In celebration of Black History Month, throughout February, teams across Minor League Baseball are looking back at five of the best Black players to suit up for their club or play for a team within its market.
While some of these standout performers went on to long and illustrious Major League careers, others simply had great Minor League careers or, in some cases, just one incredible season that went down as “a year for the ages.”
As part of the all new ‘The Nine’ initiative throughout minor league baseball, also be sure to check out some of the best to play for other clubs beside the Bisons at MILB.com.
Here is a look at five of the best Black baseball players ever to suit up for the Buffalo Bisons.
Of course, the only way to begin this list, or any list involving the best players to ever play for the Bisons, is with Luscious Easter. He was a giant in every sense of the word, from his six-foot, four-inch, 240-pound frame to the massive home runs he hit out of Offermann Stadium.
He was a legend. He was a folk hero. He was Luke.
“Buffalo fans have always worshipped their sport heroes, but few have ever attained the near mythical status accorded to Bisons great Luke Easter.” — plaque in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame
Easter first joined the Bisons in 1956, signing on with the club two years removed from his sixth and final season in the Major Leagues. For the newly independent Bisons franchise that had just decided to sell stock to the general public in a plan to become community owned, the timing to add their most iconic player couldn’t have been any better.
From 1956-1959, Easter hit 114 home runs and drove in 353 with the Bisons. Of his many memorable games, he will always be remembered for one at-bat on June 14, 1957 when he became the first player ever to hit a home run over the Offermann Stadium centerfield scoreboard, which stood 60 feet tall and 400 feet away from home plate. It’s estimated the ball traveled as much as 550 feet.
Two months later, Easter accomplished the feat again. And with Offermann Stadium seeing its last game in 1960, Easter went down in history as the only player to ever clear the scoreboard… and he did it twice!
A member of both the International League and the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame, Easter’s iconic status still holds strong as one of the greatest athletes of any sport the City of Buffalo has ever seen. He is one of only three players to have their number forever retired by the Bisons.
Ulysses Franklin “Frank” Grant played three seasons with the Bisons from 1886-1888 and led the team in average and slugging percentage in each of those campaigns. He was also the only Black player before the 1940s to play three consecutive seasons with one club in organized baseball and he may have in fact been the most talented Black player to play before the color line was drawn.
Grant hit .344 in his first season with the Bisons and wowed fans with his acrobatic fielding at second base. A year later, he batted .366 and led the league with eight home runs. He tripled, homered twice and drove in eight in one game and stole home twice in another contest. In his last season in Buffalo, he averaged .331 with a career-best 11 home runs.
For his career, one out of every four hits Grant produced went for extra-bases, an impressive stat when you consider his reportedly small frame of 5’7”, 155 pounds. In 2006, Grant was inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, 69 years after his passing.
Lazy fly ball after lazy fly ball, nobody has had more success in the history of Sahlen Field than pitcher, Dorn Taylor.
The veteran was the ace of the Bisons pitching staff for the first three seasons of the Herd’s brand new ballpark in downtown Buffalo and the righty knew exactly how to take advantage of the park’s older, more spacious outfield configuration.
Not an over-powering pitcher -he had just 281 strikeouts in 504.2 innings of work- Taylor was a master of inducing soft contact and letting his fielders behind him do the work. In 39 career starts at then-Pilot Field, he was 21-7 (.750 winning pct.) with a miniscule 1.55 ERA that stands as the best in the ballpark’s history. He gave up just 202 hits in 273.1 innings of work in Buffalo.
That’s not to say the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer wasn’t excellent wherever he pitched for the Herd. He won 10+ games in each of his three Bisons seasons, and led the American Association with a 2.14 ERA in 1988 while finishing in the top 4 in the category in 1989 and 1990 as well.
A two-time Triple-A All-Star with the Bisons, Taylor finished his Bisons career with a 34-22 record and a 2.59 ERA.
A champion as a Bison, a champion in the big leagues as a player and a champion in the big leagues as a manager. It’s been quite a baseball career for Dave Roberts and it’s only getting better.
A 47th round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians in 1993, the fleet-footed outfielder made his Bisons debut as a late season call-up in 1998, helping the Herd to a Governors’ Cup title. He then took over on the base paths, stealing 39 bases in 1999 before matching the feat again the following season. All told, no Bisons player in the modern era has matched his 97 career steals in a Herd uniform, and he got there with an impressive 82.9% success rate.
The Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer (2013) also hit .286 with 75 extra-base hits and 194 runs scored in 276 games with the Herd. He would go on and play 832 Major League games for five teams and will forever be remembered for his stolen base and run scored against Mariano Rivera and the Yankees in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS that turned the series around and propelled the Red Sox to a World Series Championship.
Of course now, Roberts is also succeeding on the bench in Los Angeles. The Dodgers have won 542 games in six years with him as their manager and took home a 2020 World Series Crown over the Tampa Bay Rays.
In 2004, the Bisons put together one of the great offensive clubs in the history of minor league baseball, as they shattered International League records for runs scored and team average that had stood for more than half a century.
One of the biggest cogs in that offense was Brandon Phillips. A constant force in the lineup, Phillips reached base in a modern era record 51 consecutive games. He averaged .303 with 158 total hits that would’ve set a new modern era team record had it not been for Jhonny Peralta’s 181 hits that same season. Phillips added 34 doubles, 50 RBI and 14 stolen bases to his impressive campaign and finished his four-year Bisons career with the third most runs scored in team history (206).
But as good as Phillips was at the plate, his impact in the field was even better. Splitting time between second base and short, the slick-fielder made the tough look routine. And it was his amazing, instinctive play in Game 3 of the 2004 IL Semi-Finals that saved the season. With the Herd trailing the Durham Bulls 2-0 in the seventh, a bloop single over first baseman Ryan Garko’s head threatened to increase the deficit, but Phillips raced to the ball and made a spinning, off-balance, fade-away throw to the plate to retire the side. The Bisons rallied to win the game 3-2 and then to win Games 4 and 5 to complete the 0-2 comeback before moving on to beat the Richmond Braves for the Governors’ Cup crown.
It’s no surprise Phillips continued his excellent play in the field in the Major Leagues, winning four Gold Gloves for the Cincinnati Reds. He would go on and play in a part of an impressive 17 seasons in the Bigs, hitting .275 with 211 home runs, 951 RBI and two All-Star Game appearances.