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The Buffalo Bills Were Refused Entry into the NFL

Buffalo Bills v Los Angeles Rams Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Everyone is well aware that the Buffalo Bills have gone to four Super Bowls and lost all four times. Wait, make that – lost four Super Bowls in a row. Those teams could have been the franchise of the 1990’s (instead of the Dallas Cowboys). Plus, the Bills would have parlayed something no other National Football League (NFL) team has done before – win four consecutive championships.

To date, only the Green Bay Packers have won three NFL titles in a row. And they did it twice.

But there was a time when the NFL refused to allow the Buffalo Bills to have a team in their league. Shut out. Closed shop. No entry. See ya!

No, not the present day Bills - the first Bills team.

You see, the current Bills franchise was a part of the American Football League (AFL) which began in 1960. This was actually the fourth time a league was named the American Football League, and this one stuck and had eventual success. This AFL began with eight teams, then dropped Minnesota which became the Oakland Senors’ which then played as the Raiders, then had Los Angeles move to San Diego and the blue/gold Titans of New York changed to the green/white New York Jets plus the Dallas Texans won the AFL title then wanted to move to New Orleans but instead relocated to Kansas City while the Denver Broncos almost moved to Atlanta which then the league expanded to Miami and finally put another new franchise in Cincinnati and finally merged with the NFL when one team signed a kicker away from another team.

Yeh, that American Football League.

When that 10-team AFL merged with the 12-team NFL, all 10 existing franchises merged intact and in their current cities. Including the Buffalo Bills.

But that current Buffalo Bills is not our Buffalo Bills; although our Buffalo Bills should have been that Buffalo Bills.

It all began in 1945 right after World War II. You see, there were several wealthy men who wanted to own an NFL team, but none were for sale nor were any of the 12 existing teams taking offers. The current NFL owners got along quite well and would not hear of any other men getting involved into their exclusive club. Especially, not any young, rich men with newfangled ideas. Plus, the current situation in 1945 was that all 12 teams were located a train ride away – the method of long-distance travel at the time.

Who wanted to ride a train to St. Louis, or hot Atlanta, or sweltering Houston? Instead, the current ownership kept the league nice and tidy in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States.

Back to 1945. A sports writer for the “Chicago Tribune” got four millionaire gentlemen sports enthusiasts together who then decided that the time was right for a brand new professional football league. With WWII ending, a lot of men had left college to fight. Now their amateur eligibility was extinguished yet the desire to play football was ripe. There was a plethora of talent and the willingness to compete at the pro level.

These four men called their league the “All-America Football Conference” in honor of the collegiate game. After franchises were established in San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles, other teams were granted in Baltimore, Brooklyn, New York and Buffalo. It was decided that the new league would begin play in 1946.

Which was excellent timing. You see, air travel was just beginning to come into play. This meant that franchises could be established across the country.

Owner James Bueill’s new Buffalo franchise was named the “Bisons.” Wait, wasn’t this article about the Buffalo Bills?

The Bisons played in the maiden season of the AAFC at crusty Civic Stadium, nicknamed “the rock pile.” The AAFC did not provide any type of player dispersal draft so it was up to each team to fill a roster and sign whomever they wanted.

The Bisons would go 3-10-1 their first year in Buffalo and like any sporting team, at first the crowds were large then dwindled as the loss column increased. Four different quarterbacks would play during the season and the defense was putrid. Attendance averaged 14,744 a game.

Bueill decided a change had to be made so he offered the fans a “name the team” contest. The winner? Bills of course.

So, for 1947 the first Buffalo Bills hit the field. Many new players were brought in including QB George Ratterman. After nine games the club was 6-2-1. The defense was still last in the league, but the special teams ranked third and provided better field positon. At season’s end, the Bills had turned in a respectable 8-4-2 record good enough for second in the Eastern Division but not enough to win the division. The AAFC was set up that both division winners would meet in the championship game and were the only playoff participants.

With the improvement on the field came enhancement at the gate. The Bills averaged 31,099 a game, including 43,167 against the league-leading Cleveland Browns.

The following season, the Bills tied for the division lead which forced a one-game playoff with the Baltimore Colts, with Buffalo the victor 28-17. It was reported that over 10,000 fans greeted the team at the airport for the trip home. They lost in the AAFC Championship game to the Browns (who now had won the league all three years) 49-7. During the season the Bills were once again at the top of the league in average attendance. It was widely known that their fans would travel to away games to cheer on their team, which was not widely done in this era. And Bills fans made certain the visiting team (as well as local businesses) knew that they were there to cheer on their hometown heroes.

1949 was a critical year for the AAFC – plus there was a situation that was killing the league that seemingly did not have an apparent resolution.

Every season, the Browns had all the best players. This stemmed from the fact that the league did not hold an annual college draft, or any system by which former NFL or Canadian Football League players could be added to any roster within the league. Browns’ head coach Paul Brown was always on the cusp of good players and his rosters proved them to be the guru that he was.

But this was a crippling effect within the AAFC. Fans quit going to games because they knew the Browns were going to win. Even in Cleveland, beginning in 1948 their own attendance steadily dwindled.

Because there were now two pro football leagues, player salaries had risen dramatically in the last three years. Franchises in both leagues were suddenly struggling financially. One team in the AAFC merged with another club. Over in the NFL, the Green Bay Packers of the NFL resorted to relocation of several home games to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to boost attendance. The Boston Yanks relocated to New York because of league-low attendance while the Philadelphia Eagles were sold.

1949 Bills team photo.

Almost every team in both leagues was losing money.

The two leagues got together and decided a merger was in order before both entities would suffer even more consequences. The AAFC, now down to seven franchises, bartered for four clubs entry, however, the NFL only wanted Cleveland and the San Francisco 49ers. The two leagues finally negotiated on three clubs.

The Bills had the third best attendance in the league and had made the playoffs three of the four years of operation within the AAFC. It appeared they were destined for that third merger slot. Meanwhile, Baltimore was a much larger city and had success at the gate as well, just not a winning team on the field. The league decided to let each city and their fan base be the deciding factor of which club would move on, and which would fold their tents. The NFL preferred Baltimore because of a natural competitor for the Washington Redskins whereas Buffalo was cold most of the football season, plus would be the second smallest market behind Green Bay.

AAFC officials required each team to raise $250,000 for inclusion in the NFL deal.

Baltimore started a “Save the Colts” committee. In Buffalo, civic organizers began to raise funds. The Colts raised $135,000 to which wealthy resident Abe Watner agreed to furnish the remainder. Bills owner Bueill refused any public assistance stating he did not want the public to pay off his players. $199,770 was raised through the mayor and other local businessmen. The AAFC made a deal that included Baltimore as their third merger club.

Residents in Buffalo were angry, hurt and bewildered. The “Buffalo Courier-Express” asked why teams such as Green Bay, Detroit and Baltimore deserved a team in the NFL whereas the Bills had more success on the field and additional attendance than any of those three. But the decision had been made.

Watner would later accept a minor ownership in the Browns.

In 1979, the Buffalo Bisons became an AA baseball affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1960, the Buffalo Bills became a charter member of the newly founded American Football League (AFL). On June 8, 1966, the NFL and AFL announced a merger agreement which allowed every AFL team admittance into the NFL. On September 20, 1970 the Bills played their first game of the season at home against the Denver Broncos before 34,882 fans.

Fans of the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League.


Barry Shuck is has been a freelance pro football writer for about 18 years. He writes historical articles over at Big Blue View, our Giants affiliate, and has contribued several works to Dawgs By Nature. His latest work here focuses on the history of the Browns’ opponent this week, the Buffalo Bills.