Last month, we published a story on Cookie Gilchrist's memorial service in which I spoke with one of Gilchrist's closest friends, Chris Garbarino. In the wake of the most recent addition to the Wall of Fame, Garbarino could be silent no longer and sent us a Letter to the Editor.
Garbarino has a copy of a Buffalo News article from 1971 detailing an elaborate ceremony inducting Gilchrist into the Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame, making him the inaugural member. Here is Garbarino's complete letter:
Dear Mr. Editor,
This past week Phil Hansen was elected to be enshrined on the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame. While I congratulate Mr Hansen another year goes by and an injustice is further perpetrated.Cookie Gilchrist the iconic running back that led the Buffalo Bills in the early 1960's is not up on the Wall, when he in fact was the first inductee into the Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame, which was renamed the Wall of Fame.
In 1971 Cookie was the first recipient of the newly started Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame which was the creation of Buffalo Bills Public Relations guru, Jack Horrigan. The famed Buffalo News sports writer Jim Peters ran an article in 1971 with the headline "Gilchrist Enshrined in Bills' Hall of Fame". A picture of Cookie with Ralph Wilson, Jack Horrigan and coach Harvey Johnson accompanied the article.
Jim Peters told the story of Cookie being the guest of honor at the Touchdown club's kickoff luncheon and that the entire 1971 Bills team attended the event along with many members of the 1964 Bills Championship team. Ralph Wilson later gave this quote to Jim Peters for the enshrinement article: "A larger, 4 foot by 8 foot plaque will be enshrined later on in the new stadium in Orchard Park."
Cookie's response to receiving the award showed how much he loved Buffalo and its fans: "This is the greatest honor I've ever had bestowed upon me. I'm pleased and proud that the Buffalo Bills' organization and fans, who may have thought of me as a troublemaker and egoistical individual, thought enough of me to make me the first member of the Hall of Fame here in my home."
As time passed this honor that was promised and bestowed upon Cookie in 1971 was swept under the rug and forgotten. It is now time for people to know that Cookie led the way for the Wall of Fame honor as he led the way for the Buffalo Bills first Championship in 1964.
Mr. Wilson it is time for you to finish the honor you bestowed upon Cookie at the Touchdown Club in 1971 and add him to the Wall as promised.
I have included Garbarino's scan of the News article so you can see for yourself. Clicking on it will enlarge it so you can read the text. The photo in the upper left-hand corner includes then-head coach Harvey Johnson (second from left), Cookie Gilchrist, and owner Ralph Wilson.
I spoke with AFL Historian Ange Coniglio, who runs Remember the AFL, the best place for American Football League information anywhere. He gave me a few reasons why the Bills may have never honored Gilchrist in Orchard Park but wanted to make sure we knew he was just speculating.
"I remember the original article, and the positive reaction it received from Bills fans at the time," recalls Coniglio. "When Cookie's induction to the Bills Hall of Fame never came to pass, honestly, I forgot all about it. I can only tell you what I ASSUME might be some likely scenarios:
"(1): The Bills management may have simply forgotten about it, just as they have neglected to retire Jack Kemp's No. 15, or to have any memento of Kemp on player helmets or jerseys. Over the years, there has been a great turnover in the Bills' front office. They rarely hire former players in any capacity, and those in each generation of administrative help have had little connection to, or memory of, the AFL or its players. The only constant has been Ralph Wilson, who seems to have little nostalgia for the AFL.
"(2): Maybe Wilson had second thoughts after he remembered previous disagreements with Cookie."
While we are still unsure whose fault it is, the fact remains that the Buffalo Bills had the opportunity to honor Gilchrist following his death and missed said opportunity.