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Reliving the golden age of Buffalo sports

Talking with younger Buffalo fans, you sometimes get the impression that the town's sports history began the day Jim Kelly came riding down the Kensington Expressway after signing his contract with the Bills.

But the city has a rich and colorful sports history that reaches back to the time before television, big contracts and steroids.

Daniel P. Starr, a former history professor and athletic director at Canisius College, was 12 when World War II ended. Starr contends that the brief period from 1945-50 was a golden age for Buffalo sports.

Starr is a historian, and his ode to Buffalo sports reads like a history book.

Still, for an avid fan of Buffalo sports, this is an instructive and often fascinating work. Bills fans should know the history of the All American Football Conference (AAFC), which was a precursor to the AFL and battled the NFL for fans and recognition in the post-war years.

The AAFC franchise was known as the Bisons in 1946, then changed its name to Bills to distinguish itself from the city's baseball and hockey teams. Playing in Civic Stadium, those Bills drew crowds that were larger than many NFL teams. In 1947, the largest crowd ever to witness a sports event in Buffalo -- 43,167 -- showed up for a home game against the rival Cleveland Browns, who dominated the AAFC in those days.

After the 1949 season, the NFL decided to absorb three teams from the AAFC. Buffalo wasn't among them. Despite a campaign to raise public money to support an NFL franchise, the NFL snubbed the city.

Minor-league baseball flourished in old Offermann Stadium, as the Bisons fielded consistently competitive teams. Some of the most famous names in the sport played or managed here. Before breaking in with the Dodgers in 1947, Jackie Robinson played with Montreal against the Bisons. Starr recalls how Robinson was better-received in Buffalo than in most cities, though he stayed apart from the team at the Little Harlem on Michigan Avenue.

But it was college sports that truly enjoyed a golden age. College football was big here after the war, when a flood of veterans returned to the local rosters. It's hard to fathom nowadays, but all four local schools (Canisius, Niagara, UB and St. Bonaventure) fielded strong teams.

In November 1946, more than 35,000 fans went to Civic Stadium to see Canisius play St. Bonaventure.

College football's golden age came to an abrupt end, though, as the colleges couldn't justify the cost.

Memorial Auditorium was a mecca for college basketball after the war.

Area fans still speak fondly of the Saturday night doubleheaders in the Aud, which was second only to Madison Square Garden as a hoop venue in the East. Local legends such as Taps Gallagher, Mike Reilly, Bob MacKinnon, and Joe and Tom Niland graced the Aud. Clair Bee and Hank Iba coached there between 1946-50. George Mikan, Easy Ed MacAuley, Fred Schaus and Dolph Schayes played in doubleheaders that routinely drew more than 10,000 fans.

Other sports thrived in the Golden Age. Boxing was at its height. Sugar Ray Robinson fought here three times. Willie Pep fought in the Aud. The Golden Gloves drew large crowds.

Even high school sports had a golden age. On Oct. 21, 1948, the Kensington-Bennett football game drew 50,988 spectators, which for many years stood as the largest crowd ever at a sports event in Buffalo. Today, it's hard to imagine that many people showing up for a high school game. But as Starr points out, it was a different time. His book is invaluable for any Buffalo sports fan.

Jerry Sullivan is The News' senior sports columnist.

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The Golden Age of Buffalo Sports

By Daniel P. Starr

Buffalo Heritage Unlimited

314 pages, $24.95

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