Are Buffalo sports franchises cursed? If so, is this the year it ends?
Hope tastes as sweet as a crisp autumn apple, and fall is the season when hope is the favorite menu choice for any Buffalo sports fan.
Especially this year. Las Vegas oddsmakers have deemed the Bills favorites to win the Super Bowl next February. In hockey, the Sabres have a roster filled with promising young players. Though it’s doubtful that Lord Stanley’s Cup will be hoisted in Buffalo this year, the future looks bright.
The start of a new sports cycle is also when amnesia kicks in, and fans brim with optimism, forgetting past heartbreaks. Let’s be honest — there have been more than a few.
Several have seeped into our community terminology: “Wide Right,” “No goal,” “Home Run Throwback,” or, if you prefer, “The Music City Miracle.” Last January, we added “13 Seconds” to our vernacular.
So many disappointments, in fact, that it’s fair to ask whether this list of ignominies is simply coincidence — a long string of bad luck — or are Buffalo’s sports teams really cursed?
“Other cities have had curses, but only in one sport,” observed Greg Tranter, an Elmira native, dedicated Bills fan, and longtime collector of Bills’ memorabilia. “In Buffalo, there are curses in every major sport. I don’t think there’s another city that comes close to the suffering we’ve experienced.”
1901 was not our year
Tranter is passionate about the Bills. With three exceptions (all of which were out of his control), he has attended every home game for the past 38 years, As a boy, he began collecting game programs. The collection grew and expanded. Artifacts from his memorabilia were the foundation for the Buffalo History Museum’s “Icons, the Makers and Moments of Buffalo Sports” exhibit. Tranter is the author of the forthcoming book The Buffalo Sports Curse: 120 Years of Pain, Disappointment, Heartbreak, and Eternal Optimism. He delved into each of the four major sports — baseball, basketball, football, and hockey — to highlight those times when our sports teams have come oh-so-close to winning it all. He also explores planned franchises that never materialized. Our long-standing sports failures, according to Tranter, can be traced back as far as 1901.
Yes, for true believers, the curse spans 121 years.
President William McKinley was assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo that September. According to Tranter, that was just one leg in a triple play of trepidation occurring within the year, charting the city’s destiny. The other two are lesser-known, and involve baseball.
“I read a book called The First World Series,” Tranter said. “It was the Boston Americans against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Boston Americans became the Boston Red Sox. What I didn’t know was that the Red Sox were actually born in Buffalo.”
At the turn of the century, Buffalo was a member of baseball’s Western League, which was renamed the American League. The commissioner, Ban Johnson, planned to form a rival league. Buffalo intended to field a club, even paying a franchise fee to join.
“In January 1901, Ban Johnson decided he needed a team in Boston to compete against the National League, which featured the Boston Braves,” Tranter said. “When Johnson found out he could build a stadium on Huntington Avenue in three months, and have it for opening day in April, he moved the Buffalo team to Boston. They became the Red Sox and won five World Series by 1919 — the year they traded Babe Ruth and the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ began.”
Wait, that’s a parallel story. Let’s stay on track with Buffalo.
“The third thing happened in November 1901,” Tranter continued. “A Buffalo alderman named James Franklin was the owner of a baseball team called the Bisons. One of his dreams was to bring major league baseball to Buffalo, but he missed out. Many say he died of a broken heart because of it. He had a fatal heart attack at 54 years old.”
Tranter’s book chronicles three other times when Buffalo was in the running to land a major league baseball team. For different reasons, each attempt failed. The first happened in 1915, again in 1959, and finally in 1993, when Bob and Mindy Rich had hoped to see the Bisons admitted to “the show.”
But the curse isn’t limited to baseball.
You might argue that the Bills have won championships. Nearly 60 years ago, they captured the AFL crown in the mid-1960s — twice.
Tranter clarifies, “Buffalo has never won a universally recognized championship in any of the four major sports,” he said. “The two AFL titles in ’64 and ’65 were not universally recognized because the NFL was considered the superior league at that point. Yes, they were championships. But football experts would give credit to the Cleveland Browns in 1964 and the Green Bay Packers in 1965.”
The American Football League and the National Football League merged in 1966. En route to the inaugural championship — it wasn’t officially dubbed the Super Bowl for another few years — Buffalo lost to the Kansas City Chiefs. (Hey, does that sound familiar?) The Chiefs then fell to the Green Bay Packers, who became the first champions.
We’ll circle back to football in a moment. Let’s dribble over to basketball.
Basketball and hockey
People of a certain age remember the NBA’s Buffalo Braves, who played in Memorial Auditorium for eight years, beginning in 1970. In 1978, the team relocated to San Diego, and later, moved to Los Angeles. Today the organization is the Los Angeles Clippers.
“The cursed event for the Braves is the move,” Tranter said. “But even before the move, it was the 1974 playoff loss to the Celtics in Game 6 on a phantom foul by (Boston’s) Jo Jo White. Buffalo’s Bob McAdoo scored the tying basket, and the Celtics had the ball in the last second, but missed the shot. There was a rebound, and McAdoo and White went after it. The refs called a foul on McAdoo and said there was no time left. White went to the foul line and scored two. Who calls a foul in a tie game? The Celtics won the game, and went on to win the NBA championship that year.”
If the Braves had won, might they have been able to capture the championship?
“Who knows?” Tranter asked. “They were denied the opportunity.”
Tranter’s book is divided into 18 chapters, containing 32 cursed events. Each organization has at least one example of fate being unkind. The Bills and Sabres have many.
“In hockey, ‘No Goal’ is the most significant,” he said, referring to the 1999 Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars, when Brett Hull’s left skate was planted in the crease while he scored the series-clinching goal against Dominik Hasek. “That’s the one that jumps out at you. But in 2006, in the conference finals, the Sabres played Game 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes without four of their top six defensemen, including Jay McKee. They were winning going into the third period. Then Brian Campbell cleared the puck over the boards, a penalty was called, and Carolina scored the winning goal on the power play. The Sabres were playing with the Rochester Americans’ defense and only lost 3-2.”
Patrick Kaleta joined the Sabres as a hard-nosed winger the following season, playing his first NHL game in February 2007. Born in Buffalo and raised in Angola, Kaleta has been a Buffalo sports fan for his entire life. He is one of just a handful of hometown players to compete professionally on a team that he grew up watching.
“For the Super Bowls, I was young at that point,” he said. “But hockey, obviously, was something that I loved when I was growing up. I followed the Sabres really closely. I remember the days when you had Rob Ray, Brad May, Matthew Barnaby and Bob Boughner. All those rough and tough Sabres’ guys. My childhood idol was Mike Peca. I loved the way he played the game. He could score goals, kill penalties, and knock you into next week.”
Drafted in the sixth round in 2004, Kaleta played for the Sabres for nine years, beginning in 2007, before finishing his professional career in Rochester in 2016. Kaleta has experienced being both a professional athlete and a hometown fan. He looks at the big picture.
“If you’re going to win a championship, you have to have a couple things go your way,” he observed. “It just didn’t go our way that year [in 2006].”
Now 36, Kaleta lives in Hamburg, is president of the Buffalo Junior Sabres and works for the Sabres as a youth hockey ambassador. His group instructs approximately 700 kids around Western New York, teaching them skills and how to have fun with hockey.
“As a professional athlete, you have to be mentally strong,” he said. “You reflect on your game all the time. Even in youth hockey now, we talk about the five-to-ten second rule after a shift. If you make a mistake, you learn from it and move on. You’re not going to change it, right? You can only affect the next time you go on the ice. If you dwell on it, that could affect your next several shifts, and it could roll into a period. After the game, there’s a 30-minute rule. Think about why you made a good play there, or why did you make a mistake? Then it’s time to move on. I’m sure you hear it on TV, but it’s about having a short memory. That’s really, really important for any athlete."
Has he ever heard a professional player in a dressing room say “we’re cursed… so we can’t win this game?”
“No, no, nope,” Kaleta said. “That would never happen. Especially as an athlete, where you have skin in the game and actually have the ability to affect it. You can score a goal, or in my case, draw a penalty. Certain things happen for a reason. In order for a team to succeed, injuries play a role. You have to hit your stride at the right point. To win, you have to have a lot going for you. When you’re a fan, the easiest thing is to say, ‘Oh, we’re cursed, we can’t win, we’ll never win.’ The curse thing, I’m not totally buying it.”
Superstition is not a curse
Del Reid doesn’t believe in curses either, nor does he want to. As co-founder of Bills Mafia in 2011, Reid is passionate about Buffalo sports, especially the Bills.
When he spoke with Buffalo Tales in August, the Bills were in training camp at St. John Fisher University in Pittsford. Meaningful football had yet to be played. Like most fans, he was eager for the season ahead.
“If I wear a certain pair of socks, and the team does well, I may be inclined to wear those socks again the next week,” he confessed. “Sometimes I’ll tweet something about the team, and people will say, ‘You’re going to jinx them. Why would you say that?’ I respond, ‘Friend, if this Twitter feed had the ability to control what happens with the Bills, they’d have 10 Super Bowls already!’”
A Kenmore resident, Reid, 46, first coined the phrase “Bills Mafia” during a lighthearted Twitter exchange with NFL reporter Adam Schefter 11 years ago. Reid never expected to christen a fan base or begin a movement. In the ensuing years, the loosely organized group has raised millions of dollars for charitable causes. The Buffalo Bills have adopted the moniker, and now use it to describe their followers. Formerly a web developer at Roswell Park, Reid founded the company “26 Shirts” in 2013 to raise money for 26 local families, in two-week increments, during a calendar year.
While he acknowledges superstitions, Reid isn’t on board regarding a curse.
“I don’t believe it, although we’ve had a string of really lousy luck for a long time,” he reflected. “If there’s a curse, I think the Bandits would have a few things to say about that. They’ve won four championships. Also, the roller hockey team in the 90s, the Stampede, won it all. Haven’t the Bisons won something in the past 10 years?”
Well, kind of. In 2021, they finished first in the league, but thanks to the pandemic, no playoffs were held. This came on the heels of a canceled season in 2020. The Bisons won championships in 1997, 1998, and 2004.
“For a curse to be true, I would think there would be no problem with the low hanging fruit of a lacrosse and roller hockey team,” Reid said. “It must be a pretty lousy entity that spawned the curse, because it hasn’t affected the easy teams.”
In his defense, Reid was not aware that Tranter’s book addressed only the four major leagues. Being a passionate sports fan, and having met Tranter, he added, “I’ll still read his book, though.”
About those four Super Bowls…
While preseason expectations were sky-high, this year’s Bills are off to a promising start, defeating the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams in the season opener. It’s still September, so optimism remains at the fore.
Let’s not revisit “13 Seconds.”
“I don’t use that phrase,” Tranter said. “I call it ‘Agony at Arrowhead,’ because it happened two years in a row. We lost the year before, too.”
Setting aside last January’s heartbreaker — which is detailed in Tranter’s book — he also discusses the Bills 38-24 playoff loss to the Chiefs the season before, in January 2021. He noted a dropped screen pass by Devin Singletary that would have allowed the Bills an opportunity to score vital points. Tranter also suggested that head coach Sean McDermott should have been more aggressive — pushing for touchdowns instead of settling for field goals.
The breadth of Bills heartbreaks is noteworthy:
•With the score at 14-7 in the AFL Championship game in 1966, Bills quarterback Jack Kemp threw to a receiver who slipped. Chiefs defender Johnny Robinson intercepted the pass and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown. Momentum changed, and the Chiefs won the game, 31-7.
•In the 1980 AFC divisional playoffs, the Bills led 14-13 with just over two minutes remaining. San Diego threw a pass to receiver Ron Smith, but Buffalo free safety Bill Simpson fell, allowing the game-winning score.
•The following year, in a playoff contest against Cincinnati, the Bills converted a 4th down inside the Bengals’ red zone, but referees called a delay of game, negating the play.
•In 1989, Buffalo running back Ronnie Harmon dropped what would have been a game winning touchdown catch in the Cleveland end zone with 16 seconds remaining in a playoff game. On the next play, quarterback Jim Kelly threw an interception, sealing the Browns win.
•In the 1995 AFC divisional playoff, star defensive end Bruce Smith contracted the flu before kickoff. During the game, in an era before instant replay, Pittsburgh was awarded a touchdown although the receiver was clearly out of the end zone.
•During a 1998 playoff game in Miami, receiver Andre Reed caught what he believed to be a touchdown, but referees ruled he was stopped at the one-yard line. Reed threw his helmet in frustration, earning a 15-yard penalty, which backed up the offense. No longer was it first-and-goal on the one.
There are additional examples — Jim Kelly being knocked out of his final NFL game in the playoffs against Jacksonville in 1996; a phantom blindside block penalty during a 2019 playoff game in Houston — but you get the point.
If our sports teams are cursed, how about individual athletes? Hockey’s Patrick Kane, a Buffalo native, was drafted first overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007, and won three Stanley Cups with the team. Jenn Suhr, of Fredonia, was a gold-medal winning pole vaulter in the 2012 Olympics. There are plenty of examples of athletes with Buffalo ties who have achieved greatness.
In keeping with his book’s theme, however, Tranter provides examples of two individuals who could be linked to a curse: O.J. Simpson and Baby Joe Mesi.
“Most people under 40 have no idea how O.J. was considered the greatest college player ever when he came out of USC,” Tranter said. “And he was coming to Buffalo! He was the face of Buffalo on the national scene for 20 or 25 years. Now he’s the black sheep of the world.”
Boxer “Baby” Joe Mesi, a Tonawanda native, began his boxing career at 19, then steadily climbed the rankings while celebrating his hometown. But a subdural hematoma effectively stopped his trajectory.
“Mesi was all set to fight Mike Tyson (at Ralph Wilson Stadium) if he beat Vassiliy Jirov from Russia,” Tranter said. “That’s the fight where Jirov jackrabbit punched him in the back of the head. Mesi still won the fight, but had a brain bleed the next day that effectively ended his career.”
Okay, okay. Enough with the troubling memories.
As Kaleta alluded, to capture a championship, myriad factors need to line up. Avoid injury. Squeak out a close win or two. Maintain precision athleticism. And luck cannot be underestimated. Kaleta knows all that, yet still feels a sense of community passion.
“I am a diehard fan, regardless of having been a professional athlete for the Sabres,” Kaleta said. “When you’re watching a game, what you’re feeling as a Bills and Sabres fan is basically the same thing I’m feeling.”
It’s time to look ahead. As of this writing, the Bills are playing well, and the Sabres young core may turn into something special. Tranter acknowledges that he won’t make many friends in Buffalo with his downtrodden theory.
“I don’t want to think [the Bills] are cursed,” Reid said. “Because if they are, what am I doing every Sunday? I’m just wasting my time, and it’s never going to work out."
If there is a curse, it won’t last forever… right? Maybe — finally — this is Buffalo’s year.
“We’re always optimistic that we’re going to win,” Tranter said. “[Over the summer,] the hype in Buffalo was like I’ve never seen it for the Bills, even in the 1990s. With my book, I expect to take some criticism, like ‘Why are you raining on our parade?’”
But there is logic to Tranter’s efforts.
“The way I figure,” he said, “we have to admit there is a curse, release a book about it, and then we can break it!”
The Buffalo Sports Curse: 120 Years of Pain, Disappointment, Heartbreak, and Eternal Optimism will be published this fall. Tranter will be in Buffalo to promote the book. Check our Facebook page for dates to be announced. Meantime, his book can be pre-ordered here.
Text © 2022 by Jeff Schober
Thanks to Jenna Manney, Dave Costello and Mark Mobus for their contributions to this story.
Jeff Schober is the best-selling author of ten books, including the true crime book Bike Path Rapist with Det. Dennis Delano, Growing Up Gronk, and the Buffalo Crime Fiction Quartet. He has a journalism degree from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in English and history from the University at Buffalo. He teaches English and Journalism at Frontier High School in Hamburg. Visit his website at www.jeffschober.com.
Did you like what you read? If so, scroll to the top of the page and click “Login/Sign up" on the right. If you're social media savvy, we have a Facebook page. Join us and we'll be your friend. Or follow us on Instagram. About once each month, we’ll let you know about a new Buffalo-based story… for free. Check our catalog of past stories too, which can be read below, with more choices on the home page.