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  Only tangential to the main focus of this website, but of general interest 
  to many baseball fans and of particular interest to the Western New Yorkers  
  who operate this thing, two sections on this page address a bit of the history  
  of Negro League baseball in Buffalo.  The first section contains the entirety 
  of an article by one of the very few readable writers in the local fishwrap, 
  interviewing former Negro League star Jimmie Wilkes.  The second section is     
  a cornea-shrivelling scrapbook of clippings from 1950s issues of the Buffalo 
  Criterion.  If you're very understandably having difficulty reading those, 
  you might want to click on the date of each item, which will open a new page 
  containing a 200% enlargement of each piece.  
This page is heavy with photos and may cause problems for users with slow connections.
If photos do not load, PC users should right-click the red "X," then click "Show Picture,"
or simply reload page.
- Updated January 2014 -

    The Buffalo News. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22 September 2004    

CLASS CLOWNS
The Indianapolis Clowns have a rich place in Buffalo baseball history;
for example, Hank Aaron was "discovered" at Offermann Stadium

By TIM GRAHAM

News Sports Reporter
James Wilkes doesn't remember Buffalo much. He can't recollect the restaurants where he ate, the taverns where he drank or the hotels where he slept. The early stages of Alzheimer's disease have clouded his memory banks, sometimes leading him amiss while he tries to withdraw one of the many tales from his glory days playing in the Negro Leagues. One August afternoon, in the kitchen of his modest condominium in Brantford, Ontario, the 78-year-old Wilkes reminisced with a visitor about his baseball career. His memories were aided by a dog-eared scrapbook and gentle reminders from his proud wife. He had trouble recognizing a few photos, even of himself, without looking at the names written on the back. Yet upon one memory in particular, his head cleared. He laid down the yellowed newspaper clippings and leaned back from the table. He stopped his wife in her tracks when she tried to elaborate for him. Wilkes was a center fielder for the celebrated Indianapolis Clowns, who -- strange but true -- called Buffalo home in the 1950s. He was in the Offermann Stadium locker room May 25, 1952. Milwaukee Braves scout Dewey Griggs approached him. The player and the bird dog knew each other. Wilkes was back in the Negro Leagues after a short run in the Brooklyn Dodgers chain, unable to supplant a budding star named Duke Snider. Griggs was looking for the next Jackie Robinson or Larry Doby. "He was in the dressing room, looks around and says 'Hey, Wilkes, is there anybody in here you think can go to the major leagues?'" Wilkes recalled. "I pointed and said 'You see that fellow sitting over there? Hank Aaron... If he don't go to the major leagues, then my name ain't Jimmy Wilkes.' I guess you know how that turned out." The Braves signed Aaron, who then proceeded to rewrite baseball history, breaking Babe Ruth's hallowed home run record. Any baseball fan worth his weight in tobacco juice knows that. But how many Western New York sports fans know Aaron's prodigious career got its start in Buffalo? How many know the Clowns were headquartered at Offermann Stadium from 1951-55, winning three Negro League titles in that span? How many know Buffalo was a prominent setting for such a remarkable time in our grand old game? "It has been forgotten," said Cy Williams, the venerable local scout of six decades. "You ask people about it who are 50, 60 years old and they wouldn't remember it at all." -- cont'd below


Associated Press
"(The scout) says 'Hey, Wilkes, is there
anybody in here you think can go to
the major leagues?' I pointed and said
'You see that fellow sitting over there?
Hank Aaron... If he don't go to the
major leagues, then my name ain't
Jimmy Wilkes.'"
......
Associated Press
When Jackie Robinson entered the
major leagues, it marked the beginning
of the end of the Negro League.







        Buffalo's baseball history is rich:  the Bisons, Warren Spahn, Sal Maglie, Jimmy Collins, 
  Joe McCarthy, the filming of "The Natural."  
        The Clowns have been, at best, an afterthought in these parts.  They could be the answer 
  to a trivia question only if anyone had the idea to ask it. 
A laughing matter
By no means were the Clowns alone in the annals of Buffalo's all-black baseball teams. There were the Pittsburgh Stars of Buffalo, the Buffalo Colored Giants and the Buffalo Red Caps. The Clowns, however, were one of the most revered teams in Negro League history. As their nicknames would suggest, they were jokesters. They were baseball's version of the Harlem Globetrotters, barnstormers who drew throngs of fans with flamboyance. They ran the bases backward, stole third base from first and shot craps during the game. They would put a woman in the lineup or send a midget pinch-hitter to the plate. Their antics sometimes were viewed as shamelessly distasteful. In The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, baseball historian Peter Bjarkman wrote the Clowns "were the ultimate champions of such burlesque baseball, often wearing grass skirts, painting up their bodies to appear as African cannibals, and donning such names as Selassie, Mofike, Wahoo and even Tarzan." The franchise began as the Miami Giants in the late 1930s and became the Ethiopian Clowns before moving to Cincinnati and then settling in Indianapolis from 1943-50. They were kept on the move as Negro League attendance quickly dwindled once Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. The talent level decreased as Negro Leaguers were snatched up into the big leagues, and black fans grew more interested in following heroes such as Robinson, Doby, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Satchel Paige, and Don Newcombe rather than players who were either too limited or too old to get the call. Attendance in Indianapolis reflected the shift. Clowns owner Syd Pollock, a theater operator from Tarrytown, always respected Buffalo's baseball appetite. Pollock never forgot the sizable crowd he saw in 1921 as a member of the Westchester Blue Sox, a white traveling squad that played the Buffalo Colored Giants. The Clowns held firm to the barnstorming ways and retained Indianapolis in their team name, but they relocated to Buffalo in 1951. That season they played six games in Offermann Stadium and only four in Indianapolis. Records from that time are incomplete. The local press called them the Buffalo Clowns, but nowhere else in Negro League history are they referred to as such. "In those days the crowds in Buffalo were impressive," said James Riley, author of six books on the Negro Leagues. His yet-to-be-released latest work, Barnstorming to Heaven: The Life and Career of Syd Pollock and His Great Teams, was co-written with Pollock's late son, Alan J. Pollock. "The Clowns were on the road so much it didn't matter what city was on the front of their jerseys." The Clowns were an attraction wherever they went. They supplemented their finances by traveling around the country to play exhibitions against minor league and semipro teams in addition to their league schedule.
Back-to-back
The Clowns fielded wonderful teams in Buffalo. They arrived as the reigning Negro League champions and won the title again in 1951 and 1952, their first two seasons here. They won another crown in 1955. "We'd get out there between innings and clown around, but then we had a team that could run you to death," Wilkes said. "We weren't clowning then." Their most famous alum is Aaron. Although the future home run king was with the Clowns briefly, earning $200 a month, two seminal moments of his career took place in Buffalo. A legendary baseball oddity is that Aaron never swung a bat correctly throughout his childhood. The right-handed hitter grasped the handle with his left hand on top of his right, but no one dared messed with his effective cut. That was until he arrived in Buffalo for the Clowns' home-opening doubleheader in 1952. Griggs between games summoned the 18-year-old shortstop and offered some simple suggestions. Griggs wanted to see Aaron make a hard overhand throw to first base rather than his usual sidearm flip, and he wanted him to grip the bat properly. "Mr. Griggs suggested that I hold the bat with my right hand on top instead of cross-handed," Aaron wrote in I Had a Hammer, his 1991 autobiography. "The first time I came to bat after that, I held the bat the right way and hit a home run. I never batted cross-handed again, except for now and then when a tough pitcher had two strikes on me." He wasn't known as Hammerin' Hank yet, but on that soggy afternoon in Offermann Stadium he wowed Griggs and 1,800 fans by going 6 for 9 against the Memphis Red Sox. Aaron not only blasted that opposite-field home run, but he also laid down a pair of bunt singles. He had three swinging singles, one over third base, one over shortstop and one over second base. Aaron's display, however, wasn't enough to impress local baseball man Dick Fischer, who owned Fischer's Sporting Goods and scouted for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "I had a little deal myself with... Dick Fischer," Clowns pitcher Jim "Fireball" Cohen was quoted in Aaron's autobiography. "He told me that if I put him on a player that he signed he'd give me $1,000. If the player made the majors I'd get $5,000. Well, as soon as we got to Buffalo I went straight to the store and said 'I think I got you a man.' "Fischer was supposed to go up to Canada with his wife, but I talked him into staying around to watch Aaron. We had a doubleheader the next day, and Aaron hit the ball all over the lot. I talked to Fischer afterwards and he said Aaron looked all right, but he didn't pull the ball." The Pirates, even with Branch Rickey now running the club, probably would have been out of the running for Aaron by then anyway. The Braves and the New York Giants wanted the phenom badly. For the Braves, beating out the Giants for Aaron was personal. The Braves had let Willie Mays get away a few seasons earlier. But the Giants viewed Aaron as a project, while the Braves thought he could contribute sooner. "At the time the Giants weren't as high on him," Riley said. "They knew the raw talent was there, but he wasn't a good fielder, and back then when you're an infielder they looked more at your glove than anything else. And he wasn't a big power hitter at that time."
Plenty of competition
The Giants also had an established shortstop at the time. Alvin Dark, a former Rookie of the Year, was enjoying another All-Star season in 1952. The Braves, meanwhile, had Johnny Logan, who would eventually develop into a fine player but was still learning. The Giants' offer was $15,000. to buy out Aaron's contract from Pollock and to pay Aaron $250. a month. The Braves' offer was $10,000. to Pollock and $350. a month for Aaron. "Syd Pollock, to his credit, eventually accepted less money (from the Braves) so that Hank could make more," Riley said. Aaron never played a game at shortstop in the major leagues. He was converted to the outfield, where he won Gold Gloves from 1958-60, making it to the majors in 1954. He also went on to hit 755 career home runs and bat .305. He is also first in career RBIs (2,297) and total bases (6,856), tied for third in runs (2,174, with Ruth) and is third in hits (3,771). Sadly, not much was made of Aaron's time in Buffalo. In fact, the Clowns barely received any mention in the daily newspapers. The morning of the Clowns' 1952 season opener the Buffalo Courier-Express dedicated two whole paragraphs to the event. Muny baseball received many more column inches, and a women's billiards exhibition in New York City got even better play. The May 27, 1952, edition of the Buffalo Evening News carried a one-sentence description of the doubleheader, failing to mention a single player's name. "That was typical of how invisible the Negro Leagues were," Riley said. "Once Jackie Robinson crossed the color line the press deserted them, too. "As years went by the Negro Leagues went south. Even when Hank Aaron played for the Clowns it was already considered minor-league level. It was no longer a high-caliber brand of baseball." By 1956 the Clowns left Buffalo to become a barnstorming team exclusively. Wilkes saw the Negro Leagues' deterioration firsthand. He was the leadoff hitter for the 1946 champion Newark Eagles, one of the finest squads ever assembled. His teammates included Leon Day, Biz Mackey, Johnny Davis, Irvin, and Doby. He is one of an estimated 20 survivors who played in the Negro Leagues prior to 1950, when major league teams began cherry picking black rosters. "The biggest crowd I ever played in front of was 70,000 people," said Wilkes, who in only 75 games with the 1952 Clowns hit .325 with 63 runs and a league-leading 49 stolen bases. "Towards the end there were 1,000 or 1,500 fans in the stands. It was sad. Clubs just started folding because they weren't making money. "It was like the bottom dropped out, like a bucket dropping into a well when you want to get water. But the bucket didn't come up no more."

____________________________________

A Scrapbook of Items from the Buffalo Criterion
March 2011 -- A good friend of your Baseball Games webmasters was recently delving once again into obscure bits of Buffalo sports history, and in the process discovered a remarkable on-line resource in the Western New York Legacy website [now contained in the New York Heritage site]. Among its many fascinating and invaluable research materials are the archives of the Buffalo Criterion, Western New York's African-American weekly newspaper since the late 1920s. Back issues at the Heritage site run from 1952 through 1989, just far enough back to offer a glimpse of the last days of Negro League baseball in Buffalo. Those early-'50s issues were -- still are -- an intriguing, entertaining read, although now, in their microfiche form, an eye-straining one as well. There's no Sports section per se, let alone any box scores, but there, at the dawn of the civil rights movement and baseball's integration, tucked between local news stories, often wryly written, the trenchant editorial cartoons of R S Pious, and the ads for local music clubs, burlesk houses, and, ubiquitously, Dixie Peach Pomade, are plenty of brief items hyping the Clowns, several of which we've now posted here. All of these relate to Negro League ball in Buffalo -- you'll find Jimmy Wilkes in the July 19, 1952 item, Aaron mentioned in the May 17 and June 14 pieces -- but there's lots more in the Heritage Criterion archives. July 26, 1952, for instance, finds Yankee GM George Weiss dissing Vic Power, Casey Stengel dissing Bison immortal Luke Easter, and Larry Doby, Sam Jones, and Monte Irvin all making the news, if you want to search.
10 May 1952
Buffalo Criterion 10 May 1952 - season preview

17 May 1952
Buffalo Criterion 17 May 1952 - season opener, Speed Merchant
24 May 1952
Buffalo Criterion 24 May 1952 - Memphis Red Sox

Buffalo Criterion 7 June 1952 - King Tut 7 June 1952
7 June 1952
Buffalo Criterion 7 June 1952 - KC Monarchs

14 June 1952
Buffalo Criterion 14 June 1952 - Buck O'Neil, Hank Aaron
28 June 1952
Buffalo Criterion 28 June 1952 - Birmingham Black Barons
12 July 1952
Buffalo Criterion 12 July 1952 - George Walker

19 July 1952
Buffalo Criterion 19 July 1952 - Joe Mitchell

Buffalo Criterion 19 July 1952 - Round Robin Tournament 19 July 1952
Buffalo Criterion 19 July 1952 - Jimmy Wilkes
19 July 1952

26 July 1952
Buffalo Criterion 26 July 1952 - Syd Pollack

Buffalo Criterion 26 July 1952 - Chicago American Giants 26 July 1952................................................................................................26 July 1952
Buffalo Criterion 26 July 1952 - Clowns team picture

2 August 1952
Buffalo Criterion 2 August 1952 - Clowns vs Chicago American Giants

2 August 1952
Buffalo Criterion 2 August 1952 - Champion Clowns team picture

2 August 1952
Buffalo Criterion 2 August 1952 - season finale vs Chicago Giants

16 August 1952
Buffalo Criterion 16 August 1952 - Giants-Stars, Patkin, Veeck
16 August 1952
Buffalo Criterion 16 August 1952 - Johnny Williams





23 August 1952
Buffalo Criterion 23 August 1952 - Giants-Stars, Charleston, Whittington

23 May 1953
Buffalo Criterion 23 May 1953 - Toni Stone
30 May 1953
Buffalo Criterion 30 May 1953 - tour of Japan, Isaiah Harris

Buffalo Criterion 6 June 1953 - King Tut, Toni Stone 6 June 1953...............................................................6 June 1953
Buffalo Criterion 6 June 1953 - Memphis Red Sox, Toni Stone

13 June 1953
Buffalo Criterion 6 June 1953 - Tom Cooper, Isaiah Harris
  18 July 1953
Buffalo Criterion 18 July 1953 - KC Monarchs
The bland little filler above is actually the only item relating to the Clowns or Negro League ball that we could find in any issue after the June 13 piece at left -- which probably says a lot about the state of the NAL in 1953. What little baseball coverage the Criterion provides later in '53 shifts to reports on Buffalo's International League Bisons, who hadn't received a mention in the Criterion in '52. Hey, a note on the clippings we've presented here: we realize they're next to impossible to read unless your nose actually touches your computer screen. Click the date of each item to open a new window containing an enlargement of each piece.



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