Buffalo Bills history, piece by piece
Greg Tranter has the most significant collection of Bills memorabilia anywhere
Photos by Steven D. Desmond
Sports historian Jeff Miller and collector Greg Tranter are shown at the History Museum’s display.
Scott Norwood’s helmet from Super Bowl XXV, when he missed the potential game-winning field goal as time expired, is one of many iconic pieces of Buffalo Bills history owned by Greg Tranter. Much of Tranter’s collection is now on display at the Buffalo History Museum, as part of an exhibit called “ICONs: The Makers and Moments of Buffalo Sports.” Eventually, all his artifacts will be transferred there permanently.
Tranter, sixty, originally from outside Elmira, lives in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, about forty-five minutes from Boston. He owns the most significant collection of Bills memorabilia anywhere.
“There are two parts to my collection: 3D objects, which may be helmets, jerseys, mugs, or any trinket with a Bills logo,” Tranter says. “The other part is paper objects. I have every program from every Bills game ever played, whether it’s home, away, or a neutral site. I also have tickets. In their history, the Bills have played 1200 games. I’m only missing tickets from about 150 of them.”
Trantor estimates he has roughly 8000 3D objects and more than 100,000 paper objects, including magazines and season ticket booklets. All have been categorized, stored and displayed in his basement.
His passion for collecting began at age eight, when his father took him to a Bills game at the Rockpile in 1965. His dad bought a bobblehead doll and a program, which Tranter kept, along with the ticket. That year, he began spending his allowance on football cards, which he saved, and continued to add items every year. After graduating from college, Tranter committed to a goal: assemble a history of the team.
In 2009, he approached the Buffalo History Museum about creating a display for the team’s upcoming 50th anniversary the following year. “You don’t need to find anything,” Tranter told the museum. “I can provide the material.”
That display became the second-most successful exhibit in museum history, following the 100-year anniversary of the Pan-American Exposition in 2001. Tranter served as a docent on Saturdays when he came town before Bills home games. As people viewed the display, Tranter was struck by the personal stories that strangers shared, all evoked by his collection: “I thought, this stuff doesn’t belong in my basement. It belongs in Buffalo where people can enjoy it.”
Tranter dug in further. Although he worked in the insurance industry (he has since retired), he returned to college, earning a degree in museum education from Tufts University. By 2015, he chose to donate his Bills collection, a process that will occur in stages.
Melissa Brown, executive director of the Buffalo History Museum, has worked closely with Trantor over the years. “The artifacts we store here are what makes us distinctive,” Brown says. “We had random Bills stuff, like Jim Kelly’s shoes, but nothing serious. Greg’s collection documents the entire history of the Bills, and that’s an important story in this community.”
The cost of collecting
Tranter estimates he has invested $100,000 into his life’s work. “It sounds like a lot of money, but consider that I’ve been a collector for fifty years,” he reflects. “The majority of my collection was acquired before prices went crazy.”
He bought Norwood’s helmet, for instance, at auction fifteen years ago. Tranter paid $5000 then. As assessor recently appraised it at $100,000. “My guess is if I put it on the market, it might go for more than that,” Tranter says. “Unless you got [Norwood’s] shoe, what’s more significant than his helmet? It was arguably one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played, and it’s the only artifact from one of the most significant plays in football history.”
His collection includes Whammy Weenies, a blue-and-silver Bills jersey from 1961, and even a few mini-footballs tossed into crowds when former Bills quarterback Jack Kemp was nominated as the vice-presidential candidate with Republican Bob Dole in 1996.
In the mid-1990s, Tranter joined the Professional Football Researchers Association, boasting more than 400 members from across the globe in countries like Spain, Mexico, and Canada. Their presence in Western New York is especially strong, thanks to a vibrant local chapter led by Springville author and historian Jeff Miller.
The PFRA began in the mid-1970s, according to Miller, when a group of historians based in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio wanted to pool resources and share memories. Coincidentally, that is the same region where football was born. “These guys were studying teams like the Canton Bulldogs and Decatur Staleys,” Miller says. “There was no internet then, so you heard about the group through word-of-mouth.”
Miller, fifty-seven, is the author of six books—five about football—and serves as chairman for Western New York’s PFRA chapter. Although he is not an officer in the national organization, he helps oversee that group’s elections. “It’s an important organization and I have a loud voice,” he states. “We’re the repository of history. We keep stories alive. The game of football mirrors America’s story in a lot of ways. We also work to correct history. If there are statistics that weren’t correct or weren’t accumulated in the appropriate manner, our job is to fix that.”
For example, the NFL did not begin to record quarterback sacks as an official statistic until 1982. “There are two or three guys [in the PFRA] that have made it their mission to go back prior to 1982 and accumulate stats for every quarterback who’s ever been sacked,” Miller says. “They reference game film, game books, newspaper accounts. We understand the importance of historical accuracy. They want to recreate this.”
The group shares Tranter’s passion for keeping football history alive.
Fighting a digital evolution
When he was a kid, Tranter’s family attended one football game each year. For the past thirty-five years, Tranter has missed only three home Bills’ games. Once, his mother had cancer surgery; another time he remained home when his wife, Tracy, suffered from pneumonia. The third, in 2008, happened when his boss called a mandatory meeting in Massachusetts on the Monday of a Bills-Browns Monday Night game. He intended to skip the meeting, but Tracy urged him to reconsider. He also attends the Bills' annual contests against the Patriots and Jets, and often travels to other away games.
Collecting tickets and programs are easy in person. At games he does not attend, Tranter writes the host team, mails them a check, and asks to be sent a game program. Most clubs follow through. “I also have collector contacts in most cities,” he explains. “They go to a game and get me a program.”
The NFL, however, is becoming digital. Four teams have already stopped producing printed programs, and many stadiums are moving toward e-tickets. For now, Tranter has found ways to collect tickets, but he knows that may soon be a thing of the past. He isn’t happy about that evolution. “I’ve written letters to (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell telling him this is destroying the history of the game.” Tranter reports. “He hasn’t responded. I understand that millennials want to use their phones. But I’m the customer and believe I should have a choice on how I consume the product.”
His wife accepts Tranter’s passion, but it did strain their relationship early on. Although he had described the collection when they began dating, he wanted Tracy to see it. But first, they watched the 2005 movie Fever Pitch, in which a man-child played by Jimmy Fallon is obsessed with the Boston Red Sox.
“I was going to show her the movie, then the collection, then take her out to dinner,” Tranter recalls. “When the movie ended, I said, that’s me, only with the Buffalo Bills. When I took her into the basement, she was exasperated. She says, ‘I’m sorry, Greg, but I have to go home.’”
They did not make it to dinner that night. In fact, Tranter did not hear from his future wife for another ten days. He thought the relationship might be over. “I later learned she talked to a psychologist,” he says. “She asked the difference between a passion and an obsession. Can somebody be psychotic about collecting memorabilia?” Tranter paused and laughed. “But hey, it all worked out… she married me.”
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