Anne Pratt Slatin remembers the charm dangling from her mother’s bracelet, a little gold football with hand-painted blue letters, a relic of Buffalo’s claim to the first two NFL championships.
“It was a charm that celebrated their win,” Slatin said, “even though they were never recognized for the win.”
The Buffalo All-Americans were among the NFL's original 14 teams in 1920. They posted an 18-2-3 record over their first two seasons and led the league in scoring both years. But there were no playoffs, and they lost each title in a vote by team representatives, infuriating owner Frank McNeil, the 75-year-old Slatin’s great uncle, for decades.
The NFL’s celebration of its 100th season reached a climax with the Kansas City Chiefs defeating the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV in Miami, the culmination of a century of professional football. Much is known about the earliest era of the league, then called the American Professional Football Association, the facts unearthed through decades of research by historians. But much remains lost, including the first championship trophy.
This much is certain: Generations before the Buffalo Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls, long before “Wide Right” and “No Goal” and the “Music City Miracle,” more than a half century before the NBA’s Buffalo Braves skipped town, back when the “City of Light” was a boomtown on the heels of the 1918 influenza pandemic and World War I and the cusp of Prohibition and the Roaring ’20s, Buffalo sports fans suffered, enduring a mostly forgotten yet painfully familiar tale of woe dubbed the “Staley Swindle.”
“The All-Americans are a cool story,” Buffalo sports historian John Boutet said, “and not a lot of people know about that whole situation that went down, of why they were denied the title that they actually deserved to have.”
Buffalo claimed the inaugural NFL championship before it was awarded months later to the Akron Pros at a meeting presided over by Akron owner Art Ranney, the secretary of the league, because the president and vice president were absent.
Buffalo (9-1-2) argued that it had more victories than Akron (8-0-3), tied its game against the Pros and avenged its only loss, but to no avail.
Akron was undefeated, and furthermore cited strength of schedule.
Buffalo then unfurled a 1921 season sidetracked by scandal and lost a surefire championship through some combination of greed, bravado, desperation, politics and alleged trickery by George Halas, the Hall of Fame player, coach and owner of the Chicago Bears, in those days known as the Staleys.
“McNeil insisted that they were winners,” said Jeff Miller, a Western New York football historian, author and recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Professional Football Researchers Association. “They had gold footballs made up and all the players got them. They’re very small. They’re just little charms that hang off a bracelet.”
Each proclaims “BUFFALO WORLD’S PRO CHAMPIONS,” the triumph inscribed in blue and all caps above carved laces. The date “1920” sits below.
“I’ve seen a few of them," Miller said. "Some of the players’ families still have them. They’re tiny. They probably didn’t cost very much. But they said that they were the champions. And the next year he claimed the championship again, and he went to his grave insisting that we were screwed.”
‘A bit of a debate’
Buffalo was loaded with talent, there's no dispute.
“One of the reasons they were called the All-Americans,” Boutet said, “was there was a ton of guys that were All-Americans in college.”
They dressed in white pants, black shirts with orange armbands and leather helmets, and played home games at Buffalo Bisons Baseball Park, replaced by Offermann Stadium, and The Villa at Canisius, the patch of land behind Old Main now known as the Quadrangle.
The All-Americans demolished their first seven opponents by a combined score of 244-26. But they had only played two teams in the league. Buffalo was among the last four teams to join the APFA that first season, submitting a letter of interest while representatives from 10 others met in Ralph Hay's Hupmobile showroom in Canton. Schedules were already made.
Who could forget those 1920 Buffalo All-Americans? pic.twitter.com/EGJ0vzsEQt
— Jason Wolf (@JasonWolf) October 22, 2019
Buffalo lost its next game to the famed Canton Bulldogs, 3-0, but avenged the defeat with a 7-3 triumph before a crowd of 20,000 fans at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, the first major professional football game in New York City. The players then rode an overnight train back to Buffalo, where they played the next day against undefeated Akron and star running back Fritz Pollard, a major gate attraction, one of two African American players and the league’s first black head coach.
But only 3,000 fans showed up in the rain and snow.
Before the contest, Akron dealt star lineman Bob “Nasty” Nash to Buffalo for $300 and 5% of the gate, the first-known NFL player trade. But the teams couldn’t accomplish much in the mud, and the game finished in a scoreless tie, ending Buffalo’s season with a 9-1-1 record and ultimately costing it the championship.
The Decatur Staleys finished 10-1-2 and didn't lose to the Pros, either. But Akron was 8-0-3, had beaten more league opponents and because ties were ignored, possessed a 1.000 winning percentage. Were ties counted as they are today, Akron and Buffalo would have had identical winning percentages.
“In the end, the only games that would be counted towards a title for the new league would be those games that were played against members,” said Joe Horrigan, a South Buffalo native and retired executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But that wasn’t discussed in advance, or at least wasn’t documented.
“That was always a bit of a debate as people look back at this,” Horrigan said, “because there’s no records of anybody saying here’s the day they had this vote.”
No official standings were maintained for the 1920 season, either, but Joe Carr, owner of the Columbus Panhandles, made a motion to declare Akron the champion, which passed. The precise vote was not recorded.
The Pros received the Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup, a trophy never relinquished and lost to time.
Gutted by scandal
Carr was named league president during the same meeting in which Akron was declared champion, and he began to reform the league. Still, franchises continued to create their own schedules and no date was set for the end of the 1921 season.
Buffalo opened on a five-game rampage, outscoring its opponents a combined 159-0.
Sixteen players posed for the team photo.
“These were the days of the ironmen,” Miller said. “You played both ways.”
But this roster would be gutted by scandal.
Players were paid by the game, and eight of Buffalo’s best were double dipping, playing for the non-league Philadelphia Quakers on Saturdays before riding a train back to Buffalo to play for the All-Americans.
This came to Carr’s attention and he was adamant it cease.
“First of all, he said it was unfair to the fans because in Buffalo they were getting a lesser product,” Horrigan said. “Because they had just played a game the day before, you’re tired, you’ve been on a train, having taken the late train back and all of that. But it was also against the league rules to play with a non-league team.”
When forced to choose, five players abandoned the All-Americans.
Lineman Heinie Miller documented the group’s position, citing McNeil’s untrustworthiness in a letter to the Buffalo Courier published on Nov. 21, 1921, a day after Buffalo and Canton played to a 7-7 tie.
Complaints included the belief that McNeil was behind the cancellation of the Quakers’ scheduled game against Canton days earlier, even though McNeil blamed Carr, and that McNeil had reneged on a bonus owed from the previous season.
“We feel, under this treatment, that we do not care to play for him again,” Miller wrote, before thanking the fans.
He didn't mention that he was the coach and co-owner of the Quakers.
McNeil hired replacement players from the defunct Detroit Tigers, which folded a week earlier, a group that included star tackle Steamer Horning. But the All-Americans had lost a good deal of talent, and it showed.
Buffalo defeated the Chicago Staleys, 7-6, on Thanksgiving at Cubs Park, today known as Wrigley Field, dealing the hosts their only loss of the season.
Three days later, the All-Americans defeated the Dayton Triangles, 7-0, on Nov. 27 in Buffalo, boosting their record to 8-0-2.
That same day, the Buffalo Sunday Times published Carr’s declaration that the league’s regular season would end Dec. 4.
But with no further games scheduled, McNeil declared Buffalo the 1921 world champions.
“At that point, no other team in the league was unbeaten,” Miller said. “The only other team that was close was the Staleys, and their only loss had come to Buffalo.”
“UNDEFEATED ALL-AMERICANS WIN CHAMPIONSHIP OF A.P.F.A.” announced a headline in the Nov. 28, 1921, edition of the Buffalo Express.
But perhaps driven by financial concerns, McNeil scheduled a game against Akron on Dec. 3 in Buffalo and a rematch with the Staleys on Dec. 4 in Chicago, the last two days of the regular season.
Both opponents purportedly agreed to play mere exhibitions.
But Halas had other ideas.
'The Staley Swindle'
McNeil knew heading into the Chicago game that the league was counting it – a report in the Dec. 2, 1921, edition of the Buffalo Express said it was for the championship – but he continued to push his luck with a depleted roster and games on consecutive days.
Buffalo defeated Akron, 14-0, at Canisius before taking an overnight train to Chicago, where the weary All-Americans lost to the well-rested Staleys, 10-7, dropping their record to 9-1-2.
That still trumped the Staleys’ mark, which improved to 8-1, but Halas saw an opportunity to solidify his claim to the title and scheduled two more games.
Miller coined this the “Staley Swindle.”
“George Halas knew what he was doing,” Miller said. “He was a shrewd guy. And he knew how to play the game.”
Horrigan said there was a two-week period after the regular season when teams could schedule additional games to chase a better winning percentage.
“That’s where the misunderstanding always occurs,” Horrigan said. “The season isn’t done until those two weeks are completed. Teams would scramble to find opponents, if they wanted to continue. This was just the second year. But after that year, it became customary.”
The Staleys defeated Canton, 10-0, on Dec. 11 in Chicago and played the Chicago Cardinals to a scoreless tie on Dec. 18. Had they won both, they’d have finished with a 10-1 record, surpassing McNeil’s All-Americans, which didn’t play again.
But since ties didn't count, both teams ended with 9-1 records.
Halas argued that his Staleys won the rematch against Buffalo and outscored the All-Americans, 16-14, in their two games combined.
McNeil insisted that Halas had agreed the second game was an exhibition, and either way, Buffalo still finished the regular season with a superior winning percentage.
“It was an easy vote, but it did go to a vote,” Horrigan said, “and I think that’s what kept the legend and the allure alive.”
The title was granted to Chicago.
“My contention has always been they had that championship, but McNeil blew it,” Miller said. “The 1920 season, no, because Akron was undefeated. And I just look at it that way. Logically, they were an undefeated team. Buffalo played them and couldn’t beat them, so give Akron the title.
“But in 1921, if you would have just said, ‘OK, we’re 8-0, we’re going to take our ball and go home,’ the championship was theirs. But he wanted to make more money. And whether he was doing it for his players or whether he was doing it for himself, I don’t know, but that’s what cost him the title. There’s no question about it. They should never have played those two games.”
Buffalo’s rightful claim?
McNeil’s brother Chet, Slatin’s grandfather, took over managing the All-Americans in 1922, when the APFA was renamed the National Football League and the Staleys became the Chicago Bears.
In 1923, McNeil sold the All-Americans for $50,000 to a group led by quarterback and coach Tommy Hughitt and local shoe salesman Warren D. Patterson, who changed the team’s name to the Buffalo Bisons.
In 1924, Halas attempted a similar stunt when the Cleveland Bulldogs (7-1-1) finished the regular season in first place, a half-game ahead of the second-place Bears (6-1-4). Chicago challenged Cleveland to a “post-season” rematch, won and declared itself champ, citing the precedent set in 1921. This time, however, the league ruled it an exhibition and allowed Cleveland to keep the title.
Buffalo’s team was long gone by that point, folding in 1929 under the weight of the Great Depression.
Hughitt revisited the Staley Swindle in an interview with the Buffalo Courier Express, published on Nov. 4, 1956. He insisted the rematch against the Staleys was a “post-season game, and was arranged with that understanding by Frank McNeil, our manager.”
“We’d certainly have been silly to risk our championship if it was to be listed as a regular-season game,” Hughitt said. “And the Bears never would agree to come to Buffalo.”
In 1933, the league split into two divisions and planned the first official NFL championship game.
There are no Buffalo All-Americans enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, located at 2121 George Halas Drive NW, in Canton, Ohio.
McNeil, after selling the franchise, opened a hardware store in Rhinebeck, a small town north of Poughkeepsie.
“He was done with football,” Miller said. “He just kind of faded into obscurity, like a lot of the owners from the original teams.”
But McNeil continued to correspond with Halas, imploring the Bears’ owner to honor Buffalo’s rightful claim to the 1921 NFL championship.
This continued for 40 years until McNeil’s death in 1961, at which point his wife Mary took up the mantle, to no avail.
“I remember my Grandma McNeil, she was very adamant,” said Carol Doherty, 68, of Tonawanda. “She wrote back and forth handwritten letters to the owner of the Chicago Bears, George Halas. There was one football game that they had in place of a championship game and my grandmother always felt that Buffalo should have gotten the recognition for that title and they didn’t. He would write letters back like, ‘Calm down, Mary.’ She would write letters and tell him it wasn’t fair.