In this day of high-powered flackery precious few challenges remain in the business of image-making. Press agents and P.R. types have managed to turn the Greek junta into Plato's Republic and the Hell's Angels into a collection of raffish fun lovers, so what's left? One could set out to get Madame Nhu named Mother of the Year or Papa Doc Duvalier the Nobel Peace Prize or Spike Jones a Grammy, but otherwise the possibilities are limited.
Unless, of course, you consider that one hard-nut case—the Siberia and Lower Slobbovia of public relations—Buffalo. You remember Buffalo, the place where vaudeville hoofers used to shuffle off to, that soot-shrouded, snowbound Murmansk of North America, hunkered down against the murderous wind blasts off Lake Erie. Buffalo presents such an image of unpleasantness to the world that even its residents have come to believe that they live in sort of a condensation of all that is nasty and foul in big industrial cities—as if three Trenton, New Jerseys and two Gary, Indianas had been spread over the landscape of western New York.
A few of the citizens of Buffalo (pronounced locally as "Buff-low") protest, but most have given up trying to defend their town. They accept the taunts and barbs with a kind of stoic withdrawal. They keep silent as local disc jockeys make constant reference to "Lake Dreary" and warn them that an aerial photograph taken of Buffalo might be confused with a closeup of an armpit. Comparing Buffalo to various bits of anatomy is something of a tradition, which probably inspired San Francisco Chronicle Columnist Glenn Dickey to write recently, "Buffalo is known as the armpit of the East, although that seems to be an unnecessarily limited title. I've seen nothing elsewhere to indicate it has any challenges for national honors." Dickey, who accompanied the Oakland Raiders to Buffalo when the AFL champions beat a particularly lame edition of the beloved home-town Bills 48-6, added, "Women are still wearing skirts below the knees, and men are wearing wide-lapel jackets. It's like watching a 1948 movie."
"The weird part about it," says Stan Roberts, one of Buffalo's most popular disc jockeys, "is that half my listeners agreed with Dickey. They've become so used to hearing Buffalo put down that they believe it themselves. I've been here five years and I think the town has a lot to offer, but this city is full of blue-collar working guys who don't travel a great deal and don't realize there are a hundred cities in the country that are worse than Buffalo, by far. I'll give you an example: the people in this town live and die with the Bills. When the team won the AFL championship two years in a row, it was like they were on a trip. There was a Walter Mitty atmosphere here that was wild. But now that injuries and age have dropped the Bills to the bottom, they think things have returned to normal—that this is the kind of team they deserve."
January 20, 1969
Buffalonians have a certain right to torpor in the area of civic boosterism. Their city is hard to love. It is dominated by heavy industry: steel mills, refineries, auto assembly plants and chemical businesses that rely on the cheap power generated in nearby Niagara Falls. This brand of commerce is by nature housed in dirty, slab-sided factories that negate whatever natural lakeside beauty Buffalo might claim. Add to this a long, dark winter and a populace of brawny, blunt, conservative second-and third-generation Polish, German, Italian and Irish workingmen, whose taste for civic beauty is at best muted, and you have the elements of a dozen grimy Northeastern industrial cities.
A drive down one of Buffalo's streets arouses suspicion of a mysterious covenant between an asphalt siding cartel and the world's architecture-school dropouts. Aside from a few new buildings in the downtown area (a library, a magnificent bank building, an ultramodern shopping and office complex and a burlesque house), Buffalo is a vast collection of yellow brick warehouses, factories, used-car lots, bowling alleys and stolid, boxy residences with front porches, punctuated by corner taverns where men gather to talk sports, consume draft beer and munch on a favorite local staple, cold beef in k√ºmmelweck rolls, known simply as "beef on week." The blue-collar men who populate the city fit the mold of William Graham Sumner's original forgotten man: the middling white man who works hard, pays taxes, likes sports more than ideas and finds the modern world bewildering.
If their frustration over the "Queen City of the Lakes" (as a few notably square boosters persist in calling Buffalo) can be given a focal point, it is the humiliating rejection the town has suffered in its quest for major league status. In the past three years Buffalo has mounted massive campaigns to gain entrance to the National Hockey League and to National League baseball, only to be turned down in favor of seemingly less-qualified locations. Prior to that, Buffalo bet on a loser by becoming part of the stillborn Continental Baseball League. What's more, Buffalo has not received more than a sniff of interest from pro basketball since the unlamented National League Bisons played 12 games there in 1946-47 before beginning an exodus in which they became the St. Louis Hawks. The latest chapter in Buffalo's dismal epic of sports misfortunes involves the genuine danger that its only major league representative, the much-loved Bills, may skip town in a dispute over a new stadium. In Buffalo that would be tantamount to turning off the water supply and might move the generally law-abiding citizenry to open rebellion.
The situation may become critical if Bills Owner Ralph Wilson Jr. carries out his intention of drafting USC superstar O.J. Simpson on Jan. 28. O.J. says he prefers to play on the Coast (and in the NFL), so the Bills might have to go to him. Should they depart to other realms (Seattle is a possible destination) with O.J. in hand, the local government's most prudent option would be to call out the National Guard and then flee to Canada.
Buffalo's role as the odd man out in sport probably began in 1949, when the All-America Conference was amalgamated with the National Football League, thereby ending the World War I of professional football. Buffalo, with Cleveland and San Francisco, had one of the three moneymaking franchises in the AAC, and the locals presumed their Bills would automatically be among the trio of cities accepted into the NFL. But, in a move the memory of which still causes old Buffalo sports fans' eyes to glaze with anger, the third NFL franchise was awarded to Baltimore, not Buffalo.
Once the old Bills left town, Buffalo turned inward, quenching its thirst for sport with its International League baseball team (a franchise that was one of the strongest in the minor leagues), its American Hockey League entrant and the unrelenting Little Three basketball rivalry between home-town Canisius and nearby St. Bonaventure and Niagara. Saturday night standing-room-only crowds elbow their way into the grim, lakeside fortress known as Memorial Auditorium to scream for Canisius and return on Sundays for the hockey Bisons. They would be difficult to lure back for pro basketball, as the promoters know.
Nevertheless, the fever for big-league status has reached epidemic proportions in Buffalo, and the repeated rejections by the national sports establishment have had a depressing effect on the city's psyche. Claiming a population within a 25-to 50-mile radius exceeding both Minneapolis-St. Paul and Houston, Buffalonians cannot fathom why presumably profit-motivated businessmen are not interested in mining some of the wealth that exists in an area ranking 17th nationally in effective buying power.
While sports supporters promise untold riches for the first baseball or hockey team to arrive in town, they admit that Buffalo is blighted by three compelling, if inaccurate, prejudices: 1) that the city will not support a loser, 2) that Buffalo has two seasons, winter and the Fourth of July, and 3) that Buffalo is the national capital of "bush."
Although part of the populace seems to find some obscure, masochistic satisfaction in demeaning their city (Dickey remarked in his column, "This is a town that seems to take pride in its ugliness"), a group of wealthy civic leaders has launched an ambitious enterprise to bring major league sports to Buffalo and at the same time to dispel the feeling that the place is a subarctic slum. The leaders of the group are a pair of brothers in the blue-blooded Knox family, a landed clan representing the elite Eastern establishment, which has made an indelible impression on Buffalo's philanthropic and social life. They are Seymour H. Knox III, suave and lean, and his younger brother Northrup (Norty), a balding, bright-eyed athlete with impeccable credentials in polo, squash and court tennis. He is the court tennis world champion and a former captain of the U.S. polo team.
The Knox brothers, looking as if they had been conjured up by John O'Hara, recently sat at a quiet lunch in Buffalo's elegant Saturn Club and reflected on the adventures that had taken them from the cloistered competition carried on at gentlemen's clubs and polo fields and into the crass world of big-league sport. Outside, the traffic whispered along stylish, rainswept Delaware Avenue, and for a moment the other Buffalo, the Buffalo of the corner saloons and the steel mills, seemed light-years away.
"I played hockey at Yale and have always loved the sport," said Norty, "although Seymour broke his leg at prep school and didn't play in college. His sport is squash. But like myself he has always felt that there was a tremendous potential for major league hockey in Buffalo."
"We heard that the National Hockey League was going to expand in September of 1965," said Seymour, "and, after Norty and I had discussed it for awhile, we realized that we knew many of the key people in the NHL. We gathered up the necessary support and made formal application for a franchise a month later."
With the Knox brothers carrying the puck, Buffalo was playing from great strength. Representatives of the family that helped found the world-famous Al-bright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo—a citadel of contemporary painting and sculpture—they marshaled supporters willing to spend as much as $3 million on Buffalo hockey plus some persuasive demographics to buttress their request: Buffalo's television market ranks in the top 15 in the United States, and, when the hockey-mad province of Ontario, lying just across the Niagara River, is taken into consideration, the population within 75 miles is 5.5 million people. This Canadian factor was particularly important, the Knoxes felt, because the Toronto Maple Leafs have played to full houses from sometime shortly after Henry Hudson discovered his bay.
Along with this strong market prospectus the city of Buffalo promised a refurbishing of the Memorial Auditorium that would increase its seating capacity to 16,080. It looked great, all bound up in a slick-paper brochure published expressly for the NHL bosses, and Buffalonians permitted themselves a moment of optimism.
What no one realized was that powerful opposition was being arrayed against Buffalo. The Knoxes are much too gentlemanly to point fingers, but less prudent partisans of the cause lay the blame for Buffalo's failure at the feet of the late Jim Norris, the paterfamilias of big-league hockey until his death, plus the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Norris, they say, was against Buffalo from the start, having developed a dislike for the city when he encountered business troubles with some grain elevators there and because of his opinions about its "bush" status. Furthermore, Norris also owned the Arena in St. Louis, a city that awoke one morning in February 1966 to discover that it had been granted an NHL franchise, despite the fact that no one in town had bothered to apply for it. It is that franchise the Knox group feels Buffalo deserved. However, Norris' interest in placing it in St. Louis—added to the Toronto owners' fear of Buffalo's three powerful television stations—apparently was decisive. Exit Buffalo from consideration by the National Hockey League.
In spite of this rebuff the Knox brothers remain convinced that major league hockey will come to Buffalo. "Buffalo is simply too strong a market for the NHL to ignore," says Seymour Knox. "When the next chance comes up, we will make another application, and this time the situation will be different."
The "situation" he refers to is Mr. Norris' departure from the scene and the relative loss of influence in the NHL councils of the Maple Leaf ownership. "The last time Toronto had one vote in six; next time they'll only have one vote in 12," says Norty Knox.
That vote could be forthcoming as soon as January 21—date of the next NHL governors' meeting—thanks to recent "highly delicate" negotiations by the Knoxes to acquire the Oakland Seals. Seymour Knox said last week his group had contracted to transfer the Seals to Buffalo after this season—subject, of course, to the NHL's approval.
The original foray into big-time hockey created an organization that spearheaded an assault on major league baseball. The nucleus of the group became Major League of Buffalo, Inc. This body embarked upon a frustrating, eight-month campaign to enter the National League—a misadventure that left Buffalonians bluer than ever. "It's like recalling a nightmare," says Robert Swados, a Buffalo tax and corporate lawyer who had documented the city's case. Swados, a spare, scholarly type who resembles a good-humored Hyman Rickover, has been secretary-treasurer of the Bisons' baseball club and a member of the executive committee of the hockey Bisons. This experience led to his becoming a key member of the Knox-led effort to crack the NHL and then plunged him into the baseball fight. The baseball moguls agreed that Swados' presentation was flawlessly prepared. "In fact, it was the best and most comprehensive I have ever studied," wrote one executive. However, Swados' thoroughness in gathering facts did not prevent the two new franchises from being granted to San Diego and Montreal.
"I'll never understand why," he says. "I can only conclude that the National League owners simply didn't want Buffalo in the league at that particular time and rejected us on completely subjective grounds. What baffles me is that we were the only city to totally meet their requirements. We had the money ready—$10 million for the franchise plus another $2.5 million for operating costs—in the bank. And Erie County had appropriated $50 million to build a domed stadium. And they still turned us down. What really frustrates me is that one franchise went to Montreal—a city that had neither the money nor any guarantees for building a domed stadium.
"We thought we were in. I polished up an acceptance speech, and then we waited. When Walter O'Malley announced that San Diego and Montreal had been selected as the expansion cities, I was dumfounded—I couldn't believe my ears. The meeting went on, and then the representatives of the cities not accepted—Dallas-Fort Worth, Milwaukee and ourselves—were asked to make statements. I got up and thanked the owners and expressed a hope that we had made some friends for Buffalo. What else could I say?"
"Swados and the group from Buffalo did a great job," says one Buffalonian familiar with the sports situation, "but they were too honest, too aboveboard. They didn't realize the National League is run more like a club than a business, and if you want in you've got to play a very tough game of politics."
"I hate to say it, but Buffalo's image probably hurt us in the long run," admits Swados. "Since it is partly a social thing to own a baseball team, a lot of the owners like to visit the cities in which their teams play. It's possible that a number of them simply didn't want to visit Buffalo. I'm sure our image didn't help us."
The city's shock and outrage was echoed by the area's biggest and richest newspaper, the Buffalo Evening News, a grave, gray journal that chronicles the Niagara Frontier with a plodding thoroughness brightened only by a fiercely chauvinistic sports staff. Volley after volley thundered out of the pages of the News at the National League hierarchy. Then, slowly, the paper's fury subsided, and an editorial writer was left to reflect, "So here we are, all dressed up in our new stadium plans, ready and eager for our biggest league sports venture in modern times, and now we're told to unlax and forget it."
The Erie County legislature, which represents the metropolitan area of which Buffalo is a part, had in fact "dressed up" the town in stadium plans—passed by a giddy, bipartisan 19-1 vote when the baseball franchise appeared to be a sure thing, if a domed stadium were guaranteed. But suddenly baseball was lost, and the legislators lapsed into an argument over where to locate the new stadium—despite prodding by the News, its smaller rival, the morning Courier-Express, and by Ralph Wilson, owner of the beloved Bills.
Wilson's Bills are an institution in Buffalo. Ever since they came out in 1960 as debutants in that feeble collection of franchises known as the American Football League, the Bills have done very little wrong in the eyes of their adoring fans. To be sure, they have been booed at times—but only as a demanding father might cuff a good son for occasional transgressions. Despite their reputation for unruliness, the fans have been impressively consistent in supporting the Bills—and, until recently, the team's owner.
Wilson, a Detroit sportsman whose family owns a giant fleet of trucks used to transport new automobiles around the nation, at first planned to locate his new AFL franchise in Miami, but a snag over use of the Orange Bowl sent him looking elsewhere. Wilson scouted Buffalo and liked what he saw, not least because his tour escort was the dynamic executive editor of the Evening News, Paul Neville. A prototype of the clear-eyed, jut-jawed, tough-talking, cigar-chomping professional newspaperman, Neville has been doing his best to prod Buffalo into action since his arrival from South Bend years ago. Neville is a full-blown sports fan, complete with a Notre Dame diploma, a fierce Irish pride and a compulsion to get big-league status for his adopted city. Wilson agreed to stay for a minimum of three years, provided a lease could be arranged for the use of a crumbling concrete WPA project known as War Memorial Stadium. The lease was signed, and Wilson's Bills moved into their new home—an arena that looked as if whatever war it was a memorial to had been fought within its confines.
Buffalo being a hard-nosed town that measures the excellence of football on the basis of skull-cracking blocks and tackles—not cute, gazellelike runners and passers—Wilson wisely hired a pair of rugged coaches during the early years. Both Buster Ramsey and Lou Saban, the latter the man who brought the team their championships, were exponents of a bruising, fundamentalist brand of football based on simple offenses and gritty, unyielding defenses. Buffalo loved the Bills that way, and by 1964 they were showing a profit.
The AFL title went to the Bills in 1964 and 1965; Kansas City beat them in the 1966 championship game. From there the team's fortunes began a nose dive that has not yet ended. It was triggered when Saban resigned and was replaced by a closemouthed, thoughtful assistant named Joe Collier. His style, which differed so radically from that of the tough extroverts who preceded him, never caught on with the Bills' followers. Then Collier made a fatal mistake by trading backup Hero-Quarterback Daryle Lamonica to Oakland, where he immediately blossomed into an All-League superstar. Moreover, the Bills' regular quarterback, Jack Kemp, who had led them to their two titles, was injured and was lost to the team for the entire 1968 season.
"This town is 62%, Catholic," says Jack Horrigan, the Bills' public-relations man, "so you can imagine how popular a good-looking young quarterback from Notre Dame would be. Half the fans were convinced that Lamonica was better than Kemp and, of course, as soon as Jack would have a bad day, they'd start to scream for Daryle." Obviously bogged down behind the poised, established Kemp, Lamonica—unbeknown to his fans—was delighted to leave Buffalo. As a starter with a different team and relieved of several personal problems that had troubled him in Buffalo, he quickly-reached his potential.
Blighted by bad luck, an epidemic of injuries and advancing years in some key players, the Bills won only four games in 1967, and this season, of course, managed only one victory, a home-town upset over the despised New York Jets and their white-shoed, twinkle-toed quarterback, Joe Namath—the kind of player Buffalonians would struggle eight miles through a blizzard to see mussed up. Collier was fired early in the 1968 season, but his departure did little to revive the team. Nevertheless, Buffalo gamely continued to back the Bills.
"They say Buffalo won't support a loser," muses Horrigan. "That may or may not be true, but I think the fans have been quite loyal when the awful condition of the stadium is considered."
In truth the place is a nightmare in steel and concrete. Most of its 45,000 seats are either located in the two end zones or cunningly hidden behind rows of roof girders that give one the impression of watching the field through a picket fence. Moreover, it is situated in the heart of Buffalo's substantial ghetto, an area that was racked by riots in 1967. Parking is scarce and, once inside, one must be equipped with iron kidneys, because somebody forgot to build enough rest rooms. "You have to train to go to a Bills game," says Stan Roberts. "When you take guests, you feel stupid warning them to go to the bathroom before leaving."
A dearth of bathrooms and bad seats can be tolerated but not the prospect of no pro team at all. When the NFL and the AFL merge in 1970, each of the member cities must be able to provide a stadium with at least 50,000 seats. Faced with this demand, Ralph Wilson has made it clear that he cannot, and will not, operate in War Memorial Stadium. When he signed his last three-year lease with the city, he was assured that construction would begin on a new 55,000-to 65,000-seat stadium before 1969. Time is running out on that agreement, and Wilson is becoming more vocal in his demands. The county legislature is hung up on the question of where to erect the new domed stadium, which it has already approved.
"When he had a winning team, Ralph was a hero, but now that he's demanding action on a new stadium, the town thinks he's holding a gun to their heads," says Horrigan.
"I suppose a certain number of Buffalonians are angry at me because I've taken sides in an issue they feel should be debated locally," says Wilson himself, seated in an opulent, glass-walled office overlooking the Detroit River. He is a big, thick-shouldered man with a heavy, rather brooding face that conceals an easygoing manner graced with wit and candor. He leans back and gazes out the window on a bearing toward Buffalo, roughly 250 miles to the east across icebound, polluted Lake Erie. "I've warned the city that work must commence on a new stadium of some kind before the end of 1969 or else I'll be forced to move the team elsewhere. That position relates to an agreement the city made with me when I signed the last three-year lease for War Memorial Stadium."
A man who maintains a large stable of racehorses and has owned a share of the Detroit Lions (with his father) plus a piece of the collapsed Detroit soccer franchise, Wilson is not given to dilettantish dabbling in sports. His AFL team is a profitable enterprise, and he means to keep it that way, even if it means moving to the Yukon. "Buffalo is an excellent sports town, like all major Great Lakes cities, and I don't regret for a minute having located the Bills there, but now they've got to move ahead, develop for the future."
While acknowledging Buffalo's image problem, Wilson firmly denies that it is that bad. "Buffalonians will support a loser as well as any city, and our attendance the past two years has proved it. Despite a losing 1967 season we sold 22,000 season tickets this year, and I'd expect sales to go as high as 45,000 with a new stadium. The city's weather is no worse than a number of other big-league towns, although it does get a lot of snow after the 15th of November—when it doesn't really matter."
Sitting there in Detroit, Wilson symbolized another Buffalo dilemma. "There are very few home-owned industries in Buffalo, and that causes a number of problems. It reduces the number of key local people who can rally big area businesses to the support of sports enterprises and it reduces the number of men who might be traveling around the country selling Buffalo on a national scale."
Despite his awareness of Buffalo's shortcomings, Wilson makes it perfectly clear that he intends to keep the Bills in town if he possibly can. But that means the implementation of a new stadium, and the dirt must begin to fly soon if Wilson and his team are to be kept around. "The present talk centers around a domed stadium, but I've questioned whether a facility of that type might not be too expensive for Buffalo. We've recommended a 'Spartan-type' stadium of about 70,000 seats that would cost around $20 million. However, if they want to build a domed stadium, it's fine by me, although I feel parking and access is critical. I'll tell you one thing, if Buffalo decides to build a domed stadium it'll put that city on the map for the next hundred years."
There is also a man who might put Buffalo on the map for 100 years—if one accepts his football achievements at face value. That man is, of course, O.J. Simpson, and Wilson would settle for a mere decade of Simpson-style service.
"He's an extremely high-grade young man, most personable, and I think he'll upgrade our entire organization," Wilson said last week. "We've made no final decision but at this point we plan to draft him. I've had some informal conversations with him and I don't see any serious barriers that will prevent him from playing for the Bills.
"I'll tell you this: if we draft him, we'll play him. I have no intention of trading him for six or seven other players that'll be forgotten in a year. I've been through that quality for quantity business before."
Despite statements in the press that O.J. will not demean himself by laboring for the Bills and will consent to play only in an area of his choice, Wilson is confident that he can be fitted to a blue and white Buffalo uniform. "Listen, every one of the 400 kids drafted by the pros each year wants to play for a specific team, but very few of them get their first choice. O.J. is in the same position, basically, and I think he'll adjust without any problems."
It is possible that the stark prospect of the Bills skipping off to Seattle or somewhere after O.J. was signed might move the politicians to action. Dreams of being pursued by droves of furious steelworkers are enough to strike terror into the heart of the most courageous Erie County legislator and might provide the proper motivation for action on the stagnated stadium issue.
Exponents of a downtown location feel the new stadium would be a major component of a convention complex that would include hotels, restaurants and an exhibition hall. Their opponents argue the high cost of land, potential transportation congestion and harsh lakeside winds, which make a downtown site less favorable than the accessible, wide-open spaces of suburban Amherst. So the legislature sits fondling its $50 million, trying to decide where to spend it.
While the politicians grapple, the city becomes more and more impatient. The Buffalo Evening News supports the suburban location; the rival Courier-Express stands behind the downtown plan. Both agree that Buffalo's sports future rests on a new stadium—domed, undomed, downtown or in the country. A News editorial recently warned, "A community that cannot support major league sport in big-league fashion is relegated to second city status, inevitably."
Earlier this month the legislature made its first move off dead center by voting to permit a private investment group, the Kenford Company, to investigate the site situation and recommend a stadium location by mid-February. A number of Buffalonians believe Kenford will prompt the county to set up operation of the stadium (in a suburban location) in a fashion similar to the Houston Astrodome. This would mean Kenford would lease and operate the stadium, while its rental payments would serve to retire the county's bond issue. Provided no snags develop, the odds are highly favorable that Buffalo's domed stadium will be built in this manner.
But move it must, or Buffalo will find itself forever branded as a city of bush-leaguers, bad losers and intolerable weather. It is likely that Buffalo is none of these things, but the dismal face it presents to the world neatly conceals its virtues. And they will probably remain concealed until a spectacular venture like a domed stadium can be executed.
Despite its industrial ugliness Buffalo heartily supports the Albright-Knox gallery, an excellent zoo and the lively Studio Arena Theater. Additionally, the massive infusion of new money, ideas and personalities brought by the state university, which will enroll 40,000 students by 1970 and become one of the largest educational complexes in the world, is rattling the stodgy, hidebound elements of the city to their very foundations. Buffalo will surely change—as all the Eastern industrial cities that have been permitted to decay must change—but this in no way should alter its great appetite for sport.
Like the Buffalonian said as he ordered up another 15¢ beer, "One by one we ain't very pretty but, when 60,000 of us get sittin' inside that new domed stadium, some of them so-called big-leaguers are gonna think we're damned beautiful."