Friday, February 17, 2012

Mystery - 1921 Game Photo?

This astounding 1921 photo was sold at auction by Mears two months ago.

This is the catalog description:
1921 Curly Lambeau Green Bay Packers 14"x19" Rookie Action Mounted Original Studio Photo - First Glimpse at the Birth of a Franchise (Buff Wagner Estate) MEARS LOA

Simply put, the most historic Green Bay Packer image ever offered.

Buff Wagner stood 5'9" tall and weighed 165 pounds and hailed from Marinette, Wi. He also had the distinction of playing for the 1920 & 1921 Green Bay Packers. A young football player from Green Bay named Curly Lambeau joined the team in 1921, Wagner’s final season in the NFL.

In a freak-like premonition, a local photographer named F. Thomas captured a Sunday’s game of early NFL football. Similar to the feat Charles Conlon accomplished twelve years prior when he captured the image of Cobb with spikes flying high, lens man F. Thomas immortalized early Green Bay Packers history and the rise of Curly Lambeau with this early pigskin image.

The image itself is masterful, with 11 Packers facing an unidentified opponent in an attempt at a goal line score. The Green Bay Packers are seen moving left to right, wearing simple canvas pants, long sleeved solid colored jerseys with simple shoulder pads with light colored uniform numbers on reverse. Floppy eared leather football helmets barely protect the heads of the combatants. Wooden cleats can be seen fighting with turf in an attempt to maintain a hard fought position. The Packers offensive surge seems to be working, as the defenders, wearing dark, long sleeved jerseys with stripes appear to be on their heels. Both teams wear striped socks. A light dusting of freshly fallen snow covers the frozen tundra of a battlefield of unknown future epic proportions.

A local business, the "Allouez Water and Beverage" company painted advertising sign is prominently displayed just a few feet behind the end zone. Keeping with the simplicity of the times, the goal post is constructed with (3) pieces of 2x4's, just big enough to serve its purpose. By my count, 35+ spectators neatly dressed with long coats and derby hats are there to support the newly born team, a far cry from the 72,900+ found at today’s Packers game. The detail is simp(ly) amazing.

Whether by pure luck or a desire to chronicle his football career, Buff Wagner commissioned this image from the photographer, and it remained in the possession of his family until about the year 2000. The photo is dated by the intersection of Buff Wagner & Curly Lambeau's career, 1921.

About the image itself, it is from the Packers second professional season, and Curly Lambeau's first. Fittingly, Curly Lambeau is running the ball, making it the earliest action image of Lambeau known. This is also the earliest known action photo of the Green Bay Packers franchise. A first generation (Type 1) studio photo, this image boasts phenomenal content, clarity, and contrast. The image (10"x16") itself is near mint, with only a small ¾" diameter spot on the border of the left edge. The photographer mounted the image on a 13.5" x 19" basic cardboard mount, which has some wear. A 2" tear is found on the upper border of the mount, and a small piece is missing on the bottom left corner. A final small piece of the mount is peeled back from the bottom right border. None of the mount conditions affect the actual image. In oxidized period fountain pen, "F. Thomas, Green Bay, Wis." is neatly penned in the bottom right corner.

LOA Troy R. Kinunen / MEARS
It's truly spectacular.

If this is truly from 1921, then the setting would likely be Hagemeister Park.

But wait - is that really the Packers? I'm not convinced. Let's take a look.

That could be Curly Lambeau, but I can't be entirely sure.

The uniforms are the much bigger problem for me. 1921 was, of course, the first season that the Packers were sponsored by the Acme Packing Company, and the players wore "ACME PACKERS" on their jerseys.

I don't see any evidence of that in the auction photo. I also don't recognize those socks. They don't look like anything I've seen the Packers wear in the few photos we have of that time.

Compare these two uniforms:

I've never seen those distinctive striped socks. All the early Packer photos I've seen have solid navy socks, light at the bottom:

The light color is usually presumed to be white sanitary socks, although at least one source has suggested that they may have been gold. Either way, no stripes.

Also calling the authenticity into question are the numbers on the "Packers" backs.

The earliest I can confirm the Packers were wearing numbers is 1925, from the Packers themselves. Of course, the team hasn't always been the best steward of its own history, but this would be a big deal if we could confirm jersey numbers as early as 1921.

Finally, the description of Hagemeister Park as having goal posts "constructed with (3) pieces of 2x4's, just big enough to serve its purpose" seems wrong to me. So far as I know, it had iron posts (and in fact, the Packers Hall of Fame has been selling mounted slices of those posts for the past several years). That would make this a road game, possibly?

The auction description itself is odd - "A young football player from Green Bay named Curly Lambeau joined the team in 1921"? Come on, that's Packers 101. They seem to have authenticated this photo entirely on the years Buff Wagner played for the Packers, but then they make an amateur goof on the team's founder. Plus, what's to say that even if this is a photo of Wagner that didn't play semi-pro ball at any time?

Problem after problem. Nothing adds up here. 

I'm extremely reluctant to find fault with a MEARS authentication, but this sure doesn't look like the Packers to me, 1921 or otherwise.

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