Several weeks ago, I had the fortune of sitting on the field of the former War Memorial Stadium and it brought back many memories of games long past. In its illustrious years, the “Old Rockpile” played host to many events as the home of the Buffalo Bills and of the Buffalo Bisons, as well as the setting for the iconic film The Natural. For one special night it also hosted the New York Yankees.
On September 7, 2020, the Yankees returned to Buffalo for the first time since August 19, 1963. Buffalo has always seemingly been a “Yankees town” and the interlocked NY cap graces the heads of many WNYers. For myself, it was the teams of the 1980s on WPIX with the veritable Phil Rizzuto and Frank White on the call that I grew up with. In those years it was Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, and a cast of pinstripers destined to not win a pennant. However, in the 1960s the Yankees were the toast of the baseball world. Just two years removed from the home run chase of 1961, Mantle and Maris (those fabled M&M boys) were in Buffalo to play a team of International League All-Stars.
Perhaps the Yankees should have taken a pass on that game since Maris and Mantle could not help their team due to injury. The Yanks LOST to those All-Stars 5-0. As former Buffalo News sportswriter Cy Krititzer wrote, “Mickey Mantle and several other New York Yankees glanced in surprise at the right-field screen in War Memorial Stadium. ‘I can’t believe it, that’s 300 feet’ said Mickey… As for all the Yankee regulars except Mickey and Roger Maris [who did not play due to injury] it might have well been 3,000 feet.”
That night the Yankees only managed two hits in the Old Rockpile—the hardest hit ball a double by Johnny Blanchard. The fearsome foursome of Willie Smith, Nels Chittum, Bill Smith, and Harry Fanok, not household names nor destined for the Cooperstown, fanned nine Yankee batters. Fanok was singled out by Yankee manager Ralph Houk for his three strikeouts and hard fastballs. “We haven’t seen anyone throw any harder than Fanok,” Houk quipped. Indeed, the game may have been in Fanok’s hands when in the 9th inning the Yankees slightly rallied with Tony Kubek on first base and with All-Star Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra at the plate. The crowd gave Berra a large ovation and sat on the edge of their seats with the short 300-foot fence looming. Fanok’s fastball came in and as Yogi swung the ball caught the bat at the handle and broke it resulting in a pop fly for an out. Fanok also struck out Hector Lopez and Joe Pepitone in the game. Harry Fanok later appeared with the Cardinals as a reliever for parts of two seasons in 1963 and 1964. In 33 1/3 innings he struck out 35 batters. His career would be short-lived due to arm trouble.
Several other Buffalo Bisons appeared in the game including Elio Chacon who that season had a .272 batting average and 23 doubles. Chacon had a three-year career spanning 228 games combined with the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Mets. The other notable Bison to play that night was fan favorite Pumpsie Green. Cy Kritzer wrote of his at bat: “Now Pumpsie Green was swinging and the crowd had its thrill of the night when his soaring drive to left missed by inches of being a grand-slam homer. Then he slammed a sharp grounder at ex-Bison Harry Bright and it went past him for an error and a run.” Pumpsie was eventually called up to the New York Mets in 1963, but for his time with the Bisons he posted a stellar .308 batting average with 139 hits and a .491 slugging percentage. His major league career lasted part of 5 seasons and 344 games.
Buffalo has always been a baseball town and it was emphasized by the stand-out crowd at the 1963 All-Star event. The largest crowd on record for the International League All-Star games showed up that evening at War Memorial with 28,524 in attendance, breaking the previous record of 21,885 two years prior.
So as we watch the second series here in Buffalo this week between our newly anointed “Buffalo Blue Jays” and the Yankees, think back to that August summer evening 57 years ago when Yogi Berra and the great New York Yankees came into War Memorial Stadium and were humbled by a group of All-Stars that may have been playing in the greatest game of their lives.
Lead image: War Memorial Stadium | From The Collection of Michael J. Billoni