Buff Stadium opened in Houston for the first time on April 11, 1928 at a cost of $400,000. it would be another two years, three months, one week, four days, and $250,000 before the club played its first night game on July 22, 1930. For a little more than half the cost of its original construction tab, Buff Stadium was finally empowered with the potential for doubling its annual attendance through night games.
Attendance history tells the story. In 1927, the last year of play in old West End Park on Andrews Street near downtown, a thrid-place Buffs club drew 141, 857 fans for the entire season. In 1928, their first year in the sparkling new jewel of the minors known as Buff Stadium, the first place Buffs pulled in 186, 459 fans on the season to their new site some four miles east of downtown.
It was an improvement, but hardly enough to justify the cost of change. Houston was still a workingman’s town. Given the limitations imposed by daytime baseball on fans, no new ballpark or championship team was going to be big enough to get people off work for frequent attendance at games during the work week.
After 1928, it didn’t take long for the Cardinals ownership and City of Houston officials to start hammering out a plan for adding the lights that had not been included in the original construction of the 11,000 plus seats venue. It wasn’t going to be cheap by the price on electrical work of this kind in the late 1920s and first year into the 1930s. That $250,000 construction tab represented a little more than 50% of the original cost of the entire unlighted ballpark and land. The Buffs and their supporters argued successfully that the cost would be worthwhile. With lights, the Buffs would be free to schedule games in the evening, away from the times that most people worked and smack dab in the zone of a brand new territory of leisure time that offered little competition from other summertime entertainment options. With no television and limited radio, the movies were and eating out were the only serious competitors for the Houston leisure dollar and time investment going into the era of the Great Depression.
By 1931, the year of Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick, and the great Texas League champion (108-51) Houston Buffs, the team drew 229,540 fans in their first full year of night game options, but attendance fell significantly in 1932 with the growing impact of the Depression and a third place club replacing Dean and Company. Only 112,341 showed up for all 77 homes games played that season. That’s a dismal average of 1,459 fans a game.
Things did not improve at the gate during the 1930s. Night baseball proved to be no magical elixir that could erase the deeper root touches of the economy upon Houston’s purse strings. Fortunately for baseball, the costs of running a club was low enough to make survival for most teams possible through the lean Depression years.
The Texas League shut down during the major World War II years (1942-1945). It was only after the war that night baseball began to take off in Houston as folks hoped it might some fifteen years sooner. With the dynamic Allen Russell now running the club as President for the St. Louis Cardinal parent organization, Houston used night baseball as a a ticket for playing themselves into the picture as a future expansion city site for a new 1962 ball club to be known as the Colt .45s.
The eight years of Allen Russell’s leadership proved to be the hint of all that could be in store for Houston’s baseball future. When Houston burst past the 400,000 fans mark in 1948, outdrawing the season fan base of the St. Louis Browns, it appeared that the city was well on its way as a prospective site for either a franchise shift or new club award in the majors. Things don’t work out that easy.
Houston got played a little in 1953 as the potential new home of the Cardinals during the period of the Fred Saigh meltdown, but that’s when August Busch stepped up to rescue the Redbirds by purchasing the franchise with his beer baron money. Houston would have to wait another seven years before it finally got the nod from the National League in 1960 as a 1962 expansion club.
Houston’s home attendance during the 1946-1953 Allen Russell Era showed these major facts: (1) Houston will support winning baseball, but will not tolerate losing for long: (2) the 1948 high water mark was offset the following season by the introduction of television into the Houston market for the first time. Once television arrived, baseball and all other forms of payment-for-leisure activities would have a competitor that would never go away.
Here are the Russ Era attendance figures:
1946: 7th place, 161,421;
1947: 1st place, 382,275;
1948: 3rd place, 401,383;
1949: 7th place, 263,965;
1950: 8th place, 255, 809;
1951: 1st place, 331,201;
1952: 8th placee, 195,246;
1953: 6th place, 203,543
Like most things so advertised, night baseball was never the silver bullet that cured all things that ailed the game, but it is hard today to see how the game could have survived into the year 2011 without it. Given the cost of player salaries and other overhead factors today, it’s impossible to see how baseball could have survived anywhere for long in the 21st century with an all day game schedule.