Saturday, December 5, 2009

Keith's Key Kard Korner: December 2009

The 1951 Bowman #4 – Norm Van Brocklin (Rookie Card)

A bubble gum production factory is a most unusual place in which to produce enduring artistic works. However, in the early 1950s, the Bowman Gum Company of Philadelphia dropped some sick-looking cardboard rectangles depicting NFL players that may very well fit that description. At that time, an unwary public had more infatuation with baseball’s Golden Age. Hence, relatively few football cards were produced. Kids collected sports cards. The product of those facts is that exceedingly few examples of these smartly designed and brilliantly colored images have endured. Their desirability today is only heightened by the fact that the popularity of the modern football game has surged.

Bowman issued more Spartan releases in 1948 and 1950 with obverses devoid of player name and team logo. In 1951, Bowman tweaked their card size to 2-1/16” x 3-1/8” from the more square designs used previously. Both portrait and landscape-oriented designs were employed. Also, a name box and team logo were added to the card. The football logos used in those days were more detailed so Bowman had to incorporate a large size logo. On some cards, this works well and on others the big logo seems to dominate one quadrant of the card.

Some player cards of the 1951 Bowman Football set have a number of the above ingredients working well. One special card exists within this set benefits from a remarkable confluence of all characteristics of a classic and desirable sports card; and effectively a miniature work of art. Card #4, Norm Van Brocklin is simultaneously a Rookie card, a Hall Of Fame card, a low number card, a quarterback card, an attractively-logoed card, a depiction of a championship winner, and a well-designed card with chromatics ablaze that belongs to a highly popular vintage set. Not coincidentally, it’s a very desirable card today.

On the card, the 1949 NFL Draft pick appears to be doing what he does best – leaning back away from the defense with a mild competitive grimace while using his renowned keen insight and decision-making ability to find an open receiver. Van Brocklin was known for his field generalship rather than scrambling ability. In this pose, one can imagine the nine-time Pro Bowl player keeping away from a Sam Huff pass rush while peering for one of his two Hall Of Fame receivers Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch or Tom Fears.

The card design benefits from the fact that the Los Angeles Rams were the first professional football team to use logos on their helmets, separating early Rams cards from their plain-helmeted contemporaries. The background color of the Van Brocklin card is similar enough in color to his cobalt jersey to offer compliment, yet contrasting enough to distinguish the player. A feature common to the issue is the “glow” or angelic “aura” cast around the athlete’s body.

The card background is a sweeping display of artistry. As the color palette distances itself from the iridescent glow and away from the player’s body out to the card border, the effect is a breathtaking transition of azure hues – periwinkle, sky blue, beryl, indigo, violet, and midnight blue.

It is of this author’s personal opinion that this may be the most aesthetically pleasing sports card ever produced. The fact that the artistry reaches a high level is paradoxical considering that it depicts the ultimate hard-hitting man’s game. However, it is no more paradoxical than the fact that this artwork is found on a football card produced in a humble bubble gum factory.

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