Just in time for the first Super Bowl to take place in the Metropolitan area, a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York celebrates the very origins of the NFL and America’s most popular sport.
In 1947, Jefferson R. Burdick donated his famous collection of about 300,000 vintage postcards to the museum. Now, exposed for the first time to the public eye, football’s first athletes are brought to life in Gridiron Greats, a chronological history of the sport told through the enduring faces of its participants.
Among these is a powerful image of legendary all-rounder Jim Thorpe (above) and two of Kenny Washington, who broke the color barrier in professional football.
And yet there is a balance between these highlights and cards depicting some of the unknown figures whose identities have been forgotten but whose voices can be still heard. One such image signed by "Art" (below) presents us with a short poem.
Walk, / many an hour / is brightened by a / dim light.
Although it’s impossible to grasp the true meaning of such words, they breathe life into a period we can only grasp in black-and-white reenactments on-screen, forming an intimate reminder of not only our connection to the past but, perhaps more importantly, to the timeless connection fostered between teammates.
Just down the hall from the great European masterpieces encompassing the works of Giotto to Gauguin, at first it’s admittedly an underwhelming transition to the wallet sized postcards that grace the walls of the gallery. And yet, with a closer look, the importance of the exhibit cannot be undervalued.
Indeed, value is what first comes to mind when considering sports cards. But, Freyda Spira, assistant curator of drawings and prints who organized exhibit, tells me that none of the cards have been appraised yet. “It’s not about their value,” she says, “at least not their monetary value. It’s about their value in the development of culture that’s essential.”
Freyda, who painstakingly picked about 150 cards from the 300,000, explains the importance of displaying not only the high art of the masters but also the work of the unnamed designers and executors of ephemera who shaped ordinary society. In this case, with the selection of cards spanning from 1894 to 1959, such ephemera traces the development of popular printmaking in America as well as the creation of American sports culture and the athletic celebrity.
Like most aspects of society, economic incentives drove such development. Tobacco companies like Mayo were the first to recognize athletes as commodities, pinpointing them as the key to selling their product. Thus, sports cards began as advertisement inserts concerned less with the identity of the athlete but more so with their promotional affect.
This can be seen in the rare image below from 1894, considered to be the Honus Wagner of football cards. The unnamed man is none other than Harvard’s John Dunlop.
This trend, however, did not persist for long. “Eventually,” Freyda tells me, “card companies became less concerned with selling their product and more concerned with selling the game.”
Such a transition is clearly evident when tracking the evolution of the images as gum companies such as Chicle, Topps and Bowman continued the marketing scheme Mayo had begun.
At first, there was the simple addition of the athlete’s last name. Eventually, however, various cards began to include all the essential information that we have come to expect with their modern counterparts, allowing collectors to further identify with their favorite players, solidifying the status of athletes as the idols of popular society.
Instead of competing over the flavor of their gum, companies began to compete over the quality of their cards, some offering dramatic Heisman poses at the inception of the trophy, others offering cards of various sizes or with vivid color schemes.
The affect was two-fold. Not only were such companies further embedding football in mainstream culture through the selling of their products and the cards that came with them, they were also spurring on American popular printmaking, promoting the rise of commercial color lithography.
All this being said, the collection of cards most certainly has a worthy place in the halls of one of the world’s greatest museums. Indeed, at their fundamental level, the little cards are not so dissimilar to the imposing classical statues of Olympians that the Met is also home to. In both cases, the immortalization of the athlete and his idolization in the face of the public comes hand in hand with contemporary artistic development.
Although many images from Burdick's collection can already be viewed via the Met's website, the museum hopes to have all of the cards digitally cataloged so that they will continue to be visible when the exhibit ends on February 10.
For now, they stand as a testament to the forebears of the athletes who take the field Sunday night, paying tribute to football’s powerful legacy.
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