Saturday, September 3, 2016

How to Be a Jets Fan In Buffalo -- 2016 Edition

On September 15, the New York Jets will play Thursday Night Football, away to the only NFL team that actually plays its home games in the State of New York: The Buffalo Bills, coached by former Jet coach Rex Ryan.

Before You Go. Buffalo is located on the Niagara River, between Lakes Erie and Ontario. As a result, it is known for cold weather, and it faced a particularly nasty snowstorm in the Winter of 2014-15. Orchard Park, the suburb in which the Bills' stadium squats, is right on Lake Erie, and while it's slightly more inland than downtown Buffalo, the wind is actually worse at that spot.

This being mid-September, the stereotypical Buffalo cold won't be an issue. The Buffalo News (I know, not an imaginative name for a newspaper, but it's the only daily the city has left) is predicting temperatures for Thursday afternoon to be in the low 80s in daylight and the low 60s at night. Dress as you would if the game were at home.

Buffalo may be considerably to the west of New York City and New Jersey, and it is, geographically and culturally, more of a Midwestern city than a Northeastern one. But it is still in the Eastern Time Zone, so you won't have to fiddle with your timepieces.

However, since it is on the Canadian border, and there are tourist attractions nearby (including Niagara Falls, which now has legalized gambling as well as its natural wonder, the falls itself), you might want to bring your passport, as they'll send you back over the border without one. Right now, the exchange rate really favors the U.S.: US$1.00 = C$1.38, while C$1.00 = U.S. 72 cents.
The Peace Bridge, connecting Buffalo with Fort Erie, Ontario

Tickets. In spite of its passionate fan base, the Bills averaged only 96 percent of capacity last season -- 69,880 fans out of 73,079 seats. (It was 80,020 until wider seats were installed in 1998.) This is largely due to the Bills not having made the Playoffs in this century.

Seriously: Their last Playoff season was 1999, their last Playoff game "The Music City Miracle" defeat to Tennessee on January 8, 2000, their last home Playoff game on December 28, 1996 -- at the end of Bill Clinton's 1st term as President. No team in all the big 4 North American sports has gone longer without making the Playoffs. The next-longest is the Seattle Mariners, whose last postseason game was on October 22, 2001.

With the Bills still being the sports team in Western New York, tickets may still be hard to come by. Fortunately, they have among the least expensive tickets in the NFL. Unfortunately, they classify the Jets, and only the Jets, as a "Platinum" game, so they charge their highest prices. (I guess they figured they could gouge New Yorkers, and it wouldn't generate much fuss.) Seats in the lower level, the 100 sections, are $152 and $133 along the sidelines, and $103 in the end zones. The 200 sections are all sold-out club seats on the sidelines, but the end zone seats are $86. In the upper level, the 300 sections, seats are $133 and $114 along the sidelines, except for $86 seats at the back, with no end-zone seats in that level.

Getting There. It's 375 road miles from Times Square to Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo, and 358 miles from MetLife Stadium to New Era Field in Orchard Park. Buffalo is one of those cities that's too close to fly to, but to far to get there any other way. United Airlines offers round-trip nonstop flights for as little as $430. If you do fly in, the Number 24 bus will get you from Buffalo Niagara International Airport, 11 miles northeast of downtown, in about 50 minutes.

Amtrak's Maple Leaf, its New York-to-Toronto service, leaves Penn Station at 7:15 AM, and arrives at Buffalo's Exchange Street Station at 3:14 PM, just under 8 hours later (if it's on time). Its return trip leaves Buffalo at 1:05 PM and arrives at Penn Station at 9:50 PM. However, for tomorrow, it's sold out. There is, however, another Amtrak train, the Empire Service, leaving Penn Station at 10:20 AM and arriving at Exchange Street at 6:24 PM. The Maple Leaf going back on Monday afternoon at 1:05 is still available. It's $130 round-trip -- given Amtrak's standards, that's quite cheap considering the distance. The station is at Exchange & Washington Streets, just 3 blocks north of the arena.

Greyhound runs 12 buses a day from New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal to Buffalo. Round-trip fare is $204, but it can drop to $102 with advanced purchase. The terminal is at 181 Ellicott Street at Eagle Street, just 7 blocks north of the arena.

If you do drive, get into New Jersey to Interstate 80, and take it all the way across the State. Shortly after crossing the Delaware River and entering Pennsylvania, take I-380, following the signs for Scranton, until reaching I-81. (If you’ve driven to a game of the Yankees’ Triple-A farm team, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, you already know this part.) Take I-81 north into New York State. (If you’ve driven to a game of the Mets’ Double-A farm team, the Binghamton Mets, you already know this part.) Continue on I-81 past Binghamton and to Syracuse, where you’ll get on the New York State Thruway, which, at this point, is I-90. Continue on the Thruway west, past Rochester, to Buffalo.

Once in the area, take I-90 to U.S. Route 219/Southern Expressway South, to State Route 179/Milestrip Road West, to Abbott Road South. Once you cross over U.S. Route 20, the stadium will be on your left.

With 2 rest stops -- I recommend on one side of the Delaware or the other, and another around Syracuse -- you should be able to make the trip in about 7 hours.

Once In the City. Western New York was first settled by the French, and they called the Niagara River "Beau Fleuve," meaning "good flow." The English, just as they turned the Dutch village of "Vlissingen" into the Queens neighborhood of "Flushing," turned "Beau Fleuve" into the similar-sounding "Buffalo." The original name has nothing to do with bison.

Buffalo likes to call itself the Queen City of the Great Lakes, as opposed to Cincinnati, the Queen City of the Midwest; Charlotte, the Queen City of the Southeast; and Seattle, the Queen City of the Northwest. It's also known as the Nickel City (for the buffalo-head nickels used from 1913 to 1938), the City of Good Neighbors (probably due to their international border), and, left over from their World's Fair, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, the City of Light (but no one will ever confuse it with Paris).  

Founded in 1789, Buffalo is home to just under 260,000 people. Before "white flight," it was over twice that, around 580,000 in 1950. The metropolitan area is home to 1.2 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, that doesn't count Niagara Falls and environs over the border; that pushes it to about 1.6 million. ZIP Codes for Western New York start with the digits 14. The Area Code is 716, with 585 overlaid.

Buffalo is in the State of New York, but not in the City of New York, so the sales tax is 7 percent. There's no centerpoint for addresses: They move up as you move north and east. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority runs buses and a light rail extending from Erie Canal Harbor downtown up Main Street the University of Buffalo campus in University Heights. It's free from its Harbor terminus until it goes underground at Tupper Street, $2.00 underground.
Going In. The official address of the Bills' stadium is 1 Bills Drive, about 10 1/2 miles southeast of downtown. The Number 14 bus gets to Abbott Road and Southwestern Blvd., a mile from the stadium. Counting walking that last mile, it should take about an hour and 10 minutes. If you drive in, it should take about 25 minutes. Parking is $25, and tailgating seems to be almost a requirement.
Opened as Rich Stadium in 1973, named for the Rich family that runs the Buffalo-based food products company, it was renamed Ralph Wilson Stadium for the Bills' founder-owner in 1998, and was just renamed New Era Field, after the sporting goods company. When the wind comes blasting in off Lake Erie, it rivals Green Bay's Lambeau Field and Cleveland's new stadium as the coldest in the NFL. The fact that it's open-air, having no protection of any kind, doesn't help.

But it is arguably the most famous building in the State of New York, outside the City of New York. It is the focal point of Western New York, as the Bills are the region's most successful and iconic sports team, despite their many failures: While they reached 4 straight Super Bowls, 1991 to 1994, they lost them all -- although, to be fair, only the 3rd was a blowout.

Originally seating 80,020, the installation of wider seats has dropped capacity to 73,079, which still makes it the largest stadium in the State. (The old Yankee Stadium, even before the renovation, only had a little over 67,000 seats. The Carrier Dome in Syracuse seats 50,000.)
The field, which is "A-Turf Titan," the 3rd artificial turf laid in the stadium since its 1973 opening, is laid out east-to-west, which causes problems with both the sun and the wind. "The Ralph" has also hosted State high school playoffs, soccer games, concerts, and the 1st-ever NHL Winter Classic on January 1, 2008, in front of what was then a record crowd for an NHL game, 71,217. The Sabres lost to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, in overtime on a Sidney Crosby goal. (Just how NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wanted it, hmmmm... )

Syracuse University played its home games there in 1979, as the demolished Archbold Stadium was replaced on the same site by the Carrier Dome. And it's hosted concerts from the beginning, including both the Rolling Stones and One Direction this year.

New Bills owner Terry Pegula has discussed a new stadium, but there is, as yet, no official proposal. Most likely, the Bills will be playing at The Ralph at least through the rest of the 2010s.

Food. Syracuse and Binghamton in New York, and Harrisburg Pennsylvania, is where the Northeast starts to turn into the Midwest. With a heavy Central and Eastern European heritage, Buffalo is big on sausages, and tailgate parties at the Bills' stadium are practically a sacrament.

Concessions are run by Delaware North, the Buffalo-based company that also runs them for the Sabres' arena and Boston's new TD Garden. Although no detailed map of concessions is available online, a Tim Hortons is at the west end of the stadium, the Coors Light Sports Bar is at the east end, and a Dinosaur Barbecue stand is mentioned, so those of you who've gone to their restaurant in Newark a block from the Prudential Center will be familiar with it.

Team History Displays. Outside Gate 5, under the big west end scoreboard and next to the Bills Store, the Bills have a display for their AFL Championships of 1964 and 1965, and their AFC Championships of 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993. They also have a mural showing some team legends.
The Bills have 2 officially retired numbers, the 12 of 1990s quarterback Jim Kelly and the 78 of defensive end Bruce Smith. There are 5 others that are unofficially retired: 34, running backs Cookie Gilchrist and Thurman Thomas; 44, receiver Elbert Dubenion; 66, guard Billy Shaw; and 83, receiver Andre Reed.

And then there's 32, for 1970s running back O.J. Simpson. It's a good thing that number was never officially retired, because, if it was, there might be a display of it somewhere in the stadium, and lots of parents would have to do some explaining to their kids.

The Bills have a Wall of Fame, with 29 men elected, plus the fans as "The 12th Man":

* Spanning the eras: Owner Ralph Wilson, team executive Pat McGroder, trainer Edward Abromski and broadcaster Van Miller.

* 1960s: Shaw, Dubenion, head coach Lou Saban, quarterback (and future political star) Jack Kemp, guard Bob Kalsu (1 of 2 pro football players killed in action in the Vietnam War), defensive tackle Tom Sestak, linebacker Mike Stratton, cornerback Booker Edgerson and safety George Saimes. Gilchrist was never inducted, as he demanded an appearance fee, and Wilson wouldn't give him one.

* 1970s: Simpson, quarterback Joe Ferguson, guard Joe DeLamielleure, defensive back Robert James.

* 1980s: Center Jim Ritcher, defensive tackle Fred Smerlas, linebacker Darryl Talley.

* 1990s: Ritcher, Talley, Kelly, Thomas, Reed, Smith, head coach Marv Levy, center Kent Hull, receiver Steve Tasker, defensive end Phil Hansen, and general manager Bill Polian.

* No player has yet been inducted from the 2000s or the 2010s, which have been a dark period in team history.
Shaw, Stratton, Sestak, Saimes, Gilchrist, offensive tackle Stew Barber, defensive end Ron McDole, defensive tacklet Tom Keating and cornerback Butch Byrd were named to the AFL's All-Time Team. Simpson was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team, right before his arrest. He and Bruce Smith were named to The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999, and to the NFL Network's 100 Greatest Players in 2010.

Stuff. The Bills Store is located in the stadium's west end. It has the usual items you'll find in a team store, possibly including hats with buffalo horns. Souvenir stands are also around the stadium.

With Western New York being a small and declining market, there aren't very many books about the Bills. Coach Levy collaborated with Joseph Valerio to write Second to None: The Relentless Drive and the Impossible Dream of the Super Bowl Bills, which has since been made into an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary. Tasker combined with Sal Maiorana to write Buffalo Bills: The Complete Illustrated History in 2010. Similarly, in 2009, the NFL released a History of the Buffalo Bills DVD.

During the Game. A recent Thrillist article on "The Most Obnoxious Fans In the NFL" ranked Bills fans 24th, about 3/4 of the way from most obnoxious to least, saying:

Bills fans should be much sadder. The Super Bowl quadfecta. The ABSOLUTE FORWARD PASS in the playoffs in Tennessee in 2000. The quarterbacks named Manuel and Edwards and Brohm and Holcomb and Thad Lewis and one-s-short-of-perfect Losman. The snow. And yet, you remain an industrially jovial, generally adorable bunch full of Labatt Blue and misbehavior, but never hate.  

Safety will not be an issue. While the old War Memorial Stadium was in an iffy neighborhood, New Era Field isn't in any neighborhood. Like the Packers, the Bills have their own undyingly loyal fans that support them in a small local market where the winter weather produces conditions that would send others blitzing for the exits in many of the more temperate NFL cities. Just don't remind anyone of the 4 straight Super Bowl losses, and both you and your car should be safe.

The Bills hold auditions for singing the National Anthem, as opposed to having a regular singer. With every score, the fans sing a customized version of the classic Isley Brothers song "Shout" that includes some specially adapted lyrics to suit the home team. Their mascot is named, as may not surprise you, Billy Buffalo.

Billy Buffalo with a pair of buff young ladies

After the Game. Buffalo, like any other city, has crime issues. But the rivalry between the Jets and the Bills, despite going all the way back to the founding of the AFL in 1960, is minimal. The Bills have even less of a rivalry with the Giants, despite Super Bowl XXV (which, to be fair, was a quarter of a century ago). Your greatest danger living a Bills game is traffic and the weather that might make it worse.

I can find no reference to any bar in Buffalo where fans of New York sports teams tend to gather or are especially welcomed. But O'Neill's Stadium Inn, at 3864 Abbott Road at Route 20, is a short walk from the stadium. And, once you get back downtown, there are plenty of bars that serve both the First Niagara Center, home of the Sabres, and Coca-Cola Field, the home of the city's Triple-A baseball team, the Buffalo Bisons.

Iron Works, in a former, well, ironworks, is on Illinois Street, on the east side of the arena. There's a Tim Hortons at Main & Scott Streets, which is understandable, since Buffalo borders Canada and Horton was on the Sabres' roster when he died. This store includes a memorial to the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.

At opposite ends of Mississippi Street, across from the main parking lot, are bars named Lagerhouse 95 and Cobblestone. Further up Main Street, you can take a left turn on Pearl Street and try Pearl Street Grill & Brewery; or a right turn on Swan Street, around the ballpark, and try Handlebar. Inside the ballpark on Washington at Seneca, Pettibone's Grille may be open.

Buffalo's most famous eating & drinking establishment is the Anchor Bar. It's a bit of a trek from the arena on foot, but the light rail gets close, at the Allen/Medical Campus station. Its proximity to the site of War Memorial Stadium made it a good stopover after Bills games. It was there during the 1964 season that the son of the couple who owned it brought some hungry friends over on a Friday night, but all his mother had left in the kitchen was chicken wings, a part of the chicken not traditionally eaten. So she boiled them, made up a spicy sauce, and glazed the wings with the sauce, and the boys couldn't get enough of them. Buffalo sauce and Buffalo wings were born.

The bar is still in the family. I visited Buffalo in 2004, and made sure to visit. I can't handle spicy food, but they make a Monte Cristo sandwich that is out of this world. 1047 Main Street at North Avenue.

If you visit Buffalo during the European soccer season, as we are now in, the leading "football pub" in town is Mes Que, named for the slogan of Spanish superclub FC Barcelona: Mes Que Un Club -- "More Than a Club." 1420 Hertel Avenue at N. Park Avenue, about 5 miles north of downtown. Bus 11. Ironically, the local Barcelona fan club doesn't meet there, instead meeting 2 blocks away, at Wellington Pub, at 1541 Hertel Avenue at Wellington Road.

Sidelights. Buffalo has a long sports history, although it's not a very good one. 

UPDATE: On February 3, 2017, Thrillist made a list ranking the 30 NFL cities (New York and Los Angeles each having 2 teams), and Buffalo came in 27th, 4th from the bottom. Their description of Buffalo is withering:

Buffalo is like if a mid-tier Canadian city crept across the border and hoped no one would notice it just hanging out up there in the far reaches of New York, sipping a Labatt tallboy and trying to keep snow off its faded Thurman Thomas jersey via an also-faded Bills starter jacket, the orange hue of wing sauce still staining its cheeks from a recent trip to Anchor Bar as it ponders engaging in a zesty round of parking-lot sex. You know, metaphorically speaking.

Nevertheless, there are some places worth visiting in the city, some of them sports-related:

* KeyBank Center. The current home of the Sabres was known as the Crossroads Arena during planning, but naming rights were bought by Marine Midland Bank, and it became the Marine Midland Arena when it opened in 1996. That bank was bought out, and the arena became the HSBC Arena in 1999, before First Niagara Financial group bought HSBC in 2011. Although the banks were not rebranded, the arena was renamed. It just got renamed again, as KeyBank has bought out HSBC.

In addition to the Sabres, the arena also hosts the Buffalo Bandits of the National Lacrosse League. On occasion, the minor-league Rochester Americans and the basketball team of St. Bonaventure University play games that have a greater ticket demand than their arenas can fulfill. It also hosted the now-defunct Buffalo Destroyers of the Arena Football League.And, as you might guess, it is Western New York's leading concert facility.

The official address of the arena is One Seymour H. Knox III Plaza, after the founding owner of the Sabres, who had it built. It's at the corner of Washington & Perry Streets, downtown. Special Events Station on the light rail

* Site of Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. Opening a little over 75 years ago, on October 14, 1940, it was home to the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League from 1940 to 1970, the ill-fated Buffalo Bisons of the National Basketball League (forerunners of today's Atlanta Hawks) in 1946, the NBA's Buffalo Braves (forerunners of the Los Angeles Clippers) from 1970 to 1978, and the Sabres from 1970 to 1996.
The Aud. The new arena, then known as the HSBC Arena,
was built only a block away.

Like the Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium, "The Aud" had a rink that was shorter and narrower than the usual NHL rink size, 200 by 85 feet, and was allowed to keep it after that was made a rule. (The new arena has the standard size.) It hosted the NHL All-Star Game in 1978.

It was also Western New York's longtime concert center. The Beatles never played there, but Elvis Presley sang there on April 1, 1957; April 5, 1972; and June 25, 1976. A year later, Led Zeppelin played there for 3 hours straight, without a break. It was also a major boxing and pro wrestling facility.

It was demolished in 2009, and the site remains vacant. Main & Scott Streets, only a block away from its replacement. Erie Canal Harbor station on the light rail.

The area's only NBA team, the Buffalo Braves, left to become the San Diego Clippers. Now, the Knicks, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat pretty much divide fandom. Oddly, the 2 closest NBA teams, the Toronto Raptors (98 miles away) and Cleveland Cavaliers (189 miles), don't factor in much; yet once you cross the border into Ontario, the Raptors are easily the plurality team (but not a majority one, not even in Toronto itself). Roughly the same proportion holds true for Rochester (NBA's Royals 1946-57), 75 miles to the east; but once you get to Syracuse (NBA's Nationals 1949-63), 150 miles to the east, you start to get into solid Knicks territory.

The closest thing the Buffalo area has to a major league basketball team now is the Niagara River Lions, of the National Basketball League of Canada. They play at the 4,030-seat Meridian Centre, which they share with the Ontario Hockey League's Niagara IceDogs. 1 IceDogs Way, St. Catherine's, Ontario, 31 miles northwest of downtown Buffalo.

* Coca-Cola Field. Buffalo doesn't have a Major League Baseball team, and hasn't since the ill-fated Federal League of 1914-15. But it has been one of the great minor league cities, home to the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, who play at Coca-Cola Field, built in 1988 as Pilot Field.

It was designed to seat 19,500 people, making it one of the largest stadiums ever to host regular minor-league baseball, but expandable to 40,000 by putting a 2nd deck on the mezzanine, in the hopes that Buffalo would get an expansion team or a moved team in the 1990s. But it was passed over for both the 1993 and the 1998 expansions. Today, even if Niagara Falls (both sides of the border) and Hamilton, Ontario were counted, Buffalo would still have fewer people than the current smallest metro area in MLB, Milwaukee. That's why they're still on the outside looking in.

But the Bisons have won 3 International League Pennants since moving in, in 1997, 1998 and 2004. They made the Playoffs in 12 of the park's 1st 18 seasons, although in none of the last 10. So the new ballpark has been (mostly) good to them. It now has a listed seating capacity of 17,600, making it the largest current minor-league stadium. 275 Washington Street, between Swan & Exchange Streets. Seneca station on the light rail.

The Bisons have, in the 1960s and in this current decade, been a Mets farm team. Nevertheless, the Yankees are the most popular team here, getting a majority of support (low 50s percent in pretty much all of the Buffalo area, high 50s in Rochester, 60s in Syracuse).

There will, almost certainly, never be another MLB team in Buffalo or elsewhere in Western New York. Population-wise, its metropolitan area would rank dead last in MLB, and it's not even close: It's got about 800,000 fewer people than 30th-place Milwaukee. You could throw in the Ontario portion of the Niagara Falls area, which the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't because it's in Canada, and it would still have about 400,000 fewer people than Milwaukee. It would also be 27th in the NBA, ahead of only New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Memphis. It is 30th in the NFL, ahead of only Jacksonville and New Orleans; and 26th in the NHL, last among U.S. cities, ahead of only Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg.

In spite of their comparative closeness (especially considering that radio signals can, unlike cars, easily cross Lake Ontario), the Toronto Blue Jays, as 98 miles the closest MLB team, don't make a dent in it at all: The Boston Red Sox are the 2nd-most popular team here, the Mets 3rd. (Whether that will change due to the Jays' 2015 success remains to be seen.) The next-closest team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, don't get any traction until you reach the southwestern corner of New York State; the Cleveland Indians, not that much further than the Pirates, almost nothing -- this despite the Bisons having been members of both the Tribe's and the Bucs' farm systems in the last 20 years (now, the Blue Jays').

The closest MLS team is Toronto FC, 97 miles away. The closest U.S.-based MLS team, the Columbus Crew, is 321 miles away.

* Site of War Memorial Stadium. Built in 1937 as Civic Stadium, It was renamed War Memorial Stadium in 1960, the year the Bisons and the AFL's Buffalo Bills moved in. It seated 46,500 people, making it one of the largest stadiums in minor-league baseball, but the smallest in the NFL after the 1970 merger with the NFL. It was this reason, rather than its deteriorating neighborhood, advancing age and rundown appearance that led the Bills to build a larger stadium.

The Bisons won just 1 Pennant there, in 1961, but had some eventually legendary names suit up for them there, including Hall-of-Famers Ferguson Jenkins in 1962 and Johnny Bench in 1966 and '67. Unlike the Bills, they did leave due to the collapse of the neighborhood and the stadium looking like it would collapse as well.

The Bills won the AFL Championship here in 1964 and 1965, the only 2 times they've ever gone as far as the rules allowed them to go. These were the last 2 times the AFL Champion was unable to face the NFL Champion in a World Championship Game. In 1966, with the chance to go to the 1st AFL-NFL World Championship Game, retroactively renamed Super Bowl I, the Bills lost the AFL Championship Game to the Kansas City Chiefs. Not until the 1990 season would they reach the Super Bowl.

In 1983, the movie version of Bernard Malamud's novel The Natural was filmed there. Robert Redford and director Barry Levinson, not having computer-generated imagery (CGI) to create an old-time ballpark for them, needed an old ballpark, but not one that was easily identifiable, like Fenway Park with its Green Monster left-field wall, Wrigley Field with its ivy-covered walls and distinctive bleachers, or Comiskey Park with its pinwheeled scoreboard.

War Memorial was available. The story takes place in 1939, when the stadium was new. But by 1983, it was so run-down that it looked like it hadn't had any maintenance since the Great Depression, and appeared much older. By this point, it was known as The Old Rockpile. Buffalo native Brock Yates, a screenwriter who created the race upon which the Cannonball Run movies were based, said that it "looks as if whatever war it was a memorial to had been fought within its confines."
It was demolished in 1988, after the Bisons left. A new high school sports complex, the Johnnie B. Wiley Recreation Center, was built on the site. 1100 Jefferson Avenue. Summer-Best station on the light rail, then 5 blocks east on Best Street.

Ironically, while Wrigley Field was available, a scene in the film that supposedly took place at Wrigley was instead filmed at Buffalo's All-High Stadium, with a matte painting giving it an upper deck. Built in 1926, it was demolished and rebuilt in 2007, seats about 5,000 people, and hosts high school football and the FC Buffalo pro soccer team. 2885 Main Street at Mercer Avenue, behind Bennett High School. LaSalle station on the light rail.

It is now named after Robert B. Rich Sr., original namesake of the Bills' new stadium and founder of Buffalo-based Rich Foods, now owned by his son Robert Jr., who, as I said, is in the Sabres' Hall of Fame, and is also the owner of the Bisons baseball team. His son Robert III played Roy Hobbs' son in The Natural.

* Site of Offermann Stadium. The Bisons played in 2 separate stadiums at Ferry Street and Michigan Avenue, starting in 1889, in a wooden stadium with the name Buffalo Baseball Park. In 1924, a new Bison Stadium of concrete and steel opened on the site. In 1935, it was renamed for the team's owner, Frank J. Offermann, who had just died.

The Bisons won International League Pennants there in 1933, 1936 and 1957, before moving a few blocks away to War Memorial Stadium for the 1960 season. The future Hall-of-Famers who played for the Bisons at Buffalo Baseball Park were Jimmy Collins, Herb Pennock, Bucky Harris; at Offermann, they were Ray Schalk, Lou Boudreau and Jim Bunning.

The Buffalo pro football team, known as the All-Stars from 1915 to 1917, the Niagaras in 1918, the Prospects in 1919, the All-Americans from 1920 to 1923, the Bisons in 1924 and 1925, the Rangers in 1926, and the Bisons again from 1927 to 1929, played on the site, before the Depression did them in.

The Buffalo Performing Arts High School is now on the site. 450 Masten Avenue. Utica station on the light rail.

Another early pro football team in the area, the Tonawanda Kardex Lumbermen, named for the American Kardex company that sponsored it, played from 1913 to 1920, then entered the NFL for the 1921 season -- but played only 1 game against an NFL team, and then folded, making them the least-playing franchise in NFL history. They played against non-NFL teams that season, but their one and only NFL game was against the Rochester Jeffersons in Rochester, a 45-0 win by the home team. Which, I suppose, also makes the Lumbermen the worst team in NFL history.

They played at Tonawanda High School, in Tonawanda, 9 miles north of downtown Buffalo. Bus 25 to Broad Street and Main Street, then a 25-minute walk west.

And the Rochester Jeffersons, the other Western New York team to have played in the early NFL? They were one of the 1st pro football teams ever established, in 1898. They won the New York Professional Football League title in 1916. They played at Sheehan's Field from 1898 to 1915, at Rochester's baseball park from 1916 to 1922, and at Edgerton Park in 1923 to 1925.

* Site of Olympic Park. The true glory days of Buffalo baseball? It might have been when the Buffalo Bisons was the name of a National League team, from 1879 to 1885. They played their last 2 seasons at Olympic Park, including their best season, 1884, when they went 64-47 and finished 3rd, albeit 19 1/2 games out. They had Hall-of-Famers Jim "Orator" O'Rourke (player-manager), Dan Brouthers and Jim "Pud" Galvin.

But, even then, Buffalo wasn't really big enough to support a major league team, and the Bisons went bust after the 1885 season, returning as a minor-league club in 1889. From 1886 to 1888, an all-black team named the Cuban Giants, featuring Hall-of-Fame 2nd baseman Frank Grant, played at Olympic Park. Buffalo's entry in the 1890 Players' League also played there.

Houses now stand on the site. Richmond Avenue & Summer Street, 7 blocks west of Main. Summer-Best station on the light rail.

* Site of Riverside Park. The 1st home of the Bisons wasn't much more than wooden bleachers, but it was home to Hall-of-Famers O'Rourke, Brouthers, Galvin, John Montgomery Ward, and Old Hoss himself, Charley Radbourn. As with Olympic Park, houses are now on the site. Fargo & West Avenues, Rhode Island & Vermont Streets. Number 3 or 5 bus from downtown.

* UB Stadium. Opening in 1993, this stadium has hosted University of Buffalo football, and saw the Bulls reach Division I-A (now FBS) status in 1999, now a member of the Mid-American Conference. They are planning to expand it by 2020. For the moment, it seats 31,000, and isn't much to look at, but it's Buffalo's college football stadium, especially since Syracuse is 150 miles away. 102 Alumni Arena, 14 miles northeast of downtown. University station on the light rail, then transfer to Number 35 bus.

* Museums. Buffalo is a medium-sized city, but it's got a big city's history. The Buffalo History Museum is at One Museum Court. The closest thing the city has to a Metropolitan Museum of Art, the colonnaded Albright-Knox Gallery, is nearby at 1285 Elmwood Avenue. For each, take the Number 20 bus from downtown.

The Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park is at One Naval Park Cove, along the Niagara River, a short walk from Erie Canal Harbor Station. The Buffalo Museum of Science, their Hayden Planetarium/Franklin Institute, is at 1020 Humboldt Parkway. Number 6 bus from downtown to Guilford Street, then walk 3 blocks north.

Buffalo's City Hall, a brown brick building on Niagara Square downtown, has statues of 2 Presidents who have called the city home: Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland. Despite a campaign to get one for Cleveland, the city and its environs do not have a Presidential Library.

No home of Cleveland's survives in the area (his birthplace in Bloomfield and his last home in Princeton, both in New Jersey, still stand), but the Millard Fillmore Museum, his one surviving home, is at 24 Shearer Avenue in suburban East Aurora. Number 70 bus, taking about an hour. Cleveland is buried in Princeton, but Fillmore is buried in Buffalo's Forest Lawn Cemetery. Delaware & Delavan Avenues. Delavan/Canisius station on the light rail, then walk 5 blocks west on Delavan. Or Number 25 bus from downtown.

Buffalo, specifically the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition, is where President William McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901. The site of the Exposition has long since been replaced with middle-class housing. 52 Fordham Drive, in the Elmwood section of town. Number 20 bus to Elmwood & Fordham. Within a 5-minute walk of the History Museum and Albright-Knox.

McKinley died 8 days later, at the house of prominent Buffalo politician John G. Milburn, which has since been torn down and replaced with parking for Canisius High School (not Canisius University). 1168 Delaware Avenue at Cleveland Avenue. Utica station on the light rail, or Number 25 bus from downtown. While McKinley doesn't have a statue in Buffalo, he does have the McKinley Monument in the middle of Niagara Square, across from City Hall and the Fillmore and Cleveland statues.
Niagara Square, with the McKinley Monument
in front of City Hall

Notified of the President's death, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt rushed to Buffalo, and was sworn in as the nation's 26th President at the home of a friend, Ansley Wilcox. It is now the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural History Site, and is open to tours. (I took the tour in 2004, and it's well worth it.) 641 Delaware Avenue at North Avenue. Allen/Medical Campus station on the light rail -- just 3 blocks west on North from the Anchor Bar.

Joe McCarthy, who managed the Yankees from 1931 to 1946, winning 8 Pennants and 7 World Series (a record he shares with Casey Stengel), is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery, 4000 Elmwood Avenue in Kenmore. Bus 25 to Delaware Avenue & Orchard Loop.

Across the river, Fort Erie, Ontario is the site of Old Fort Erie, a major location in the French and Indian War, the War of the American Revolution, and the War of 1812 -- all on the British side, of course.

Niagara Falls, Ontario, in addition to being the home of the Falls themselves and 2 casinos, was the site of the Battle of Lundy's Lane, a major War of 1812 event that included Laura Secord walking 20 miles to warn British troops, in effect not only making her Canada's "Paul Revere," but out-Revere-ing him -- and even topping Sybil Ludington, the 17-year-old Connecticut girl who outrode Revere and saved Danbury, Connecticut.

These locations, of course, are across the border, making them difficult to reach except by car. And remember to bring your passport and change your money. The Number 40 bus goes from downtown Buffalo to Niagara Falls, New York, taking a little under an hour. You can, however, walk across both the Peace Bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie, and the Rainbow Bridge between NFNY and NFO -- if, as I said, you have your passport.

On the New York side, the Niagara Falls Convention Center stood at 310 4th Street from 1973 to 2002. It was a home court for Niagara University basketball from 1973 to 1981. Elvis sang there on June 24, 1974 and July 13, 1975. It was demolished, and the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel was built on the site.

Other places in New York State -- aside from Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum -- where Elvis sang are the Onondaga County War Memorial at 800 S. State Street in Syracuse (now the Oncenter War Memorial Arena, home of the NBA's Syracuse Nationals from 1951-63) on July 25 and 27, 1976; the Rochester Community War Memorial Arena at 1 War Memorial Square (now the Blue Cross Arena, home of the NBA's Rochester Royals from 1955 to 1957) on July 26, 1976 and May 25, 1977; and the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena at 1 Stuart Street in Binghamton (now the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena) on May 26 and 27, 1977.

One Seneca Tower, formerly One HSBC Center and Marine Midland Center, is the tallest building in Western New York. Built in 1972, it stands 529 feet, and is at Main & Seneca, across from the ballpark. It isn't much to look at, being typical of late Sixties and early Seventies architecture.

Buffalo isn't a glamorous city, and TV shows and movies set there tend to emphasize this. The only 2 TV shows I can remember being set there are, not surprisingly, both comedies, and both on NBC: Dabney Coleman's Buffalo Bill, in 1983 and '84; and Christina Applegate's Jesse, from 1998 to 2000.

The best-known movie set in Buffalo is Buffalo '66, directed by Buffalonian Vincent Gallo and starring him as an ex-con whose mother blames his birth for the Bills losing the 1966 AFL title game and missing out on the 1st Super Bowl. He took the fall for a crime he didn't commit after he couldn't pay money he lost betting on the Bills to win Super Bowl XXV. He gets out 5 years later, and is determined to kill the kicker who missed the game-winning field goal, here named "Scott Wood" instead of Scott Norwood like in real life. (Gallo is not particularly clever, not even in real life.)

Also set partly in Buffalo is You Kill Me, starring Ben Kingsley as an alcoholic hitman for the local Polish mob, who gets sent to San Francisco to dry out. The difference between troubled but glamorous San Francisco, including love interest Tea Leoni, and dreary Buffalo is stark, but intentional.


Buffalo has its problems, but it gets a bum rap. The city has a lot to offer, including 2 great sports franchises, a lot of history, and some great food. Check it out.


BuffTor said...

Buffalo has always had it's population underrepresented. NY CITY has it's population stretch for an eternity but there is a wall that stops at Niagara Falls when it comes to Buffalo. Throw in Rochester and you have one of the biggest markets in North America. Don't mention it though. Gotta keep Buffalo in its place.

BuffTor said...
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