When the Bills ended their 18-year playoff drought last season, it electrified the city and brought us together the way only Buffalo sports can.
It’s that spirit the Buffalo History Museum celebrates with “Icons: The Makers and Moments of Buffalo Sports,” which opened in November. The interactive exhibit showcases artifacts from the museum’s collection — as well as items from private collectors and the athletes themselves — to tell the story of local sports history from the mid-1800s to the present, encompassing the top players, venues, moments, team owners, broadcasters and more.
“We’ll see grandparents talking to their grandchildren about Memorial Auditorium and the memories they had there,” said Anthony Greco, director of exhibits and interpretive planning. “We wanted this to be a place where people could have conversations, get nostalgic and have that emotional connection to the objects with their family members.”
From November through January, the museum saw a 38 percent boost in attendance, according to Greco, who expects attendance to jump again when the Bills and Sabres seasons ramp up. Here, Greco gives an inside look at some of his favorite objects on display.
1. Goal light
The goal lamp from the Aud, which illuminated every time a team scored, is one of more than a dozen items on loan from a private collector in Hamburg.
“We wanted the most marquee, one-of-a-kind objects possible,” Greco said. “I said, ‘Everybody has chairs from the Aud — I want the goal light.’ He literally turned around and there was the goal light rigged up to the base of a lamp.”
2. Baseball belt
Long before the Sabres, the city rallied early squads like the world-champion Buffalo Germans, which played from 1895-1925 and is one of only 10 teams in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Niagaras, founded in 1857, were the city’s first uniformed baseball team. Greco said the circa-1860 belt from the Niagaras’ uniform is the oldest item in the exhibit.
3. First-season AFL jersey
When the Bills joined the AFL in 1960, jerseys were not the coveted memorabilia they are today. In fact, Greco said, this blue-and-silver relic from fullback Art Baker is the only one left from that inaugural season.
“Football was nothing back then — baseball was the national pastime — so jerseys would be handed down to high schools or amateur teams, and then they’d get worn out and thrown away,” he said.
4. Iconic athletes
After a public survey and discussions with historians and experts, the museum identified 17 of the most iconic local athletes of all time, including the French Connection, Bandits legend John Tavares and boxer “Baby” Joe Mesi.
Here, Greco noted two objects: an O.J. Simpson action figure and Pat LaFontaine’s jaw guard, which team physician Dr. John L. Butsch later patented and manufactured for the entire NHL.
“O.J. was a person who crossed that threshold into mainstream culture, the media, in the early 1970s, and for an African-American person that was rare,” Greco said on the controversial decision to include him. “We chose not to whitewash the history of O.J. and include him for his deeds on the football field.”
5. Heartbreak helmet
To acknowledge perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment in local sports history, the museum presents Scott Norwood’s helmet, autographed by the kicker with the Super Bowls in which he wore it and the words “Wide Right.”
“I love the idea that these are all game-worn jerseys [and] helmets,” Greco said. “That stands for any exhibit we have — people actually used these things. It’s material culture, created for a purpose.”
6. Hall of Fame jacket
The last item to come into the exhibit was Ralph C. Wilson Jr.’s Hall of Fame jacket, presented to the longtime Bills owner during his 2009 induction. The fabric can take up to 90 days to weave, Greco pointed out, and only Haggar Clothing Co. can produce its exact color.
The Icons exhibit is on display at the Buffalo History Museum until 2022.
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