Thursday, October 28, 2010

You Old Sew-and-Sew

This promotional photo of fearsome linebacker Ray Nitschke opens a small window into the NFL of the late 1960s:

Looks standard enough, but a closer look reveals the lengths to which the Packers used to go in order to keep a jersey on the field. Look at the repairs the team has made across his shoulders:

We've seen extreme examples of team repairs before, along the bottom of this 1949 Bill Kelley sideline jacket:

And across the chest and shoulders of this 1951 Jim Ringo jersey:

So there's nothing new in the team wielding needle and thread to get a few more games' life out of a uniform.

What's interesting to me is that the Packers used the battered and stitched-together jersey for a promotional photo. He looks oddly out of place against a studio backdrop; they might as well have depicted him splattered with mud.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ninety Years in Watercolor

Chronicling the uniform history of an NFL franchise, particularly one with roots reaching back beyond the Super Bowl era, can be a challenging pursuit. Records are spotty, good photos are few and far between (and then are almost always in shades of silver), and the teams themselves don't have a clear picture of their past.

One organization which has been doing the heavy lifting for years is Maple Leaf Productions. Since 2000, Maple Leaf has manufactured a line of plaques, mugs and other merchandise emblazoned with the uniform histories of NHL, MLB, and NFL clubs. The Packers' entry features thirteen classic uniforms (originally twelve; the 2005 road uniform was added in later printings) above the slogan "ALL TEAMS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL".

Maple Leaf takes representations from various eras rather then every single uniform worn on the field, providing a broad yet intriguing sampling of a team's visual history. This means that Curly Lambeau's signature gold-yoked navy uniform, which defined much of his tenure, is relegated to the 1994 throwback version, and the classic mid-1930s kelly green and gold jerseys worn in the 1936 World Championship season, are missing altogether, and the 1950s, a period of great uniform experimentation for the Packers, is represented only by the rather bland 1952 green-over-gold. But I suppose lines have to be drawn somewhere.

For a few years, the same images were used by the Packers on the History page of the team's website, but that was lost in a recent re-design. Today, the images can be found at the Packers Pro Shop, which sells a magnet set featuring jerseys from four different eras in the team's history:

What's not obvious from either the plaques or magnets is how beautiful the individual artwork is. Each watercolor is a masterpiece. The original twelve were painted by Toronto-based artist Tino Paolini, as explained by Maple Leaf Productions founder Scott Sillcox in a recent Uni Watch interview:

Tino specializes in rich, detailed color — many layers of color, so that the watercolor almost looks like an oil painting. He’s extremely detailed, right down to the stitching.
They are beautiful, although the small format fails to do them justice. Fortunately, Maple Leaf is currently offering the original artwork for sale, giving us a closer look at these images than we've had before.

The first painting is of the famous "ACME PACKERS" jersey worn by the team in 1921.

Gorgeous. They then skip over the plain-navy jerseys of the mid-1920s in favor of the 1929 uniform which has been in the news lately.

Next up is the white alternate jersey introduced in 1938. This would soon be familiar to fans, as it would be the basis for a Thanksgiving Throwback uniform in 2001.

Unfortunately, this is where Lambeau's classic uniform would have been featured, but they chose instead to skip ahead to another white alternate, this time the gold-yoked version from 1946.

Note also that the helmet design is changing; Maple Leaf did its homework. Where the first three helmets were representations of styles which might have been worn (or not worn) at the time, by this time the Packers had more or less standardized the helmet style. This illustration is similar to the 1940s Charley Brock leather helmet I have in my collection.

We then leave behind the 1940s, and the Curly Lambeau era, in favor of this 1952 design, representative of Gene Ronzani's tenture as head coach.

With that, we leap firmly into the Lombardi era, skipping his early experiments with number fonts and beginning with the classic 1966 home green, which for many remains the Packer uniform.

Almost heartbreaking in its elegance, especially when compared to the small "improvements" which have been collectively chipping away at a near-perfect design ever since. Here's hoping that Nike does something to fix the sleeve stripes.

Not to be left out, the early Super Bowl era also contributes the 1967 road whites.

Minor problem - Lombardi's white jerseys had striped collars going all the way back to 1959.

They certainly had the distinctive green/gold/green collar stripes in 1967.

The 1967 uniform painting also raises an interesting issue with Maple Leaf - by 1967, #4 had already been retired for the legendary Don Hutson. Seems strange to see it on a Lombardi-era uniform. This was deliberate, as Sillcox noted:
When I first got the NHL license, I sat down with the NHL people and said, "Now guys, can I show real uniform numbers?" And the NHL said, "Yes you can. We control the uniform numbers." And I said, "Great."

So we published our first two posters — Canadiens and Maple Leafs — and basically the day they came out I got a phone call from a guy the NHL Players Association, and he said, "So how much are you paying George Armstrong for the use of his jersey?" And I said, "The NHL tells me I don’t have to." And he said, "Well, we disagree." And he basically suggested that I pull the posters off the market and re-do them without real numbers — or else pay the players a royalty.

So I went back to the NHL, and they said, "Tell the P.A. to jump in the lake." So I went back to the P.A., and they said, "That's fine — we’ll see you in court." So then I went back to the NHL and they said, "Scott, change your posters."

And from then on, we only showed uniform numbers that were either not worn by the team that season, or else were worn by more than one player that season, so it’s impossible to tie the number to a specific person.
The next painting is an odd choice, especially when considering how many great uniforms were left off. This 1976 uniform is essentially the same as the Lombardi design, although the sleeves have begun their inevitable march to oblivion. Even the helmet is essentially unchanged, with green facemasks still four years in the future.

The next uniform, from 1984, shows Forrest Gregg's changes to his old coach's design. Lots of new details added, but with the exception of the neck stripes and moving the television numbers to the shoulders, all would be subsequently undone.

Next comes the 1994 throwback. There's Don Hutson's #14 again.

The 1994 uniform is the first one which should have the manufacturer's logo—in this case Starter—but Maple Leaf wisely chose to leave those off.

This road uniform from 1996 features the last appearance of Lombardi's original striping pattern; in 1997, Nike took over the Packers' uniform contract and removed one level of striping.

The final painting of the original twelve shows the final Packer uniform of the Nike era. This is a beat of a cheat for Maple Leaf's "no active player" policy - although dated from the 2000 season, it is identical to the Packers uniform worn in 1999 and 1998, which was the last year Reggie White wore #92.

A thirteenth painting, by Nola McConnan, was added to the lineup in 2005, featuring that season's road uniform.

Sillcox describes McConnan's work this way:
Nola is a little more about light and angles and wrinkles — there’s a little more life in her images, as if the jersey were on a living person instead of a mannequin.
I don't dislike her work, but I don't think it stands up quite as well as that of Paolini.

I'll concede that's not a great scan of the painting, but even in the finished product one uniform rendering stands out awkwardly from the others:

So there you have it - a quick overview of some of the many uniforms the Packers have worn over their ninety-plus years of gridiron history, thanks to the work of Scott Sillcox and Maple Leaf Productions.

And, incidentally, if anyone's interested in adding The Green Bay Packers Uniform Database to your Christmas list, I'd love that 1921 watercolor....

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pushed Back

Reminder - LOMBARDI has its official opening at the Circle in the Square Theatre in midtown Manhattan this Thursday.

I had tickets to see it next week, but I'm hip-deep in rehearsals for my production of Paul Claudel's BREAK OF NOON at the Storm Theatre, and I just can't take a night off. Even for Vince.

My show (tickets on sale now!) runs through the end of November; hopefully I'll be able to see LOMBARDI before the general holiday craziness kicks in.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Exit Vector, Enter Swoosh

The NFL has announced that Nike will be taking over the league's uniform contract, beginning in 2012. Although Nike has taken some well-deserved heat for its designs, including its previous brief foray in the NFL, this has the potential to be spectacularly good news for the Packers.

Nike previously supplied the Packers' uniforms from 1997 through 2001, taking over the contract from Starter, which had been supplying the Green and Gold since 1992. The Nike era was relatively brief, coming to an end when the NFL eliminated individual team contracts and granted Reebok the first league-wide agreement starting with the 2001 season. The most notable change during the Nike era was the reduction of sleeve stripes from five to three, to fit the cap sleeves of the modern jersey cut:

So Nike is now back in the locker room, and we can hope that the Packers' sleeve stripes will be on their agenda once again.

In particular, I'm hopeful that this new manufacturing contract may result in the restoration of Lombardi's original design. Nike, after all, was responsible for Oregon State's throwback uniforms, which managed to blend 60s design and 21st Century uniform manufacturing:

I've been advocating a similar move for years. With Nike making the uniforms, the odds of it happening just went up.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Farewell, Vernon Biever

Green Bay Packers

Sad news out of Green Bay, as former team photographer Vernon Biever (pictured above on the sidelines with Vince Lombardi) has passed away at the age of 87.

He was the team's longtime photograper (possibly the first of his kind in the NFL), and his photographs are the definitive chronicle of the Packers' early decades.

In particular, those of us interested in the Packers' sartorial history owe him a debt of gratitude, as much of what we know about the team's early days comes from his work.

Green Bay Packers

Virtually every iconic Packers photo, from this glorious mud-encrusted Forrest Gregg to Lombardi being lifted onto Jerry Kramer's shouder after Super Bowl II, came from Beiver's camera.

In honor of his passing, the Green Bay Press Gazette is running archives of his work here and here.

Courtesy of the Biever family

Biever is survived by his sons John (left) and Jim, who followed him into the business. John is a photographer for Sports Illustrated and Jim continues to work for the Packers.

Official prints of Beiver's artwork are available through The Gallery of Sports Art, Inc. and the Green Bay Packers Official Photo Store.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"If Found, Please Return to..."

Reader Jeremy Weber sent in this great tip from yesterday's game (and Tim O'Donnell has added a clearer photo).

Last year, the Packers added small green identification numbers to the back of the helmet. It appears that they have altered the style for this season, seen here on punter Tim Masthay.

Don't know about this. Although adding the name may make identification easier, it seems as though putting the number in the oval will make it harder to read. This is obviously intended for the players and not fans (unless this is some brilliant/cynical ploy to "authenticate" game-worn items for the team's charity auctions), but even on HD this blurs to an indistinguishable green blob at any distance.

Not to mention it further clutters the alread-overcrowded real estate. Do we really need five separate decals on the back of each helmet?