Author: Jeff Z. Klein
The Toronto Blue Jays finally begin their residency at Sahlen Field on Tuesday afternoon, but they won’t be the first baseball team from elsewhere to call Buffalo home.
Starting in 1951, the Indianapolis Clowns, a famed barnstorming club in the waning days of the old Negro Leagues, made their headquarters at Buffalo’s Offermann Stadium on Michigan and East Ferry. They played several games there over a five-year span, and although the local press referred to them as the Buffalo Clowns, the rest of the baseball world persisted in calling them Indianapolis — and still does. (After all, even though they play on Jimmy Griffin Plaza, they’re still the Toronto Blue Jays.)
The Clowns’ time here is seldom remembered, and their archival record is spotty. Yet some of those games were historic.
They featured a future all-time great, and the first women to play pro ball alongside men.
The Clowns owner, Syd Pollock, shifted the team’s headquarters here because of the large crowds touring teams typically drew at Offermann. In that initial 1951 season, they played at least six games here between tour dates on the road. The bulk of their press coverage appeared in the city’s black weekly, the Buffalo Criterion.
In 1952 the Clowns had a teenage phenom at shortstop and second base — an 18-year-old named Henry Aaron. On May 25 he made his Offermann debut in a doubleheader against the Memphis Red Sox and went 6 for 9 on the day, including a home run.
The weird thing is that Aaron batted righty, but with his left hand on top, in a sort of backhanded grip. Between games on that May 25 a Boston Braves scout suggested he try a standard grip.
“The first time I came to bat after that, I held the bat the right way and hit a home run,” Aaron remembered in “I Had a Hammer,” his 1991 autobiography. “I never batted cross-handed again, except for now and then when a tough pitcher had two strikes on me.”
Within a month Aaron would be signed away to the newly integrated major leagues by the Braves. Hammerin’ Hank wound up hitting 755 homers, breaking Babe Ruth’s big league record.
Back in Buffalo in 1953, the Clowns replaced Aaron with a new phenom at second base — Toni Stone, the first woman to play pro ball alongside men. Stone grew up in St. Paul, Minn., playing alongside boys and turned pro during brief stints with black men’s teams in San Francisco and New Orleans. With the Clowns, she played regularly and held her own, batting .243.
The Offermann debut of Stone, whom the Buffalo Criterion described as “the 21-year-old lass who plays a mean second base,” took place on June 14. No record exists of how she did that day, but she was a popular draw wherever she went. “The only girl playing in league baseball had an appeal,” as the Kansas City Call sports editor put it. “And the fact that she elects to play the difficult second base position instead of choosing a nice soft berth in right or left field, arouses the interest of the curious.”
Stone played one season with the Clowns before being dealt to the Kansas City Monarchs, but that one season was immortalized in the 2019 Off-Broadway stage play “Toni Stone”. However, the play is neither explicitly set in nor even mentions Buffalo, despite Stone having played at least a half dozen games at Offermann that season.
Stone’s place at second base was taken in 1954 by another female player, Connie Morgan, who was famed for her slick fielding. Another woman also performed for the Clowns that year at Offermann, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a right-hander who became the first female pitcher to play alongside men.
So the Blue Jays are not the first baseball team that came from away to be welcomed by Buffalo. When the Jays take the field at Sahlen on Tuesday, take a moment to remember Hank Aaron, Toni Stone and the Indianapolis Clowns, the other refugee ball club that once found shelter in Buffalo.
Lead image courtesy Kansas Historical Society
Jeff Z. Klein is the writer and executive producer of the Heritage Moments series on WBFO.