Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Thanks for Throwbacks

Brett Favre and Ahman Green feast on turducken, Thanksgiving 2001

This Thursday, the Packers take on the Lions in Detroit's traditional Thanksgiving Day game.

Detroit's Thanksgiving legacy goes back to 1934. In 1951, the Packers joined the party and became the Lions' traditional opponent, traveling to the Motor City every year on the fourth Thursday in November. This lasted until Vince Lombardi pulled the Packers out of the annual meeting after the 1963 game, citing the unfair demands of playing a short-week road game every season (it certainly didn't help that the Packers went 3-10 during that span).

Since then, the Lions have faced a rotating series of opponents and the Packers have returned to Detroit for the Thanksgiving game only a handful of times. Twice, in 2001 and 2003, those games have been occasions to wear throwback uniforms, as part of the NFL's "Thanksgiving Classic" promotion (which began with the 2001 game and was discontinued after through 2004).

The 2001 uniform was based on an alternate introduced in 1939: white jerseys with green numbers, gold helmets, white socks.

I'm not convinced that the canvas-colored pants are historically accurate—the Packers were wearing gold pants with their navy jerseys by 1939—but they are in line with the similarly-inaccurate 1994 throwbacks.

It would be interesting to know how often this white alternate uniform was worn. The Packers had introduced their first white jersey the previous season to avoid the traditional navy-versus-navy confusion when facing the Chicago Bears. They might also have worn them as "clash jerseys" against the Cleveland Rams or New York Giants, who wore royal blue. Pictures from the 1939 season are scarce, but from news accounts we know the Packers wore their traditional navy and gold jerseys in the championship game against the Giants, on the way to their fifth world championship:

The 2001 Packers also fared well in their throwbacks, holding off a late Detroit surge to win the Turkey Day contest 29-27.

In an unusual move, the Packers offered pro-cut throwback jerseys for sale online in various sizes, which has resulted in a glut of Berlin-tagged jerseys on the secondary market. These retail jerseys (principally Favre's #4) are often misleadingly identified as "team issued" or even "game used" jerseys and sold as such at inflated prices.

Readers of Guy Hankel's wonderful blog White Mesh and Green Durene will remember the excellent article he published a few months ago, complete with great pictures of the real thing. If you missed it, go check it out.


Two years later, the Packers once again found themselves celebrating Thanksgiving in the Motor City. And once again, the Packers wore a classic Green Bay uniform. Trading Curly Lambeau for Vince Lombardi, the Packers took the field that day in an updated version of their 1967 road uniforms.

Unlike the previous encounter, the throwback changes were subtle.

The sleeve and neck stripes were alternating green and gold, unbroken by white, and the home sleeve striping pattern was repeated on the socks. The Packers wore black cleats, standard in the 1960s but wouldn't be re-introduced to the Packers' regular uniform until 2008. The pants striping was narrowed, echoing Lombardi's late 1960s design. Although the Reebok logos would adorn the sleeves and pants, the clunky "NFL EQUIPMENT" patch was nowhere to be seen.

The best part? Gray facemasks.

Although the Packers looked great, they failed to play up to the level of the uniforms, turning the ball over five times as the Lions won, 22-14.

These uniforms are far less common on the collectors' market. Not only did the Packers not sell pro-cut replica jerseys, they didn't offer authentic replicas at all (at least not online). Fans wishing to purchase one of these gorgeous jerseys had to settle for a lower-quality replica with screenprinted numbers.

Game worn jerseys do surface from time to time, though. Brett Favre's complete game uniform sold at auction for $7,582.00 in December 2004.

This beauty, worn by Al Harris, provides us with a closer view of the jersey details.

I would love to see the Packers bring this back as the road jersey. Trying to shoehorn the home jersey stripes into a different color pattern has never worked for me. You can't improve upon a classic, and every tweak of the road uniforms has resulted in another step backwards.

Sadly, the Thanksgiving Classic program was short-lived, so we'll see no such sartorial splendor from either the Packers or Lions this year. This most traditional of regular-season games will see Detroit's newfangled Honolulu blue, silver and black against the Packers' oh-so-close-but-no-cigar modern whites.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Quite a Stretch

Week 11 is in the books, and by now we have plenty of reference on the new uniforms. Take a good look - this is what the well-dressed Packer will be wearing next season:

  • Tank top sleeves? Check.

  • Itty bitty sleeve shoulder stripes? Check.

  • Peekaboo shoulder pads? Check.

  • Matte finish? Check.

  • Super-stretchy numbers? Check.
Those numbers are a particular point of concern. Made out of the same material as the jersey, and sewn to it with elastic thread, the numbers conform to the contours of the player's body. As the jersey is stretched tighter and tigher across his torso, the numbers bend and warp:

There aren't any right angles left on that number "5". Matthews' nameplate also appears to bend upwards across his pads.

This also happens with the front numbers, no more so than on Aaron Kampman's jersey, with the kerning between his "7" and "4" exaggerated by the tight stretch.

This gives him a certain 1970s retro look:

Even Brockington's gap-toothed jersey is preferable to my eye. The beauty of the Packers' uniform is its timelessness. Strong athletic block numbers give it weight and gravity. Wavy, fluid numbers do not.

I don't have a position of knowledge to debate the performance merits of the new uniforms, but from an æsthetic perspective, it's just more chipping away at a once-perfect uniform.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Numbers Game

Although pictures of early Packers squads are not uncommon, most tend to be posed team photos, such as this view of the 1931 squad at the beginning of their third consecutive World Championship season.

So while we know what the uniforms looked like from the front, solid blue shirts and socks paired with gold pants, views of the back are few and far between. This leaves a large hole in our knowledge of Packers uniforms - the jersey numbers, worn only on the back from their introduction in 1925 until 1934 (except for the 1929 & 1930 seasons).

This Milwaukee Journal article from Monday, October 10, 1932 provides us with a very rare glimpse of those numbers. The picture was taken the previous day, as 5,500 fans watched the Blues defeat the Portsmouth Spartans at Old City Stadium.

Standing deep in his own end zone Earl Clark, all-American pro quarter, attempted to kick. But Joe Zeller, all-conference guard at Indiana last season, rushed in and blocked the punt. A second later Rose (No. 52 in the picture) fell on the ball (indicated by an arrow) for the touchdown. Zeller is the player lunging forward directly under Clark's foot.
While the Spartans are wearing an oversized version of a common block, the Packers' numbers are thinner, rounded and more stylized. Although I'm very reluctant to judge such things from old photographs, let alone old black-and-white newspaper photos photocopied, bound into a book and scanned decades later, it looks to me as though the numbers are darker in color than those worn by the Portsmouth players. The Spartans' colors were purple and gold, but it seems likely that they wore large white numbers (as the Packers would adopt in 1934).

"Rose" is Al Rose, wide receiver for Green Bay from 1932 through 1936. He was the first Packer to wear number 52 on his jersey, and only for that one season. Rose never really settled on a number - after 1932, he moved to #34 in 1933, #49 in 1934 and #47 in 1935 and 1936.

The most notable Packer to sport the number was Frank "Bag of Donuts" Winters, who wore it from 1992-2002. The longtime center was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 2008.

52 is currently being worn by outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ramming the Point Home

Still trying to identify the point when the Packers abandoned leather helmets. We do know that the entire team was wearing plastic shells (at least in some games) by 1952, based on this photo from the Packers' heartbreaking loss to the Los Angeles Rams at Marquette Stadium in Milwaukee on October 12, 1952.

As we've discussed, Gene Ronzani was putting his own stamp on the club, slowly eliminating Curly Lambeau's blue and athletic gold scheme. Here we see Ronzani's green jerseys paired with a metallic gold shell. The result was reportedly something like this:

Not dissimilar to the color scheme Ron Wolf almost adopted in 1994.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Retire the Football Helmet?

In recent years, much attention has been paid to the potential harm suffered by football players in the routine course of their sport. In the past, it has been widely accepted that the price of a football career includes lingering problems with knees, elbows and other joints. Shocking new evidence suggests, however, that football players are putting themselves at risk for severe mental problems.

The NFL's own study indicated that retired players suffer early-onset dementia at a rate four to five times higher than the general population (the League then tried to claim such studies were unreliable). Books have been published on the subject, studies have been commissioned. Last month, Commissioner Goodell was grilled by Congress over this issue.

Even if the League eventually admits that this is a real problem, the question of how to address it remains. Much of the focus has been on preventing these types of injuries by improving the technology. More padding, different types of padding, new shell designs. Special mouth guards.

Today, the Wall Street Journal weighs in with a long and interesting article proposing a different solution. I'm only going to quote an exerpt here, but check out the full article.


Is It Time to Retire the Football Helmet?

New Research Says Small Hits Do Major Damage—and There's Not Much Headgear Can Do About It


This football season, the debate about head injuries has reached a critical mass. Startling research has been unveiled. Maudlin headlines have been written. Congress called a hearing on the subject last month.

As obvious as the problem may seem (wait, you mean football is dangerous?), continuing revelations about the troubling mental declines of some retired players—and the ongoing parade of concussions during games—have created a sense of inevitability. Pretty soon, something will have to be done.

But before the debate goes any further, there's a fundamental question that needs to be investigated. Why do football players wear helmets in the first place? And more important, could the helmets be part of the problem?

"Some people have advocated for years to take the helmet off, take the face mask off. That'll change the game dramatically," says Fred Mueller, a University of North Carolina professor who studies head injuries. "Maybe that's better than brain damage."

The first hard-shell helmets, which became popular in the 1940s, weren't designed to prevent concussions but to prevent players in that rough-and-tumble era from suffering catastrophic injuries like fractured skulls.

But while these helmets reduced the chances of death on the field, they also created a sense of invulnerability that encouraged players to collide more forcefully and more often. "Almost every single play, you're going to get hit in the head," says Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long.

What nobody knew at the time is that these small collisions may be just as damaging. The growing body of research on former football players suggests that brain damage isn't necessarily the result of any one trauma, but the accumulation of thousands of seemingly innocuous blows to the head.

An interesting idea. I've long advocated a ban on the body armor baseball players wear at the plate, for similar reasons. It breeds a feeling of invincibility and allows the batter to crowd the plate. In that case, my concern was more about pitchers losing the ability to pitch inside, not about preventing injuries.

They bring up rugby and Australian Rules football as examples of two sports with similarly violent play, yet only a fraction of the head injuries of the NFL.

Plastic football helmets were first developed by Riddell in 1935. This 1940 article from the Bend (Oregon) Bulletin describes the new plastic helmets to be worn by the University of Minnesota, an early adopter, as "glass-like." Riddell used a trademarked clear plastic they called "Tenite" in their helmets, which were painted on the inside. This would last until the later 1950s, when "Tenite" was replaced by a material called "Kra-lite," which was gray in color. Teams then painted the outside of the helmet to match their desired colors.

World War II diverted the bulk of plastic production to defense and delayed the plastic helmet's introduction to the NFL until the 1944 season.

As the plastic helmet's popularity spread, controversy followed.

The chief complaint, echoed by at least one prominent sports surgeon, was that by shielding football players from impact plastic helmets encouraged more violent play, and the unyielding synthetic surface increased the potential damage done to other players in collisions. Sound familiar?

The NFL, concerned about rising injuries, took the extreme step of actually banning plastic helmets in 1948. This was the announcement, following the League's annual owners' meeting in January of that year:

The ban was short-lived, and was rescinded at the following year's meeting:

Still, some teams held out even after the prohibition was lifted. I'm not aware when the first Packer stepped onto the field in City Stadium wearing a synthetic helmet. Curly Lambeau doesn't appear to have been a proponent, based on team photographs.

The man who personally led the League in innovation with the first team to travel to games by plane, own its own self-contained training camp facility, and have a fight song seemed to be in no hurry to replace his leather helmets. Perhaps he had the same safety concerns.

Even into the 1960s, the controvery lingered:

Since then, of course, helmets have become the most identifiable feature of pro football teams. They have become a visual stand-in for a club (as anyone who has ever seen Monday Night Football can attest). They've become additional logos. Heck, the Cleveland Browns use their helmet as their logo. You don't see this happening with baseball caps.

The NFL recognizes and encourages this helmet branding. In 2002, the Seattle Seahawks submitted a new uniform design to the NFL for approval, including different helmets (one blue, one silver) for home and road.

This road/home split might be common in other sports, but other sports are not Pro Football, and the League rejected that element out of concern that the Seahawk brand might be diluted. The team then held a fan vote to see which helmet would be adopted (blue won).

So the League not only has an interest in denying the connection between repeated hits and early onset dementia, they also have a financial interest in maintaining the helmet status quo.

Where does that leave us? The game has changed relatively slowly around us. Hits are getting harder, and players are getting bigger. I'm not the first one to point out that in 1985 William Perry's 335 pound frame was so out of the ordinary it earned him the nickname "the Fridge." Now fully one-quarter of the league weighs in over 300 pounds.

Change is difficult. Sudden change doubly so. The modern game has evolved slowly over decades to become the bone-jarring contest it is now. Any attempts to suddenly alter it will be met with great resistence. But as NPR's Scott Simon put it, "Modern polycarbonate helmets have let players weaponize their heads." That just can't be sustained.

Something will have to be done. Surely there's a middle ground between eliminating helmets altogether and continuing down the gladiatorial path. Perhaps streamlining helmets, making them strong enough to reduce one's own injuries but not so much so that they cause injuries in others, can be that ground. The league can still slap logos on the sides, but players won't have to pay such a terrible price to play the game they love.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hell Bent for Leather, Part II

Titletown Nostalgia recently added this little gem to its collection:

1940's Packers game-worn leather helmet w/"Packers" branding

This may very well be the only 100-percent authentic leather helmet game-worn Green Bay Packers helmet in existence. The rocks-solid evidence of "Packers" branded on the front of the shell is the single, most important feature of this piece. We guarantee this brand is original and "P-A-C" is visible on the helmet. Due to a rough economic time of the 1940's, this helmet, as presumably all helmets were recycled for additional use. This particular piece was probably used by East High School, a team that wore red and white. Heavy use is exhibited, but the "Wilson" interior padding is still present. Another significant portion of this helmet, attesting to its authenticity is the proper gold (yellow) paint that can be seen under the white paint. Also, the proper holes and style is represented on this piece, when compared to many 1940's Packers photos, including the shells used in the 1944 Championship Game at Yankee Stadium.
I might take some exception to the notion that it's the only one in existence - the Pro Football Hall of Fame has at least two in its collection (from Hutson and Canadeo), and the Packers Hall of Fame has several as well, and there's at least one in private hands that lacks the "PACKERS" branding but still comes highly rated by MEARS, one of the few such authorities I trust. But that's a minor quibble. This is an exceedingly rare artifact, made all the more so by the remnant of the brand, and a very interesting story.

The original gold paint is still visible under the coats of white:

The first few letters of the team branding appear faintly across the forehead.

A collector could take this in one of two directions. I myself would keep it exactly as-is, white paint and all, but it could be restored to its original glory. Wonder what that would do for its collectible value? Some items, such as stadium seats and the like, are routinely restored and traded on the collectibles market. I'm not familiar with any restored helmets, but that could have more to do with the relative scarcity of leather helmets.

All photos copyright Titletown Nostalgia. Go check out his site, and buy lots. He's one of the good ones.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Confirmed Sighting

The only good thing I can say about yesterday's debacle in Tampa is that I finally have photographic evidence of the Packers' new high-tech skinsuit jerseys.

Nick Barnett was wearing one.

You can see the new construction - compare it to A.J. Hawk's jersey with its spandex side panel:

If I can bear to watch the tape, perhaps we can get a better look at it. I'm particularly interested in the sleeve stripe treatment - might be time to do something about it.