NEW YORK -- Football at the Met. No, not Metlife Stadium, where the Super Bowl will make history next week. The Met, as in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The venerable institution is presenting a pop-up exhibition celebrating football’s history through the ages with vintage trading cards. It opened Friday and runs through Feb. 10.
The 150 cards, beginning with a series from 1894, are part of approximately 600 football cards from the museum’s vast collection of 300,000 trading cards donated to the Met by the late card collector and cataloger Jefferson Burdick. All predate the founding of a national football league in 1920 and the first Super Bowl in 1967.
The cards — which feature football greats, lesser-known collegiate players, owners and teams — were inserted into such products as candy, gum and tobacco.
With the Super Bowl being played Feb. 2 in nearby East Rutherford, N.J., the first time the game is being held outdoors in a cold-weather city, organizing the “Gridiron Greats” exhibition was a natural, said Freyda Spira, the Met’s assistant curator of the department of drawings and prints.
Art for the masses
While some may view such an exhibition at the Met as an anomaly, the Burdick collection is part of the museum’s mission to include printed material “for a mass public,” Spira said.
“Commercially printed lithographs are part of our printed visual culture,” she added. “It’s viewed within the spectrum of what art is.”
The earliest cards, produced by the P.H. Mayo Tobacco company, featured black and white photos of Ivy League football stars in collegiate sweaters.
The rarest card in the exhibition is of John Dunlop from Harvard. He is the only player in the series whose name and school affiliation were inexplicably omitted.
It’s not known how many Dunlop cards are in existence but one in perfect condition can sell for $15,000 to $20,000, said Bob Swick, publisher and editor of Gridirons Greats magazine.
Among the greats, the collection features Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, whose career included six national college championships and entry into the Hall of Fame in 1951, the first year of induction.
The cards “present a very historical view of where the game of football came from,” Swick said.
The sport began as an intercollegiate game that fused soccer and rugby. Athletic clubs eventually formed football leagues. The most powerful, the Ohio League, became the American Professional Football Conference in 1920 before changing its name to the National Football League two years later.
In living color
Many of the sets are beautiful color lithographs that depict the players in action. A 1935 National Chicle Gum Co. set includes Hall of Famer Turk Edwards, a Washington State tackle whose nine-year NFL career with the Washington Redskins ended after an injury during a coin toss in a 1940 game against the New York Giants.
There’s also a 1936 Chicle luxury set of black and white photos that includes University of Illinois running back Harold “Red” Grange, who went on to play with the Chicago Bears and whose speed earned him the moniker “The Galloping Ghost.”
Other notable players include Kenneth Washington, the first black player in the NFL, and Hall of Famer Sid Luckman, one of the first Jewish players in professional football. There’s also a 1952 rookie card of Frank Gifford, who was the New York Giants’ No. 1 draft pick.
Burdick, an electrician from Syracuse, began donating his 300,000-card collection to the Met in 1947. In organizing the material at the Met over a 15-year period, He died in 1963.