Friday, September 17, 2010

What's a Bill?

The Buffalo Bills “stampede” into Lambeau this weekend, and, as I touched on in my earlier post, I have no idea what a “Bill” is.  So I did some research to find out where the name Bills came from, and it’s a scintillating history exemplifying the proud American tradition of not knowing what the hell we’re talking about.  This is just the kind of knowledge you’re looking for when you come to TriggPack.

At first, it’s easy to forget that the name “Bills” doesn’t make any sense.  You assume from their name and logo that their mascot is actually a buffalo.  Well, sort of.  But the “Buffalo” part of their name actually refers to the city of Buffalo, not the mascot.  Although the mascot looks like a Buffalo, it’s actually a Bill.  So how did a small town in upstate New York come to be named after a majestic North American animal, that largely lived 2,000 miles away.  Turns out the term originally referred to an animal the immigrants to that area called a “Canadian Buffalo” which zoologists later identified has the same DNA footprint as a Guernsey cow.  The town elders, not wanting to admit their town was named after a dairy-producing bovine, insisted the animal was a buffalo and that eventually stuck as the name of the town.

Years later as football was gaining in popularity, the task of naming the local team was put to the descendents who named the town.  My assumption, not having given much thought to the team since the futility of the Jim Kelly years, was that “Bills” – like the Cleveland Browns – referred to some original founder, owner, or sponsor named Bill who, in the charming self-promotional vanity of the 1960's, named his newly founded club after himself.  (As an aside, I hate it when people name things, like books… or blogs, after themselves!)  Turns out, however, nobody named Bill had anything to do with the formation of the team.  The founder, Ralph Wilson, briefly considered the Buffalo Ralphs, but that name already had an unfortunate connotation from hung-over Niagara falls wedding parties.

Original Buffalo Bills Team Logo
The other logical name that was considered was the Buffalo Buffaloes, which sounds a bit like ordering chicken wings at Little Caesars.  But Wilson, who suffered from a stutter, was unable to pronounce the name, so it was rejected as well.  Later, the team historian who was always eager to point out that a Canadian Buffalo was actually a dairy cow, proposed the Buffalo Guernseys, and even came up with a logo.   But management rejected it as not having the necessary intimidation factor, and he was tragically beaten with soap and stuffed in a locker by the towel boys.  Wilson also lobbied his front office to name the team after his father, Richard Wilson – known to all as “Dick.”  But after several snickering meetings, the idea was shelved.  The team remained un-named.

Wilson, trusting in the collective wisdom of the largely un-educated backwater that is Upstate New York, put the task of naming the team to the people.  He organized a local contest allowing fans to submit suggestions and vote on a name for the club.  Some of the more colorful entries included the Buffalo Dance, Buffalo Wild Wings, Buffalo Shuffle Offs, Buffalo Skin Rugs, Buffalo Joes, and just “The Buffalo.”  All were rejected.

In an example of the stupidity of crowds that would bring a smile to Malcolm Gladwell’s face, the greater Buffalo community finally turned to plagiarism – naming the team after... the Buffalo Bills, a team in the long-since-defunct All-America Football Conference.  I believe that was the sister league of basketball’s Flint Michigan Tropics, masterfully portrayed by Will Ferrell in Semi-Pro.

The question remains, however, where did the name “Bills” come from?  Wasn’t there some guy named Bill involved at some point?  Yes, in fact, it was William Frederick Cody, popularly known as "Buffalo Bill", who was the inspiration for the name.  Naming the team after this prominent historical figure made perfect sense, since Cody was born in Iowa, lived in Kansas, and was apparently never within a 1,000 mile radius of the Buffalo, NY area.

But the misnomer and malapropisms didn’t stop there.  When asked to design a mascot for the team, they actually used a bison.  Some of you may remember back to your tours of the natural history museum that a buffalo and a bison are entirely different animals.  Though both are of the species bovidae, true buffaloes actually only live in Africa and parts of Asia.  Lesson to Mr. Wilson: don't let a bunch of drunks drive your naming and branding strategy.  At least the name has some alliteration.  And over the years, most people, like me until I did a little research, forgot that the name didn't make any sense.

This season, the Bills have added a motto to their name and logo: “Return to Mediocrity!”  With that rich history and rallying cry, the Bills will take the field on Sunday against the Packers.  Hopefully, Marshawn Lynch will stay behind and change jerseys.

1 comment:

  1. That team, in turn, was named after William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody. The Bills' cheerleaders are known as the Buffalo Jills. The official mascot is Billy Buffalo.