By Steve Cichon
Having worked with Van Miller on Bills broadcasts on the radio and then as his producer at Channel 4, I spent a lot of time listening to his stories.
Van was a tremendous storyteller, and always delighted any crowd gathered around him with his ability to spin a tale about almost anything and make it interesting.
One of his favorites was “The Cookie Gilchrist earmuff story.” Ask people who’ve spent time around Van– Paul Peck, Brian Blessing, John Murphy… and they probably know the story as Van told it by heart as well as Van knew it himself.
The story goes, Cookie Gilchrist wasn’t really happy with the amount of money The Bills were paying him, so he was always looking for a way to make an extra buck. One time, he decided to buy a load of earmuffs and sell them as “Cookie Gilchrist earmuffs” at The Rockpile one Sunday.
“Well,” Van would say with a smile, “It happened to be one of the hottest December days on record, and the sun blazing at kickoff– he only sold about three pairs of earmuffs!”
It’s a classic Van story, quick and neat, and leaves the listener smiling.
The problem is, while there’s probably some basis in truth— Van was always more about telling a good story than about getting all the facts straight.
In a quick internet search, I found three different reports of Van telling the story. The temperature at kickoff was either 69, 57, or 60 degrees depending on which version you read. The number of pairs of earmuffs he had changed too– 5,000 in one telling; 3,000 in another; 15,000 another time.
The point is, there were probably earmuffs. Beyond that, it’s tough to tell where the colorful imagination of Uncle Van took over.
There’s another version of the story told to writer Scott Pitoniak by longtime Bills trainer Ed Abramowski. Published in 2007, Abe’s version is Cookie was trying to sell the earmuffs for the 1964 AFL Championship Game at War Memorial, but the headgear wound up getting caught in customs when Gilchrist tried to bring them to Buffalo from his home in Toronto.
The only contemporary earmuff story I could find was in the Ottawa Journal a few days after the Bills won that 1964 AFL Championship Game.
A reporter asked Cookie about the autographed earmuffs he said would be sold at the game. “I ran into problems there, and didn’t sell them.”– Ottawa Journal, December 28, 1964
That game was played December 26, 1964. It was a mild day with some rain and a high around 45.
Van Miller’s story is the only reason I know that Cookie Gilchrist ever tried to sell earmuffs, and that really makes me smile. Knowing the real story about how and why makes me smile, too.