The Staley Swindle: The 1921 NFL Championship Controversy

Image by Zachary Rosenbaum – https://www.instagram.com/zacharyrosenbaumdesign/

After enjoying an unbeaten season, Buffalo All-Americans owner Frank McNeil believed that he had a firm hold of the 1921 APFA (NFL) championship. Unfortunately for McNeil, Chicago Staleys coach and owner George Halas had other ideas. For he saw an opportunity. An opportunity to seize the moment and pull off one of the most audacious heists in football history.

This is the 100 year tale of how Papa Bear raided the picnic basket and committed a most brazen act, duping Frank McNeil and his beloved Buffalo All-Americans football team out of the 1921 title in a controversy known by many a folk down Buffalo way as the “Staley Swindle”.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Mr John Boutet, Buffalo Sports Historian, and Site and Exhibit Chairman of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame to help us unravel this incredible story.

Since the league’s inception in 1920, the APFA/NFL awarded the championship to the team that had the best percentage after all games had been completed for the season. Ties did not count towards the final standings and without an official schedule, incredibly, teams could choose how many games they played and who they played them against. Adding to this cluster of an arrangement, the collective group of owners would then sit down at an end of year meeting and vote on the team that they felt was most worthy of the title.

John Boutet (JB):

“The way things were decided back in those days was very sketchy and confusing. Teams actually wrote their own schedules, played non-league games against some lower level talent and oftentimes had players on their rosters who played for two different professional teams in two different leagues. It was so early in the APFA/NFL history that things were very complicated and unfortunately not very consistent. Had today’s rules been in place in 1921, Buffalo would have been awarded the championship but back then ties weren’t counted in teams’ records.”

“There was no post season playoff system (that would not be in place until the 1932 season). So at the end of the inaugural season a meeting was held where each team had a representative in attendance. Each team got to vote on who they thought should be crowned league champs.”

The All-Americans were Buffalo’s first ever NFL team and one of the original 14 charter teams of the APFA in 1920 as John explains:

“The All-Americans were dominant in those first two seasons of the APFA going 18-2-3 while leading the league in scoring in both of those years. Buffalo was loaded with talent (the team was actually named the All-Americans because so many of the players were former collegiate All-Americans). It really was a fine, well balanced football team, strong at every position.”

Buffalo finished the 1921 season in first place with a 9-0-2 record (1.000), with the Staleys locking in second place with a record of 7-1-0 (.875). The wheels of controversy would be set in motion when Halas challenged McNeil to a rematch in an attempt to avenge the Staleys’ Thanksgiving Day loss to the All-Americans. 

Frank McNeil, having already scheduled his team’s last game for December 3 against the Akron Pros, agreed on the proviso that the game would only be considered a “postseason exhibition match” and that it would not be counted towards the end of season standings.

JB: “Halas offered the game to Buffalo as a postseason “exhibition” that would not count in the teams’ records. Seeing there would be a paying crowd for the game, Buffalo owner Frank McNeil figured it would be a good way to pad his pockets for playing this extra game so he agreed to bring the team to Chicago. Whether McNeil was thinking about his pockets or his players is unknown but he absolutely should not have agreed to play the game.”

“Buffalo was 8-0-2 at the end of the regular season schedule and had no reason (other than for financial reasons) to play these postseason contests. If he had refused to play these “exhibitions” Buffalo would have been crowned the 1921 APFA Champions. I believe this all falls at the feet of Frank McNeil.

In Buffalo, it is believed that McNeil also made a point of telling the Buffalo media that the games against Akron and Chicago were merely exhibitions and that the APFA title was as good as theirs. Confident in this belief, McNeil went so far as releasing several players that Buffalo had borrowed from the Detroit Tigers to allow them the opportunity to play in the Tigers’ final exhibition game before the team would become defunct.

McNeil also made the catastrophic mistake of scheduling the so-called “friendly” against Chicago just one day after his team’s final game against Fritz Pollard’s Akron Pros. After defeating the Pros on December 3, McNeil’s team boarded an all-night train to Chicago, where they arrived undermanned, exhausted and in absolutely no state to be playing a game of football.

On Sunday December 4, 1921, in front of 12,000 fans at Wrigley Field, McNeil’s All-Americans faced Halas’ Staleys. With the game all tied up in the third quarter (7-7), a field goal from Edward “Dutch” Sternaman would break the deadlock and push the Staleys over the line by 3 points.

Following the completion of the so-called “friendly”, Buffalo ended their season with a record of 9-1-2, (and Chicago 8-1-1). If the season had ended at that point, Buffalo would still have won the league title. Chicago however, saw their opportunity, and swiftly scheduled two games in December. The first against the Canton Bulldogs (December 11) and crosstown rivals the Chicago Cardinals (December 18). The Staleys defeated Canton (10-0) and played off in a scoreless tie against the Cardinals (0-0) in freezing weather conditions in front of 3,000 fans at Wrigley Field. 

At the completion of the Staley’s season, both teams finished the 1921 season with identical records of 9 wins and 1 loss (.900) with each team coincidentally inflicting the other with their only loss.

Halas declared that the title belonged to Chicago and began to persuade the other owners in the league to award his team with the championship on the belief that the second game of the Buffalo-Chicago matchup mattered more than the first and that the decision be based on aggregate score (16-14).

McNeil insisted the Buffalo All-Americans were the champions, still maintaining that the last two games his team played were merely exhibitions. The league championship was then handed out after a vote of all the leagues owners factoring in the standings at the season ending meeting. The decision went to league president Joe Carr, who awarded the title to the Staleys. Team owners sided with Halas despite McNeil’s impassioned protests that the second game against Chicago was merely an exhibition.

McNeil maintained that his team were the APFA champions, and went so far as awarding his players with gold pendants to commemorate the achievement and until his dying days did everything he could to overturn what he called the “Staley Swindle”. 

JB: “I’m sure there was some frustration and even embarrassment by McNeil seeing he made the decision to play the two postseason exhibitions that resulted in the loss at Chicago. Had he not accepted Halas’ invitation to play that game, Buffalo would have had their first ever football championship. This had to weigh heavily on McNeil but in the end it was his decision to play the game. What he should have done is get it in writing from Halas and the league President that the exhibition would not count in the league standings.”

The winner of the game was supposed to have been awarded the Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup, The Staleys however, never took possession of the Cup and it is now said to have been lost.

After 100 years, memories fade. The Staley Swindle is a story that has seemingly disappeared in the annals of time.

JB: “I honestly believe that there are not many fans in Buffalo that even know about this. My guess would be there’s only a few dozen hardcore sports fans in Buffalo that have ever heard the words “Staley Swindle” or know that Buffalo even had a team in the inaugural NFL season. Football had yet to take over the title of “National Pastime” (baseball was the sport that ruled the land in 1920).”

Buffalo has been starved of sports success. No major Buffalo sports franchise would ever win another championship as John explains:

“The Swindle stands as one of the very first of many times that Buffalo was either disrespected or suffered some unfortunate luck in its sports history. These include “Wide Right”, “No Goal”, “Music City Miracle” and losing the Buffalo Braves Basketball team (now the LA Clippers).”

“Buffalo has been blessed with some great sports moments but it seems there’s been more ‘not so great moments’ than we care to remember.”

As long-suffering Bears, we feel your pain John.

As for how John feels about the Staley Swindle and what should happen:

“I do believe that Buffalo has a legitimate claim to that championship and the NFL should declare Buffalo and Chicago as co-champions.”

Bears fans, we’re all fair and decent people aren’t we? Surely we could find it in our hearts to allow Buffalo to share the dais with us and put one hand on the championship trophy….

…Could we?

John Boutet is Site and Exhibit Chairman, and Board of Directors of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame and we appreciate his contributions to this article.

The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame is located at Sahlen Field, home of the Buffalo Bisons.

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