One joy of studying history, especially the 20th Century, is to see how life has changed. To my great satisfaction, our daughter Karyn has a fondness for the subject and especially the aspect of it that shows how people lived then versus now, particularly as reflected in popular culture.
As some folks know, I still collect sports and non-sports cards. I believe in the adage that he who dies with the most baseball cards wins. Such cards and related ephemera are a great reflection of the times when they were produced and a deep insight into the real history and culture of their eras.
Recently, I acquired a reprint set of the first issue of football cards, which included 35 National Football League players and the immortal Knute Rockne, who had coached at Notre Dame and shaped much of the early game.
The original set, produced in 1935 by the National Chicle Co. of Cambridge MA is too expensive for a non-corrupt former elected official, because it includes the most valuable football card ever, number 34 Bronko Nagurski, as well as number 9 Rockne. They can command five-figure prices in near-mint condition. My reproductions, easily distinguished from the real items, cost a few dollars.
Among other things, all the players are pictured in actual football poses, not with fur coats, bling and shades as some stars have been in recent years. The front sides are art, not photographs, and they use very bright colors, attractive compositions and simple designs with football backgrounds.
The text on the back of the cards, written by Eddie Casey, then coach of the Boston Redskins and formerly Harvard, shows how real sports and life were then as compared to today.
A few things really struck me. The first was the line in Nagurski’s biography on the back that said: “A product of the wheat farm country, he stills works the soil between action on the football field and professional wrestling mat.” This is a great example of a feature of many cards even into the middle-1950s: the discussion of the player’s off-season job.
Their pay was so modest that many had to hold an off-season job for a decent living. Quite the opposite of the sometimes multi-million-dollar guaranteed levels even for rookies in some professional leagues now and the long-term contracts with mid-eight-figure annual pay for some stars.
After baseballer Carl Furillo won the National League batting crown in 1953, he returned to his winter job as an elevator repairman for Otis Elevators, according to one of his cards. Perhaps more than any other fact, that illustrates what I mean about life being real then.
Another item is that the text on the first 27 cards is essentially a tutorial for kids and adults on how to play certain positions and actions, as depicted by the player on the front. From all aspects of kicking, passing, receiving and handling the ball both in the open field and when plunging into the line to the need for defensive ends on kickoffs to stay in their lanes and turn the ball carrier to the middle of the field, etc.
These cards were meant for real fans of the time, not for kids ripping open packs to find a rare insert or special card.
A third aspect of how real everything was then is the height and weight statistics. Only one of the 35 players tipped the scales above 220 pounds (number 11 Turk Edwards at 250) and none were taller than 6’ 3”. Some colleges today have all their starting linemen at 300 pounds plus.
Perhaps the most endearing thing is that coach Casey knew his football, as shown in the final text on Nagurski: “He is as much a tradition to [his alma mater] Minnesota football today as Red Grange is to Illinois.”
The text on the next card ends: “Now, reaching the end of his professional career as a player he is following the footsteps of Red Grange in becoming an assistant coach to the bears.”
Illini fans then and now have always known that Grange was the greatest college football player ever.
Now, if only daughter Karyn will develop a taste for card collecting.