Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Off the Cuff

A good uniform blends design and construction together in a seamless unity. For a team as traditionally-minded as the Packers, the two sometimes come into conflict, and nowhere is this more evident than in the sleeve striping.

I've complained before about the problem of using sleeve stripes on jerseys which no longer have sleeves.

So how did we get here?

The Packers first used sleeve stripes in 1923, sporting gold jerseys with a series of thin navy stripes:

This experiment proved short-lived, however, and for most of Lambeau's time as coach the Packers would shun sleeve stripes for other distinctive design elements such as the gold shoulder yoke.

Stripes would next be seen on Packer sleeves after Lambeau's departure, as new head coach Gene Ronzani tried to put his stamp on the franchise. In 1950, the Packers alternated between kelly green jerseys and gold jerseys, both with two thin stripes on each sleeve:

When Lisle Blackbourn took over the reins in 1954, he brought his own uniform designs, this time incorporating Northwestern stripes.

And, of course, when Vince Lombardi took over the club in 1959, he created his own uniform set. Lombardi's sleeves were similar to the basic Northwestern striping pattern, but with two sets of Packer helmet-style stripes against a gold stripe.

The "TV numbers" were bumped from the sleeves to the shoulders in 1984, but other than that Lombardi's stripe pattern lasted for decades, even as the sleeves themselves were cut shorter and shorter.

In some cases, parts of the sleeve striping were cut off entirely as players cut down their jersey sleeves into cap sleeves, as seen in this photo of Reggie White immediately after the 1996 NFC Championship Game.

Remember, this was taken before the Favre photo above.

The next year, Nike took over the Packers' uniform contract and made the lineman pattern standard for all players:

When Reebok took over the uniform contract in 2001, they kept Nike's pattern, which continues to this day.

Not the best solution, watering down Lombardi's design, but at least it creates some consistency across all players on the field. Note also that, because of the uniform construction, the stripes no longer extend all the way around the sleeve.

Other teams have faced this problem, some ditching sleeve stripes altogether because so few players actually wear sleeves.

The 49ers came up with a pretty creative solution for their new uniform design for 2009, unveiled at their draft party last Saturday: the sleeves are designed at an angle, deliberately running into the sleeve cuff.

Over pads, this creates the illusion of perfectly horizontal stripes and hides the fact that the lower stripes aren't actually complete:

Lest anyone think this is an unintentional side effect of the players chopping down the sleeves, the Niners have the unique sleeve pattern represented in the official style guide:

It also appears on the replica jerseys sold to fans:

We'll see how this actually looks on the field, if it's a viable solution for teams that want to preserve traditional striping patterns. And then we'll see again how they look when the new jersey fabrications start appearing in 2010.

If this solution manages to make the sleeve stripes look good on the new template, the Packers may wish to consider adopting it. Going back to gray facemasks, on the other hand... well, that's a subject for another post.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Auction Gold, Part IV - Yes, Another Hutson Jersey!

Following up on my earlier post, the report of another Hutson jersey going up for auction is true, and man oh man is it gorgeous.

The Robert Edwards Spring 2009 Auction Preview is now up. The photos aren't as great as I'd hoped, but the jersey itself is amazing:

Here's the auction listing:
LOT 1358: 1937-1945 Don Hutson Green Bay Packers Game-Used Home Jersey with Phenomenal Provenance

Robert Edward Auctions has had the privilege of handing a number of historically significant football jerseys over the past few years, including those worn by Jim Brown and Jim Taylor, but this offered garment may be the most important to date: a Green Bay Packers home jersey worn by Hall of Fame wide receiver Don Hutson. To the best of our knowledge, this is one of only two Don Hutson Green Bay Packers game-used jerseys extant and the only example in private hands (the other resides in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame). Equal in significance is the jersey's impeccable provenance. Don Hutson personally presented this jersey to our consignor, Joe Proski, in either 1944 or 1945 as a birthday present. Joe "Magic Fingers" Proski is a sports celebrity in his own right, as he was an NBA trainer with the Phoenix Suns for thirty-two years (he was with them at the inception of the franchise in 1968) and is a member of the team's famed "Ring of Honor." Proski was born into a sports family. His father, John Proski, was a longtime employee of the Green Bay Packers, first as an equipment manager/asst. trainer with the club during the 1920s through the 1950s, and then as Lambeau Field stadium director from 1957 until his retirement in 1975. It was through his father's affiliation with the club that he obtained this jersey. As he attests in his accompanying handwritten letter, "The enclosed Don Hutson jersey #14...has been with me and my family since 1944? It was given to me by Don on my 5th or 6th birthday when my dad would invite Packer players over for my birthday party...I wore the jersey all the time when I would play football with my brothers. This jersey has been washed many times." The blue wool jersey, with gold trim along the shoulders, features the number "14" on the front and reverse. All numbers are appliquéd in gold satin. The manufacturer's tag, which was originally located on the the crotch piece, is no longer present (most likely a Shea Knitting Mills label). All six original buttons remain firmly anchored to the crotch piece. As noted in MEARS' accompanying LOA, this jersey style was worn by the Packers from 1937 to 1948, but Hudson's career only spanned the years 1935-1945; therefore the jersey is technically dated 1937-1945. However, Proski recalls that he received this jersey on either his fifth or sixth birthday, which, based upon his age, would more narrowly date the jersey to either 1944 or 1945. The jersey is all original, with no alterations, and displays heavy wear throughout, including a number of small tears/holes and various team repairs on the front and reverse.

Don Hutson was the game's first great wide receiver and one of the most influential players in NFL history. No history of pro football or the Green Bay Packers would be complete without a chapter devoted exclusively to him. Hutson's speed and elusiveness made him virtually impossible to defend and he soon became the focal point of every defense. Prior to Hutson's joining the NFL, double and triple teams were unheard of; Hutson made them necessary. Even then he was a virtual scoring machine. He led or tied for the League lead in touchdowns in eight of his eleven seasons, including a career-high 17 touchdowns in 1942. He also led the League in points scored five of his ten seasons. An innovator on offense, he is credited with inventing modern pass receiving by his use of various moves such as Z-outs, buttonhooks, and hook-and-gos. Like Ruth before him in baseball, Hutson did not just break records, he shattered them. When he retired in 1945, he held eighteen NFL records, including touchdown receptions (99, a mark which stood for four decades) and receptions (488, which was over 200 more than anyone else). He was voted the League MVP in both 1941 and 1942. His accomplishments on offense are even more astounding when one considers that like nearly all players at that time, he also played on the defensive side of the ball. As a safety, he intercepted 23 passes during his career and he was also the Packers' place kicker. Fittingly, Hutson was one of the first seventeen inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, an inaugural class that included such other legends as Jim Thorpe, Sammy Baugh, Red Grange, and Bronco Nagurski.

NFL game-used jerseys dating from the 1930s and 1940s are virtually nonexistent, especially those worn by players of Hutson's stature. This is one of, if not the most significant football jersey we have ever handled, and one that would be tantamount to a 1927 Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig Yankees jersey in the baseball marketplace. It is also one of the finest we have ever seen with regard to provenance. Joe Proski's father is well known in Green Bay and was a respected member of the Green Bay Packers family for nearly fifty years. One could not ask for a more reputable source. Graded A7 by MEARS (base grade of 10, with 1 point deducted for the missing manufacturer's tag and another 2 points subtracted for the holes/tears). This is the only Don Hutson jersey in the MEARS census and it also represents the earliest Green Bay Packers jersey ever graded by MEARS. This is a museum-caliber jersey that would be the highlight of even the most advanced football memorabilia collection. LOA from Troy Kinunen/MEARS. Reserve $10,000. Estimate (open).

Let's begin with the good. I can't disagree that this is without question the most significant Packers jersey known to exist. Even with the NFL's peculiar myopia where the pre-Super Bowl era is concerned, the stats in the auction summary speak for themselves. With the whole of Packer history from which to choose, Packers historian Lee Remmel puts Hutson right up as the greatest player to wear the green (or navy) and gold:

When asked to name his favorite player, Remmel paused. "Probably from the standpoint of what he contributed to the team, the incomparable Don Hutson," Remmel said, before adding, "I waver between him and Brett Favre."

Anyone who can stand toe-to-toe with the Gridiron Man is a very special player, indeed.

Now to the bad. I am very uncomfortable disagreeing with Troy Kinunen and MEARS. They're pros, and who am I? That having been said, there are a couple of things in that listing which deserve mention.

First of all, according to David Zimmerman's excellent biography of Tony Canadeo, the Packers wore this uniform style through the 1949 season, not 1948. Introduced by Lambeau in 1937, it was replaced in 1950 by new head coach Gene Ronzani, who wanted to put his own stamp on the team.

Second of all, the number style tells us a lot about the jersey's age. MEARS has narrowed the year to 1944 or 1945 based on the owner's age when he was given it, but based on those particular numbers I don't think either of those dates work.

The numbers are what I like to call "Square Block" (anyone out there who knows a more accurate name, a manufacturer's designation, please shout). Note that the "1" is comprised solely of right angles, and the left edge of the "4" is completely vertical. That comports with other images from the early 1940s, including this hand-colored photo from the League's 1943 Record Manual:

By 1944, the Square Block numbers had been replaced with a version of Varsity Block, as seen in this wire photo (click for full image):

The top serif of the 1 now comes down at an angle and the left edge of the 4 is notched, angling inwards. This is the number style seen on the Hutson jersey on display in the Packers Hall of Fame:

So this Proski jersey would appear to pre-date the one currently on display (which, intriguingly, was also given away to a kid, although not by Hutson himself).

Interestingly, the auction listing offers up yet another style of Packers numbering. Similar to (and predating) the Square Block, this one features an additional flourish on the 4 - a horizontal serif.

You can see a better view of that number 4 here:

I'm researching the various number fonts used by the Packers throughout the team's history (a surprising number), and hopefully will compose a post on the subject soon. It could well be that different players wore different number styles at the same time, especially possible that a long-tenured player such as Hutson might have been holding on to an older jersey. But I don't know. Given the change in styles, I'm not sure that I'd rely upon an admittedly uncertain memory from childhood to conclusively date an item as important as this.

Finally (and curiously), the auction mentions two extant Hutson jerseys. I count three - one in the Packers Hall of Fame, one in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and this one in private hands. Could this be the one which was hanging in Canton until recently?

It would fit - this jersey belongs in a museum.

UPDATE 02/08/09: I called the Hall of Fame, and they informed me that the Hutson jersey is still in the Hall, just in a new exhibit. Details here.

So that means there are indeed at least three Hutson game jerseys extant - one in each of the Green Bay Packers and Pro Football Halls of Fame, and this one in private hands. Where this one will end up, we may never know.

UPDATE 05/04/09: The auction is over, with a final bid of $60,000. Plus buyer's premium, etc. Not quite the $100,000 that the authenticators speculated, but pretty good in this economy.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Auction Gold, Part III - You Don't Tug On Superman's Cape

The sideline cape is a uniquely "football" garment. It speaks of cold November games. Players on the sideline, waiting for their turn on the field. Easily cast off onto the ground, as numbers are called and the men rush into the fray.

Because capes weren't worn on the field, they managed to survive for many years. In the case of the Packers, they were still wearing their 1940s/1950s capes well into the Lombardi era, the last vestige of the blue and gold color combination.

Several times in the past several years, these sideline capes have come up for auction. I know of three recent auctions:
  • American Memorabilia, ended 10/18/2007 - sold for $1,902
  • Mastro Auctions, ended 11/24/2008 - sold for $1,400.
  • eBay, ended 01/13/2009 - opening bid $4,500 (unsold)
  • the same item relisted on eBay, ended 02/02/2009 - opening bid $3,999.99 (unsold)

I love those guys at Titletown Nostalgia, but they're aiming way too high with their opening bid. They've had that cape for sale at that price on their website for years with no takers, the market seems pretty clear that the actual value is less than two thousand dollars.

Aside from those auction photos, there's one in the Hall of Fame in Canton:

So much cooler than a sideline jacket.