Greg Tranter’s collection, a half-century labor of love containing a staggering 100,000-plus items about his favorite passion, is all about history.
It’s the history of the Buffalo Bills.
And now that collection is going where it belongs, to the Buffalo History Museum, where Western New Yorkers of present and future generations can soak in the community’s favorite – and even some painful – memories of the Bills’ first 56 years.
“I am thrilled today to announce the donation of my Bills collections to the Buffalo History Museum,” the 59-year-old Shrewsbury, Mass., resident announced Tuesday afternoon. “This collection belongs in Buffalo and to Buffalo.”
Tranter called his collection a lifelong passion.
“Some might even say obsession,” he added.
Tranter grew up in the Corning/Elmira area and never has lived in Buffalo, other than owning a townhouse for Bills home games. But the Bills blue, red and white run through his veins.
“I drive my wife and friends crazy by always bragging about Buffalo, from chicken wings being founded at the Anchor Bar, to beef on weck, to the grain elevators, to the City of Light, the significance of Buffalo in 1901 when the Pan-American Exposition was here to the smell of Cheerios floating through the air downtown,” he stated during Tuesday’s announcement at the museum.
The size and variety of items in the collection are almost too much to comprehend.
In simple terms, the collection includes more than 6,000 three-dimensional items, including game-worn jerseys, helmets, shoes, mugs, pennants and buttons, along with more than 100,000 archival items, such as tickets, programs, posters, schedules, football cards and autographs.
Some of Tranter’s favorites include:
•The Buffalo Bills game-day programs from every game they’ve ever played, more than 1,100, starting with the 1960 preseason opener against the Boston Patriots on July 30, 1960.
•A blue-and-silver jersey worn by fullback Art Baker in 1961.
•A Bills snowblower.
•The helmet that kicker Scott Norwood wore in Super Bowl XXV, the team’s most painful loss of all time. What’s most remarkable is how he signed it.
•The team’s standing-buffalo-helmet lapel pins worn by the Secret Service while protecting former Bills quarterback Jack Kemp as the 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee.
Parts of Tranter’s collection already have been on display in the History Museum, starting with the team’s 50th anniversary exhibit in 2009. Tranter remembers the powerful memories the exhibit evoked, as visitors shared their stories across generations, like a father telling his son he had the same bobblehead at age 10 or a mother telling her daughter how she felt during the Bills comeback victory over the Houston Oilers in 1993.
The shared cross-generational memories kept gnawing at Tranter as he drove home to Massachusetts with his collectibles after that exhibit.
“Those personal stories all came to life for me,” he said Tuesday, before the announcement. “I said I’m taking this all back and putting it in my basement. It doesn’t belong there. It belongs to the people of Buffalo, to enjoy it the way I did.
“I knew the collection needed to come back to Buffalo and have a permanent home here.”
How it started
At age 8, Tranter bought his first pack of football cards, complete with the Topps chewing gum and including a Jack Kemp card. That year, he attended his first game, when the Bills beat the Denver Broncos on Oct. 24, 1965, in War Memorial Stadium .
“The anticipation and excitement running through me was almost uncontrollable as I rode with my Dad in his 1964 Ford station wagon to my first live football game,” he said. “As we neared the stadium, the concrete facade of the stadium rose up from the horizon. It seemed so big, and the sight of it made my heart race with excitement.”
Tranter still has his first three collectibles from that day: his $4.50 ticket stub, a Bills bobblehead featuring a player wearing number 31 (from the team’s original logo) and a 50-cent game program.
Years later, Tranter met his future wife, Tracy. As the relationship began to get serious, he took her down to his basement, to see about his other love affair, with the Bills.
“She then went to a psychologist to see if I had a passion or an obsession, and how to tell the difference,” he recalled with a laugh. “When she found out it was a passion, it was OK.”
How he collected
Tranter has collected his Bills memorabilia in person, at flea markets and garage sales, in sports memorabilia shops, on eBay and at auctions. It’s taken 51 years, and the youthful-looking Tranter admits he’s spent tens of thousands of dollars on his hobby.
The varied paths he’s taken can be seen in one item, a black-and-white signed photo of Bills defensive tackle Fred Smerlas chasing down then-Patriots quarterback Doug Flutie in a late-1980s game. Tranter bought the photo at a flea market, got Smerlas to sign it at an arena-football game and then got Flutie’s signature at a golf tournament.
His pursuit of collectibles almost landed him in jail once.
A few days before Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, Tranter and a collector friend spotted street signs bearing the Super Bowl logo and helmet icons from the Bills and Giants. As the friend stood on Tranter’s shoulders and started cutting one of them down, a police car pulled up, with its lights flashing.
“I can save you guys a lot of trouble,” he recalled the police officer telling them. “After the Super Bowl, these street signs are going to be sold for $25 each by the Chamber of Commerce. Why don’t you save yourselves some trouble and buy them then?”
Collecting hasn’t become just a hobby. Tranter, a retired insurance executive, earned his master’s degree in museum education from Tufts University last May. So he’s now pursuing a new career as a museum curator and football historian.
There are big plans for Tranter’s collection, including a rotating exhibit of 100 items on a wall near the museum entrance off Nottingham Terrace near Elmwood Avenue; an exhibit called “Icons,” featuring artifacts from all Buffalo pro sports teams, opening on the second floor in 2017; and a fairly new concept, “visible storage,” featuring open glass cases at the museum’s Resource Center on Forest Avenue.
Melissa N. Brown, the museum’s executive director, loves the idea of the Bills exhibit bringing people in the front door, so they can discover other dimensions of Buffalo history.
But she also has gotten a huge kick out of the “shared nostalgia” she’s seen from families passing on their love of the team.
Of all the mind-blowing collection pieces, one may be the most shocking: Norwood’s helmet. “My only helmet,” he wrote on it, detailing his career highlights and then signing it:
“Wide Right. Scott Norwood #11.”