AFL CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES: Dec. 26, 1964, Jan. 1, 1967 BEEN THERE (TOO LATE): July 8, 2022
"Civic Stadium," as War Memorial Stadium was known from 1938 through 1960, was one of many New Deal public works projects that were used by minor league baseball teams, another one being Roosevelt Stadium. It was originally called "Roesch Stadium" (1937) and then "Grover Cleveland Stadium" (early 1938). It was an oval-shaped, open-air single-deck football stadium, to which a large roof and lights were added later on, probably in the late 1940s.
In 1960, the Buffalo Bills were established as a charter franchise of the new American Football League, making their home in Civic Stadium, which soon thereafter (1961) was renamed War Memorial Stadium.The 1965 grandstand expansion mentioned above was probably intended primarily for them rather than the Bisons. The Bills were very successful in their first decade, winning two AFL championships and taking second-place honors in another. That was when Jack Kemp, who later served as a U.S. Senator, was their quarterback. The Bills drew good-sized crowds, but with the completion of the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 came pressure to compete with bigger franchises, hence the construction of their new, much larger home in Rich Stadium, located in the suburb of Orchard Park, south of Buffalo. It was later called "Ralph Wilson Stadium (1998-2015)," then "New Era Field" (2016-2020), simply "Bills Stadium" during the 2020 football season, and in late March 2021 it officially became "Highmark Stadium." In early 2022 the Bills unveiled plans to build a new stadium in the parking lot across the street to the west, and it should be ready in time for the 2026 season.
After the long-time home of the Buffalo Bisons, Offermann Field (built in 1923), was condemned via eminent domain proceedings, in 1961 the Bisons moved into War Memorial Stadium. Coincidentally, they resided in that stadium for almost the same time period (1961-1970) as the Buffalo Bills. Crescent-shaped sections were carved out of the grandstand to make room behind home plate, and to provide for a respectable distance down the right field line -- 310 feet. In 1965, seating capacity was raised by about 10,000, as the grandstand was doubled in size along the third base side, forming one huge deck that was unusually steep by baseball standards. That, coupled with the huge size of the roof, is why the support beams were so tall. The juncture between the expanded main portion of the grandstand and the smaller, curved portion was bridged by a section of roof that sloped down sharply, an awkward expedient reminding one of Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. People sitting in the back rows had to look through two sets of support beams. In contrast, the seating rows in the new section along the first base line (filling most of the semi-circle beyond the football end zone) had hardly any slope at all, making it hard to see over the heads of fans in front. Players from the visiting team who needed to use the facilities had to walk from the dugout on the first base side through the entrance tunnel, sharing the restroom with the general public.
CINEMA: War Memorial Stadium was featured in the classic movie The Natural (1984), starring Robert Redford as "Roy Hobbs," a 40-year old superstar rookie for the "New York Knights."
Designed primarily for football, War Memorial Stadium was had asymmetrical dimensions for baseball games. Without the inner fence, the distance to the left center power alley would have been almost 500, feet, rivaling the Polo Grounds, which it resembled. In some years (1966 and perhaps later), the diamond was rotated a few degrees counter-clockwise, so that the left field line intersected the straight portion of the grandstand. (The distance markers in the 1966 diagram above are mere estimates.) That was the same as at L.A. Memorial Coliseum, but in reverse: Instead of having an abnormally short left field, there was an abnormally short right field. That was partly offset by a tall temporary wooden fence on that side, about 20 feet high. At some point in the late 1960s or 1970s, the seats behind home plate that had been removed in 1961 were put back in, filling in the crescent-shaped void. At the same time, the diamond was shifted about 13 feet toward right field, reducing the distance to the foul pole to 297 feet. In addition, the center field fence was moved in, so that the true distance in the latter years was more like 400 feet. It is uncertain whether the distance markers were changed to accurately reflect this; the distance markers as shown in the movie The Natural (420 CF and 310 RF) overstated the actual distances.
While the Bills prospered during the 1960s, the Buffalo Bisons didn't do so well, and the franchise moved to Winnipeg in June 1970. After several years "in limbo," War Memorial Stadium once again opened for minor league baseball in 1979, when the Bisons were "reborn" at the AA-level, later upgraded to AAA status. During the 1980s the uncovered bleachers on the far side were filled with advertising signs, while the creeky old grandstand slowly rusted. Soon the city scraped together funds to build a modern yet distinctively classic ballpark -- originally named "Pilot Field" -- that opened for business as the new home of the Bisons in 1988. The "Rockpile" was demolished soon after the Bisons moved into Pilot Field, which is now known as Sahlen Field. Two of the four Art Deco-styled grand entrances were retained as a historical reminder, the northeast one now used for offices and meeting rooms, but there is nothing left of the grandstand itself. Today the land is occupied by the Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion, with a baseball field and a football field surrounded by a track. It is located just east of Masten Park, between Dodge Street and Best Street where they intersect with Jefferson Avenue, about two miles northeast of downtown Buffalo.
SOURCES: Pastier (2007), Ritter (1992), Gershman (1993)
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