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
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.
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
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
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
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
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."