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Buffalo’s Forgotten Champions:

The Story of Buffalo’s First Professional Football Team

By Jeff Miller

Excerpted from his upcoming above titled book

Introduction

Americans entered into a period of prosperity when the first "war to end all war" came to an end in late 1918. As our victorious doughboys returned from overseas, attention turned away from international affairs and toward domestic concerns and individual pursuits. The national emphasis shifted from winning the war to celebrating the victory and enjoying the resultant prosperity and high spirit. A rise in materialism went hand-in-hand with the economic boom. Americans now had the time, money, and inclination to enjoy the latest trends, purchase the newest inventions, and pursue recreational activities thought decadent and slovenly a mere few years earlier. The traditional rural values of this country were eschewed in favor of more urban attractions, such as jazz music, nightclubs, and professional sports. Women were now wearing short skirts and makeup, smoking, and—would you believe?–voting.

A significant but sometimes overlooked by-product of World War I was increased creativity in the field of advertising, which had developed during the war in response to the growing need for support of the war effort. These advertising methods were successfully applied to the world of business and commerce after the war and were highly effective in persuading people to rush out and buy such new "necessities" as automobiles, refrigerators, and other modern contraptions, further spurring the economy.

The improved economic period also left Americans with disposable cash, which they spent with relative abandon on recreational endeavors such as moving pictures, amusement parks, and professional athletics. Men such as Jack Dempsey, Jim Thorpe, and Babe Ruth were iconic figures to post-war Americans, despite the fact that they knew of these figures only through exaggerated reports in the print media. In fact, the majority of Americans never personally laid eyes on the likes of Ruth and Dempsey. Modern science had just given birth to radio and had not yet conceived television. Thus, attendance at professional sporting events grew as the decade of the 1920s approached.

Football, however, was not among the more popular pro sports. Baseball and boxing reigned supreme, fixtures in the American entertainment industry for several decades. In contrast, professional football was less than three decades old by 1920. College football was by far the more popular variety of the sport, with traditional rivalries dating back to the birth of the game. The idea of pro football, however, had its advantages. Though considered a bastardized version, pro ball was able to concentrate talent and allow fans to see the game’s greatest players long after their college careers had ended. Once Jim Thorpe, Fritz Pollard, or Charlie Brickley were through playing for their respective alma maters, how could a fan see them perform again were it not for pro ball? And as radio became more commonplace, players such as Red Grange, Benny Boynton, and the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame achieved mythical status. Pro ball brought these players to many cities their schools never visited, drawing increasing numbers of enthusiasts with ready cash.

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In 1920 Babe Ruth joined the New York Yankees, Man o’ War established his legend as the greatest racehorse in history, and Jack Dempsey was the newly crowned heavyweight champion of the prize ring. That same year, the American Professional Football Association–the first proper organized league of professional teams and forerunner of the National Football League–was formed in Canton, Ohio. The sports obsession that was sweeping post-war America was about to give rise to the era commonly referred to as the "Golden Age of Sport."

The Buffalo All-Americans were among the pioneering teams in the APFA, and as such were the Queen City’s first sports team to compete in any major sports league. Formed by Barney Lepper and Tommy Hughitt, and featuring such college stars as Swede Youngstrom, Ockie Anderson, Heinie Miller, Murray Shelton and Lou Little (all of whom boasted an actual all-American berth on their football resume), the team might be the most aptly named in the history of the league. The All-Americans were among the elite teams in the early days of pro football, finishing within one game of the title in each of the first two seasons of the APFA (which became the NFL in 1922). In 1921, the All-Americans actually claimed the title, but lost it to the George Halas’ Chicago Staleys in an executive decision. Some historians argue that the title is rightfully Buffalo's, but it is very unlikely the city will ever see the 1921 decision overturned.

In ensuing years, more star players would join the All-Americans, including, Elmer Oliphant, Luke Urban, Benny Boynton, Walter Koppisch, and Pete Calac, but the team would never again achieve the lofty status it enjoyed in its first two seasons. Changes in ownership and name occurred throughout the decade, but to no avail. By 1929, Buffalo’s first professional football team had run out of money and time.

This book tells the story of that first team, its many characters, and that fateful 1921 season, and the early years of the league which grew from the loose collection of post-war semi-professional football clubs into the most successful sports industry in America. It recounts the smash-mouth, iron-man, mud-slinging style of a bygone era, played by men in leather helmets and tattered moleskins. And it will, it is hoped, revive some long-lost memories and inspire pride in the long history and tradition of football in the Queen City

Chapter I | Chapter II

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