The Houston Buffaloes (1896¬–1961) were an early minor league baseball team out of Houston that played in the newly-organized Texas League. Earlier incarnations of the Buffaloes, or Buffs as they were also called, included the Babies, the Mud Cats, and the Magnolias before the Buffaloes formed in 1896. During its franchise history, the team’s home field changed from a variety of venues. Many notable players began their careers with the Buffaloes, and some even went on to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The earliest name of a Houston baseball club, other than simply the “Houston” ball team, was unofficially the “Babies” in 1888. The Babies, so nicknamed for their being the last to sign with the new Texas League, sported green flannel uniforms. The nickname was passed around to various teams but never really stuck with one particular team for more than a season. The assigning of the name “Babies” was given by media personnel to any team that was new to the league. Having a rocky start, however, the Houston Babies did not finish out their first season. When the 1889 season began the team had attained a new nickname—the Houston Mud Cats—befitting the subtropical condition and unpaved streets of the city. The 1889 Houston Mud Cats had many talented ball players, however, after the 1889 season, baseball, as it pertained to the Texas League, fell to the wayside in Houston. Several business owners put together their own amateur teams, which filled the vacant ballparks.
The Texas League and the Mud Cats struggled financially in both 1893 and 1894. When the Texas League was revived in 1895, the team took on yet another name, the Magnolias. The name comes from the fact that Houston was known for its natural grove of Magnolia trees that grew in the eastern part of the city. “Magnolia City” is just one of several names that has been assigned to Houston. This name too failed to stick, and in 1896 the team emerged with a name that would endure—the Houston Buffaloes. The new name was derived from the Buffalo Bayou that runs through the city. (“Bayou City” was another name for the city.) Houstonians were proud of their Buffaloes, and eventually, both the media and fans shortened the name to the Houston Buffs.
The Houston Buffaloes enjoyed great success during their inaugural season in 1896. They began with a lineup of remarkable talent, such as Henry Cote, an excellent catcher who had returned to the minors from the National League, and John Roach, a pitcher with ties to the New York Giants. Other team members that year were shortstop Johnny Kling, outfielder Jimmy “Rabbit” Slagle, and first baseman Charles “Jugger” Shaffer. The Buffs won a championship their first season. After several years of decent seasons, three bleak years followed from 1900 to 1902, when the only team Houston was able to put together consisted basically of amateurs playing on a game-by-game basis.
In 1903 the team became part of the South Texas League. After this date, the Houston Buffaloes would continue to function as a complete team for decades. In 1909 the Buffaloes took the pennant, and in 1910 they shared a co-pennant win with Dallas. In 1912 and 1913 the Buffaloes exclusively won their first back-to-back titles in their history. Buffaloes pitcher Pat Newman took over as manager in 1914. From 1914 until 1918 Newman led the Buffaloes into many victories even as the war took many men away from the game in 1917 and 1918. The war years were daunting yet the Buffs struggled through.
The early 1920s ushered in a new era in baseball history. This year the Dixie Series was created, which was an annual playoff series between the top teams in the Texas League and the Southern Association. Also, team ownership transformed to some degree. League rules prohibited a major league team from having a controlling interest in a minor league team before the 1920s. This rule was meant to prevent the establishment of “farming” teams. Eventually a blind eye was turned upon this rule, and the Buffaloes became the first minor league team to be affiliated with a major league team—the St. Louis Cardinals. By the end of the 1920s, other major league teams had controlling stock in minor league teams as farm teams. In 1926 the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series title against the New York Giants, which made Houstonians proud because the Cards lineup that year held several former Buffs.
In 1927 the Buffs’ games were finally being sent out over the airwaves via KPRC radio, which only added to their popularity. A major victory came for the Buffs in 1928 when they won the Dixie Series against the Birmingham Barons. However, in 1931, the Barons were the victors over the Buffs. The Buffs celebrated as many wins as they did defeats in the Dixie Series; the winning years include 1928, 1947, 1956, and 1957 and the years defeated include 1931, 1940, 1951, and 1954.
Probably the most notable player to come out of the Buffaloes was Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean. Dean, an exceptional pitcher whose hall of fame career included years with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, played for the Buffaloes in 1930 and 1931. His pitching helped earn the Buffs the Texas League pennant in 1931. Other notable players included Watty Watkins, Carey Selph, Ray Powell, Frank “Pancho” Snyder, “Wild Bill” Hallahan, Ken Penner, Pepper Martin, Don Gutteridge, Frank Mancuso, Joe Schultz, Homer Peel, and Tex Carleton just to name a few. Even Bill O’Neal mentions the “steady flow of quality ballplayers from the massive Cardinal farm system” in his history of The Texas League, 1888–1987: A Century of Baseball.
Over the course of the team’s long history, the Buffaloes played at several ballparks. In the spring of 1888, when the Buffs were the Babies, the team squared off against the Cincinnati Red Stockings at the Houston Baseball Park or Travis Street Park. In 1904 the transfer of ownership for the park caused the Buffs to search for a new home. The team played at its new venue, West End Park, in 1905. Buffalo Stadium, the new home of the Buffs, built in 1928 by the St. Louis Cardinals to house their newly-acquired farm team, could house more than 12,000 people—as opposed to the mere 4,000 that West End Park held. Opening day, April 11, 1928, was a triumphant day for the Buffs; they won 7–5 against the Waco Cubs. One of the more notable designs of Buffalo Stadium was its eighty round metal medallions (each three feet in diameter) sporting the team symbol (the buffalo) that circled the outside of the stadium. The construction design of the stadium was planned so that the batter would be facing east and toward a huge expanse of field—more than 340 feet to the left, more than 430 feet out in the center, and more than 320 feet to the right. The pitcher had the wind at his back, and for this reason, the stadium quickly became known as a “pitcher’s park.” With night-time games becoming popular, lights were a new addition to the stadium in 1930. Many changes took place within Buff Stadium over the years. One memorable addition occurred when Allen H. Russell signed on as president of the Buffs in 1946. He had air-conditioning installed in the ladies restrooms to provide more comfort to female baseball fans coming out to a summer game. August Busch, the St. Louis Cardinals owner, in 1952 changed the name of Buffalo Stadium to Busch Stadium and relocated the fences in twenty feet in an attempt to make the game more equally advantageous for the batter as it had been for the pitcher at Buff Stadium—which fans were still want to call it in spite of its new name.
In 1961, the team’s final year of operation, the Buffs were purchased by the Houston Sports Association in order to gain the right for Houston to have its own major league team, which would be the Colt .45’s—who in time became the Houston Astros. Busch (or Buff) Stadium was purchased in 1963 by Sammy Finger, who built Finger’s Furniture. For a time the furniture store stood on the site and housed a small museum which showcased the old Buff (or Busch) Stadium home plate along with other memorabilia. The store closed in 2013, and the property was sold in 2014 to a Houston developer, Frank Liu.