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MLB returns to Buffalo–after 105 years

Sahlen Field

With the return of Major League Baseball in the form of the Toronto Blue Jays playing its 2020 home opener at Sahlen Field, it will be the first time a major-league team has called Buffalo home since 1915’s Buffalo Blues.

The Buffalo Blues were member of the Federal League, an outlaw third major league that came and went over the course of the 1914 and 1915 seasons. Buffalo had hosted National League play between 1879 and 1885, featuring the likes of Charles “Old Hoss” Redbourn and Pud Galvin, and when the Federal League owners decided to operate outside the National Association for the 1914 season and played as a major league, Buffalo entered the circuit.

Despite the short life, the Federal League gave professional baseball two major milestones. First, MLB’s antitrust exemption has its roots in a lawsuit filed by the Baltimore Terrapins after the 1915 folding of the Federal League, arguing that professional baseball conspired to kill the outlaw circuit. The Terrapins prevailed at trial, but the decision was reversed on appeal, and in a landmark Supreme Court ruling, that decision was upheld, essentially leading to the antitrust exemption that MLB enjoys to this day. The second major milestone: Chicago ChiFeds/Whales owner Charles Weeghman built Weeghman Park to house his Federal League team, and when the circuit failed, he was allowed to buy into the National League’s Chicago Cubs. Weeghman Park eventually became Wrigley Field.

Wrigley Field is authentically retro and, in its own way, so is Sahlen Field, where the Blue Jays will play its remaining 2020 home games. Opening in 1988 as Pilot Field, the ballpark was heralded as the first retro ballpark in pro baseball, consciously designed in a downtown location with plenty of brick and steel in order to evoke a nostalgic feel, yet offering the best of modern amenities. Designed by Populous (HOK Sport at the time), Sahlen Field proved to be immensely influential during the coming decades of ballpark design, serving as a proving ground for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, also designed by Populous. That retro style would manifest itself in other notable MLB ballparks, including Pittsburgh’s PNC Park and San Francisco’s Oracle Park.

And while Sahlen Field was designed to be upgradeable to an MLB-sized ballpark, that sort of major-league upgrade for the market did not come until now. And it’s come under some limiting circumstances—and bittersweet circumstances for Bisons fans. Sahlen Field is basically being employed as a TV studio for the Blue Jays games: no fans in the stands.

That use has led to improvements to Sahlen Field for 2020, though mostly of the temporary kind. Lighting required an upgrade to meet 2020 MLB broadcast specs, so the existing lighting is being augmented and upgraded. A new turf field was laid out in the infield, and a visiting team compound was installed in the parking lot. This tented area will go away once the MLB season ends.

Without fans in the stands, Buffalo fans will need to be happy knowing that 32 years after Pilot Field opened, their downtown gem will finally host Major League Baseball—just not the way originally intended.

Photo courtesy Toronto Blue Jays.

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