. The Old Rockpile at Jefferson and Best was then brand new, just one year old, and Buffalo’s own NFL teams of the 1920s were a fading memory.

The first refugees the stadium sheltered was the team later known as the Pittsburgh Steelers, but then called the Pirates, as all Steel City teams were named back in the day. Owner Art Rooney tried to capitalize on the fame of rookie star Byron “Whizzer” White (the future Supreme Court justice), and staged the team’s second home game in Buffalo. Almost 20,000 turned out, and watched Pittsburgh lose.

The Philadelphia Eagles also played (and lost) a home game at Civic Stadium in 1942.

But the main guest tenant was the Chicago Cardinals, who played five games over the years at the East Side stadium. The Cards’ owner, Charles Bidwell, tired of his team playing second fiddle to the Bears and always on the lookout for bigger gate receipts, figured that Buffalo crowds would turn out to see NFL football. They did to a modest degree, but they saw the Cardinals win only once. Today’s Cards live on in the desert as the Arizona Cardinals.

Here is every regular-season NFL game played in Buffalo that didn’t involve the Bills. Scores link to accounts of the game:

NFL (Civic Stadium, Jefferson Ave. and Best St.)

Pittsburgh Pirates (0-1-0)

09/16/1938 Phi Eagles 27-7 Pgh Pirates (attendance 19,749)
Future Supreme Court justice Byron “Whizzer” White scores Pittsburgh’s only TD

 Chicago Cardinals (1-3-1)

09/28/1938 GB Packers 24-22 Chi Cards (10,678)
Late FG wins for Packers; ref is Buffalo football legend Tommy Hughitt

09/15/1940 Det Lions 0-0 Chi Cards (18,048)
Cards, mulling move from Chicago, stage game here but thunderstorm ruins day

09/13/1942 Cle Rams 0-7 Chi Cards (18,698)
With a baseball game at Comiskey, Cards play season opener here and win

Tom “The Albion Antelope” Colella played for Detroit vs. Chicago in a 1943 game at Buffalo. (Wikimedia Commons)

10/17/1943 Det Lions 7-0 Chi Cards (15,072)
Canisius grad Tom “The Albion Antelope” Colella runs and passes for victorious Lions

09/28/1958 NY Giants 37-7 Chi Cards (21,923)
Frank Gifford scores first three TDs in Giants romp

Philadelphia Eagles (0-1-0)

09/27/1942 Bkn Dodgers 35-14 Phi Eagles (5,682)
Scant interest in game featuring teams with little following here

Looking back, we see that the Cardinals, Eagles, Black Hawks and the hockey and football Pirates had a miserable record as Buffalo home teams: a collective 2-11-2. Let’s hope the Blue Jays do better.

After all, they’re our guests.


Also see: The Toronto Blue Jays Aren’t the First Ball Club to Find Refuge in Buffalo

Lead image: The Rockpile was home field for the Cardinals, Eagles, and Pirates in seven regular-season NFL games.

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