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Buffalo History Museum offers nostalgic look at sports teams and legends

Being a sports fan in Buffalo has been pretty dismal for anyone under the age of 25.

Eighteen years have passed since the Buffalo Sabres were in a Stanley Cup game, and 23 years have gone by since the Buffalo Bills played in the Super Bowl.

And yet the teams' storied histories as well as the athletes and fan favorites who have represented the region have long bound local sports enthusiasts. It's with the fans in mind that the Buffalo History Museum on Friday opens "Icons: The Makers and Moments of Buffalo Sports."

Most of the exhibit comes from the Greg D. Tranter collection, donated to the museum in 2015.

The new installation on the second floor — replacing the 27-year-old "Buffalo Made" exhibit — uses photographs, artifacts, text panels and interactive and touch-screen displays to tell Buffalo's sports story.

"This is about the sports, the information and telling the story, but it's also about developing the human connections," said Anthony Greco, director of exhibits and interpretive planning.

"We wanted to create the opportunity for people to come in and reminisce, for grandparents to talk to their grandchildren and say, 'I remember this moment, I was sitting there, I was at this game,' " Greco said.

Ralph Wilson Jr.'s Hall of Fame jacket is on display at the new "Icons, the Makers and Moments of Buffalo Sports" exhibit at the Buffalo History Museum. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The "Icons" display features 17 sports stars, including: Bisons slugger Luke Easter, the Bandits' John Tavares, Bills legends Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith and Jim Kelly as well as the Sabres' "French Connection" line of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Rick Martin.

Sabre Pat LaFontaine is also included. A quick use of one of two touch screens quickly reveals he averaged 1.44 points per game, the most ever for a Sabre. His career statistics, most goals in a season — 53 — as well as quotes and film clips are are presented for him and the others commemorated behind the display glass.

Jerseys and other clothes or equipment that belonged to the athletes are displayed.

The exhibit includes homages to Delaware North, the Buffalo-owned concessionaire giant; Bills founder Ralph C. Wilson Jr.; Bisons savior Robert E. Rich Jr.; Sabres' first owners Seymour Knox III and Northrup Knox; Buffalo Braves owner Paul Snyder; and New Era Cap.

Buffalo's stadiums and arenas are also celebrated: War Memorial Auditorium, War Memorial Stadium and Offermann Stadium.

Of course, reminders of the four Bills Super Bowl appearances between 1991 and 1994 can be found, like the uniforms of Cornelius Bennett, Henry Jones, Steve Tasker and Kent Hull. Visitors can remember — or learn about — the improbable 1993 playoff comeback game when the Bills overcame a 35-3 deficit to defeat the Houston Oilers.

Early Bills history includes a uniform worn by fullbaker Art Baker Bills during the team's first year in 1960, along with a game day program.

Boxing and wrestling are represented by Lou Scozzi, a popular 1930s Italian boxer, with the huge boxing gloves he wore. The exhibit includes size 14E wrestling boots worn by 1950s Italian wrestler Ilio DiPaolo.

The exhibit acknowledges the Women's National Hockey League championship won by the Buffalo Beauts in March.

One display showcases Buffalo's earliest sports teams and athletes.

"It's the foundation of how professional sports evolved, and how people had time for leisure and how that came to be," said Melissa Brown, the museum's executive director.

There are many medallions, medals and pins to go with early 20th-century sports accomplishments in rowing, bicycling, track and field and baseball.

One photo from 1860 depicts the Buffalo Niagaras, the first uniformed team to play amateur baseball in Buffalo. The Niagaras beat the Rochester Flour Cities in its maiden game two years earlier by the very unbaseball-like score of 30-20.

The men are wearing slacks, white shirts and what looks look bibs over their shirts, as if dressed for a Sunday picnic.

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