Joseph J. Lannin is a forgotten man of Boston Red Sox history—and Buffalo Bisons history, too.
He owned both teams at the same time. And both won championships in 1915 and 1916: the Red Sox won the World Series, and the Bisons won the International League, which had no playoffs then.
The Red Sox came to Buffalo the next season to play the Bisons in an exhibition game. They would not be back in Buffalo until 2020, when they beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 9-7.
That’s the same score by which the Red Sox beat the Bisons in the 1917 exhibition. But there’s much more to the story of that day.
Boston boasted a young pitching phenom by the name of Babe Ruth. Buffalo baseball fans were eager to see him and the other Red Sox regulars – more than 5,000 had shown up. But Boston manager Jack Barry gave his starters the day off.
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Some fans left before the first pitch when they found out the Red Sox regulars would not be on the field. The crowd’s sentiment was captured in a popular column in The Buffalo Evening News called Karpe’s Comment.
“What has Buffalo ever done to Jack Barry,” the column asked, “that he should shunt off that miserable collection of has-been and would-be tossers onto some disappointed fans while the ‘regulars’ were cavorting at their pleasure down at Niagara If?”
Ruth wasn’t yet famous for cavorting, so one can only guess what he might have been up to on an off day at the age of 22 in a place known for all manners of cavorting.
“It does seem as if all the bad baseball breaks in the world were coming Buffalo’s way this summer,” the columnist observed. That was a reference to the Bisons’ lowly place in the league’s second division, as well as to the club’s off-field woes.
The 1917 season had begun with a banquet and parade in Buffalo before the two-time defending champs left for spring training. But as the season – and World War I – wore on, the Bisons and several other International League clubs faltered in attendance. “The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball 1857-2020” notes: “The apathy in Buffalo was blamed on the war, the team’s poor showing, and the absentee ownership of Joseph Lannin.”
Ah, yes, Lannin, whose rags-to-riches story beggars belief. He was born poor near Quebec City and orphaned at 14. Then, in 1880, legend hath it, he walked more than 400 miles to Boston and got work as a bellhop at a hotel where he listened and learned among the upper-class businessmen who were its prime clientele.
In time he made a fortune in real estate by buying hotels and apartments. And then he began buying baseball teams, including the Red Sox in 1914 and the Bisons in 1915. Within weeks of buying the Red Sox, he purchased the rights to Ruth from the Baltimore Orioles, then of the International League, for a reported $30,000. It proved a wise investment.
The Boston Globe ran a photo of Lannin and Ruth playing catch at spring training in 1915. They were a matched set of orphans who had made it big. The Red Sox won the World Series in 1915 and 1916—and then Lannin abruptly sold the Sox. He was just “too much of a fan,” he said, to own them anymore.
He still owned the Bisons, but the troubles of attending that 1917 season sent the team into bankruptcy. The Buffalo Baseball Club had assets of $28,000 and debts of $41,168 – most of it owed to Lannin, the majority stockholder, who had been advancing money to pay the bills. The team was sold at auction (to the auctioneer). But through a convoluted series of deals, Lannin reacquired the Bisons, and after long being castigated as an absentee owner, was now hailed as “the angel of Buffalo baseball.”
He kept the Bisons through the 1918, 1919, and 1920 seasons. In 1921 he sold the team to a local group headed by Frank J. Offermann, the printing magnate whose name lives on in local lore.
As it happens, Lannin played an unwitting role in the most infamous transaction in baseball history. Harry Frazee – the man to whom Lannin had sold the Red Sox – sold Ruth, in 1919, to the New York Yankees for $100,000 and a loan of $300,000. As the story is often told, Frazee needed the money to bankroll a Broadway production of “No, No, Nanette.” (The show was really 1919’s “My Lady Friends,” the basis for 1925’s “Nanette.”)
But the more pressing reason for the sale was that Frazee needed the cash to make good, as he had failed to pay a $125,000 mortgage payment due to Lannin.
Given that Lannin still owned the Bisons at the time, you might say that the Curse of the Bambino has a bit of a Buffalo connection.
But never mind that. We have enough courses of our own.