With thanks for Buffalo baseball, a good day to toast ‘The Butcher’ – Buffalo News

Throughout Western New York, we’ll be gathering with our families today for Thanksgiving.

If you have a minute, I’m hoping you might join me in a toast.

It involves one Donald Palmer, who died this week at 49, although that’s probably not the name you knew him by. I never met him, never had a chance to shake his hand. Yet like countless thousands of others, I spent many afternoons inside the same stone walls.

For our kids, for our grandchildren, it is difficult to explain what he meant to Buffalo. Sure, he was a 1980s symbol of Buffalo Bisons baseball, the big guy who’d catch baseballs as they rolled off the screen backstop at the old War Memorial Stadium. Some people worried about him, worried that his weight made him the target for laughter, but I think he was much more than that.

He was ‘The Butcher,” and he helped a struggling community remember what it is.

Thirty years after his heyday, it’s hard to fully describe what The Butcher represents. Buffalo has always been a city that rose and fell with the vitality of its symbols – the steel industry, Lake Erie, the up-and-down story of the railroads.

For those of us born in the decades after World War II, Buffalo baseball was a symbol of all too much gone wrong. Our parents would speak wistfully of the old days at Offermann Stadium, the little ballpark at East Ferry Street and Michigan Avenue. The place was built for the game, home to such Bisons icons as Ollie Carnegie and Luke Easter, but it was lost in one of those boneheaded moves emblematic of a civic spiral:

In 1960, the Bisons moved into War Memorial Stadium, the Rockpile, a crumbling ruin of a football arena that was in no way designed for baseball. By 1970, in direct cause and effect: The Bisons were no more, a franchise gone to Winnipeg.

Winnipeg. To an 11-year-old, the team might as well have moved to Pluto.

Buffalo, a city that always dreamed major league dreams, suddenly had no professional baseball at all.

It stayed that way until an Eastern League franchise returned to the stadium, in 1979. The initial civic reaction, to put it kindly, was tempered disbelief. The team managed to survive until 1983, when Bob Rich Jr. bought the club, bringing new money and energy to the operation. Within a year, he’d resurrected Triple A baseball in the city, and there was a feeling surrounding the Bisons unlike anything we quite remembered.

All of a sudden, baseball was not a long-shot embarrassment. It was an event. All of a sudden, the Rockpile – improbably, impossibly – became well-loved in a kind of brutalist way, helped in no small part by the filming of The Natural. All of a sudden, qualities that had seemed like municipal deficits turned into raw, unpolished attributes.

Reborn, Bisons baseball was a phenomenon. Unlike the Bills or the Sabres, it didn’t particularly matter if the team won or lost. Over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of people went to a stadium that had been written off because they sensed and felt something new. They went because there was a feeling they ought to be there.

The Butcher with the grandchildren of Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Vince McNamara, circa 1985 at War Memorial Stadium (photo courtesy Pete Weber).

The Butcher with the children of Carolyn and the late Dave McNamara, John and Jim, circa 1985 at War Memorial Stadium (photo courtesy Claudia Weber).

In a game where the players arrived in town and left so quickly it could be hard to keep track, the Rockpile favorites became the characters who showed up every night.

Chief among them: The Butcher. He was a very large teenager who was surprisingly light on his feet. He’d sprint out to catch foul balls rolling off the backstop, and this kind of haunting, disconnected roar of approval would roll around the vast stadium. Sometimes, from a distance, you could see him trading words with a wise guy fan or two near home plate. The Butcher became a true-to-life centerpiece for an unlikely transformation:

One minute, baseball in Buffalo was dead and War Memorial Stadium was the mausoleum.

A minute later, or so it seemed, Buffalo baseball had a whole new life, and the homely Rockpile was a monument to why we loved the city.

At the visual heart of it all was The Butcher, a Grover guy with a Buffalo story and a great Buffalo face.

Even if we’d never met him, we knew him.

For once,  it wasn’t about shopping malls or convention centers that didn’t work. For once, it wasn’t about trying to mimic other cities.

For once, it was loving Buffalo as Buffalo.

Which is the first step, always, in how a community comes to life.

In a way, much of what we’re feeling now was kindled in those days. The Bisons gave the Rockpile the farewell it deserved, a sentimental goodbye. Then the team went to what was known at the time as Pilot Field and is now named for Coca-Cola, this ballpark that not only fit its city, but served as a national template for why downtown baseball works.

I remember the first time we went there, on a cold opening day in 1988, how everyone in the place was feeling the same euphoric disbelief:

Hey. Wait a minute. We actually did this thing right.

It’s happened enough, since then, that we’re getting used to it. It no longer feels like a shock when you see a wise decision, the kind of choice that both looks toward the future and embraces who we are.

In the 1980s, it was still a novelty, a revelation.

You saw it when the reborn Bisons gave baseball its rightful place, in Buffalo.

You saw it with the love affair with the Rockpile.

And you saw it embodied in this big kid who chased after foul balls.

For that, I’ll tell you what: I’m still grateful.

Yet the only story without meaning is the story that’s untold. So here’s a thought, a fitting way of saying goodbye. If you have a minute today, with your family all around, including all these children with no reason to remember ….

Raise a toast, on Thanksgiving Day, and tell them about The Butcher.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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