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1921: The Staley Swindle

by Jeffrey Miller

Wide right . . . No goal . . . Homerun throwback . . . When will it end? Who knows. But where it began is another matter . . .

The year was 1921, and the Buffalo All-Americans, the Queen City’s first fully professional football team, were the best club in the American Professional Football Association. Led by quarterback Tommy Hughitt, halfbacks Ockie Anderson and Elmer Oliphant, end Luke Urban, and all-pro guard Adolf “Swede” Youngstrom, the Buffalo pros possessed the most potent offense in the circuit, having outscored their opponents by an aggregate score of 183-19. After defeating the Dayton Triangles to end the regular season at the old Canisius College Villa on November 27, the All-Americans claimed the league title with a record of 9-0-2. But for some unknown reason, team owner Frank McNeil agreed to play two more games which, he told local papers, would have no bearing on the team’s claim to the title.

Enter George Halas. Halas’ Decatur Staleys (renamed the Chicago Bears the following season) had amassed a record of 7-1-0, with their only loss coming against Buffalo on November 24 (Thanksgiving Day). He scheduled a rematch with Buffalo at Chicago for December 4, hoping to exact a measure of revenge against the team that had marred his perfect record. McNeil made the mistake of scheduling the two “post-season” games on the same weekend, the first for December 3 against the tough Akron Pros, after which his team would take an all-night train to Chicago to play the Staleys the next day.

After dispatching the Pros on Saturday, the All-Americans rode to Chicago, where they disembarked the next day in no condition to take on Papa Bear’s hungry brutes. The All-Americans fought hard, but Decatur took the game, 10-7.

McNeil still believed his team was champion, and invested in tiny gold footballs for his players to commemorate the achievement. George Halas had other ideas—he declared the title was Decatur’s, basing his claim on his belief that the second game of the Buffalo/Decatur series mattered more than the first. He also pointed out that the aggregate score of the two games was 16-14 in favor of the Staleys. McNeil insisted the Buffalo All-Americans were the champions, still maintaining that the last two games his team played were merely exhibitions. It didn’t matter. The league declared the Staleys champions.

No major Buffalo sports franchise would ever win another championship (remember, NFL purists still considered the AFL a minor league when the Bills won in 1964 and 1965). McNeil went to his grave trying to get the league’s decision overturned. So when we Buffalo sports fans enumerate the many ways fate has stung our community, let us not forget where it all began—some 80 years ago with the “Staley Swindle.”

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