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....


Anonymous said...

A good chronicle of the many versions of the Packer uniform through the years. I do think you omiited one important change that was made to the 'G' helmet logo around 1971. first, here's the original logo (designed in 1961 by Dad Braisher), depicted in this photo of Bart Starr from the mid-1960s:

Notice, for starters, that the background is not an ellipse, but slightly pear-shaped, with the narrower end being near the front side of the helmet. Second, notice how the left side of the 'G is thickened and elongated to the left, filling in the background except for a very thin outline. Now, compare that logo to the current one, shown here in this photo of Aaron Rodgers:

Notice how the background has become a symmetrical ellipse, and how the left side of the 'G has been rounded off, making it look rather generic. Notice too how the 'G no longer hugs the border of the background, reducing its visual effect.

Of course there have been other changes over the years -- adding striping on the collar, taking away the stripes on the socks, etc., but none seems as unnecessary as the change in the helmet logo. Shouldn't we keep the same 'G' as was worn by Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Carroll Dale, Boyd Dowler, Ray Nitschke, Jerry Kramer and Herb Adderley? The 'G' that was good enough for Lombardi? The 'G' that was dynamic, beautiful, and the class of the NFL?

Chance Michaels said...

I can't agree more about the importance of that change. I didn't cover it because I'm still trying to construct the exact timeline.

It's a subject worthy of its own article, one I hope to finish soon.