31 Jan CTO Jon Cartu Announced Was Buffalo robbed of the first two NFL championships? –…
Anne Pratt Slatin remembers the charm dangling from her mother’s bracelet, a little gold football with hand-painted blue letters, a relic of Buffalo’s claim to the first two NFL championships.
“It was a charm that celebrated their win,” Slatin said, “even though they were never recognized for the win.”
The Buffalo All-Americans were among the original 14 NFL teams in 1920. They posted an 18-2-3 record over their first two seasons and led the league in scoring both years. But they lost each title in a vote by team representatives, infuriating owner Frank McNeil, Slatin’s great uncle, for decades.
The NFL’s celebration of its 100th season climaxes with a clash between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday in Miami, the culmination of a century of professional football. Much is known about the earliest era of the league, then called the American Professional Football Association, with the facts unearthed through decades of research by historians. But much remains lost, including the first championship trophy.
This much is certain: Generations before the Buffalo Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls, long before “Wide Right” and “No Goal” and the “Music City Miracle,” more than a half century before the NBA’s Buffalo Braves skipped town, back when the “City of Light” was a boomtown on the cusp of Prohibition and the Roaring ’20s, Buffalo sports fans endured a mostly forgotten yet painfully familiar tale of woe dubbed the “Staley Swindle.”
“The All-Americans are a cool story,” Buffalo sports historian John Boutet said, “and not a lot of people know about that whole situation that went down, of why they were denied the title that they actually deserved to have.”
Buffalo claimed the inaugural NFL championship before it was awarded months later to the Akron Pros at a meeting presided over by Akron owner Art Ranney, the secretary of the league, because the president and vice president were absent.
Buffalo (9-1-2) argued that it had more victories than Akron (8-0-3), tied its game against the Pros and avenged its only loss, but to no avail.
Akron was undefeated, and furthermore cited strength of schedule.
Buffalo then unfurled a 1921 season sidetracked by scandal and lost a surefire championship through some combination of greed, bravado, desperation, politics and alleged trickery by George Halas, the Hall of Fame player, coach and owner of the Chicago Bears, in those days known as the Staleys.
“McNeil insisted that they were winners,” said Jeff Miller, a Western New York football historian, author and recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Professional Football Researchers Association. “They had gold footballs made up and all the players got them. They’re very small. They’re just little charms that hang off a bracelet.”
Each proclaims “BUFFALO WORLD’S PRO CHAMPIONS,” the triumph inscribed in blue and all caps above carved laces. The date “1920” sits below.
“I’ve seen a few of them,” Miller said. “Some of the players’ families still have them. They’re tiny. They probably didn’t cost very much. But they said that they were the champions. And the next year he claimed the championship again, and he went to his grave insisting that we were screwed.”
‘A bit of a debate’
Buffalo was loaded with talent, there’s no dispute.
“One of the reasons they were called the All-Americans,” Boutet said, “was there was a ton of guys that were All-Americans in college.”
They dressed in white pants, black shirts with orange armbands and leather helmets, and they played home games at Buffalo Bisons Baseball Park and The Villa at Canisius, the patch of land behind Old Main now known as the Quadrangle.
The All-Americans demolished their first seven opponents by a combined score of 244-26. But they had only played two teams in the league. Buffalo was among the last four teams to join the APFA that first season, submitting a letter of interest while representatives from 10 others met in Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile showroom in Canton. Schedules were already made.
Who could forget those 1920 Buffalo All-Americans? pic.twitter.com/EGJ0vzsEQt
— Jason Wolf (@JasonWolf) October 22, 2019
Buffalo lost its next game to the Canton Bulldogs, 3-0, but avenged the defeat with a 7-3 triumph before a crowd of 20,000 fans at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, the first major professional football game in New York City. The players then rode an overnight train back to Buffalo, where they played the next day against undefeated Akron and star running back Fritz Pollard, a major gate attraction, one of two African American players and the league’s first black head coach.
But only 3,000 fans showed up in the rain and snow.
Before the contest, Akron dealt star lineman Bob “Nasty” Nash to Buffalo for $300 and 5% of the gate, the first-known NFL player trade. But the teams couldn’t accomplish much in the ice and mud, and the game finished in a scoreless tie, ending Buffalo’s season with a 9-1-1 record and ultimately costing it the championship.
The Decatur Staleys finished 10-1-2 and didn’t lose to the Pros, either. But Akron was 8-0-3, had beaten more league opponents and because ties were ignored, possessed a 1.000 winning percentage. Were ties counted as they are today, Akron and Buffalo would have had identical winning percentages.
“In the end, the only games that would be counted towards a title for the new league would be those games that were played against members,” said Joe Horrigan, a South Buffalo native and retired executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But that wasn’t discussed in advance, or at least wasn’t documented.
“That was always a bit of a debate as people look back at this,” Horrigan said, “because there’s no records of anybody saying here’s the day they had this vote.”
No official standings were maintained for the 1920 season, either, but Joe Carr, owner of the Columbus Panhandles, made a motion to declare Akron the champion, which passed. The precise vote was not recorded.
The Pros received the Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup, a trophy never relinquished and lost to time.
Gutted by scandal
Carr was named league president during the same meeting in which Akron was declared champion, and he began to reform the league. Still, franchises continued to create their own schedules and no date was set for the end of the 1921 season.
Buffalo opened on a five-game rampage, outscoring its opponents a combined 159-0.
Sixteen players posed for the team photo.
“These were the days of the ironmen,” Miller said. “You played both ways.”
But this roster would be gutted by scandal.
Players were paid by the game, and eight of Buffalo’s best were double dipping, playing for the non-league Philadelphia Quakers on Saturdays before riding a train back to Buffalo to play for the All-Americans.
This came to Carr’s attention and he was adamant it…
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