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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.