SI Vault
Brock Yates
January 20, 1969
Rejected by major league baseball and hockey, terrified that its Bills might blow, grubby, sports-loving Buffalo nourishes a flame of hope
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January 20, 1969

Warts, Love And Dreams In Buffalo

Rejected by major league baseball and hockey, terrified that its Bills might blow, grubby, sports-loving Buffalo nourishes a flame of hope

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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."

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�mmelweck 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.

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