Collectors’ Items

01.28.14

The Art of Football Trading Cards

Just in time for Super Bowl XLVIII, a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art takes a look back at the storied history of football through old-fashioned trading cards.

While millions of Americans huddle in front of their TVs to watch the 48th annual Super Bowl on Sunday, tens of thousands of dedicated fans will be braving the frigid weather in New York to attend the festivities at MetLife Stadium.

GALLERY: Gridiron Greats: Vintage Football at the Met (PHOTOS)

Love of the game runs so strong in these football devotees that the average ticket price on StubHub has hit $3,715, with the most expensive going for an eye-popping $10,557. With the arrival of these football fanatics in mind, the Met (no, not the stadium in New Jersey) has staged a new pop-up exhibition just in time for the Super Bowl.

Gridiron Greats, now open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, displays the priceless collection of vintage football cards from collector Jefferson R. Burdick. A former electrician from Syracuse, Burdick donated his astonishing assortment of nearly 303,000 trade and postcards to the museum, 150 of which are now being shown for the first time.

For old-timers looking to educate their youngsters, highlights include cards featuring Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, Jim Thorpe, and Tom Landry.

“Cards from as far back as 1894 show black-and-white photos of Ivy League stars posing in their sweaters.”

This exhibit helps to underscore the importance of football to America’s history and culture. Baseball, nicknamed America’s pastime, is seen as having a long and well-chronicled past, with stories of legends dominating the game for over a century. The collection on display at the Met does the same thing for football, presenting cards from as far back as 1894, produced by the P.H. Mayo Company, which show black-and-white photos of Ivy League stars posing in their sweaters. One of these, John Dunlop who played for Harvard, can sell for up to $15-20,000 if it’s in perfect condition.

Today, great action shots of football are the norm, as hundreds of photographers with their giant cameras line the lengths of the field during games. Despite the technology gap, photographers during professional football’s infancy also captured some great moments. In addition to Burdick’s card collection, black and white photographs of the game are also on display. One shows running back Harold “Red” Grange in motion. The photograph “Wes Fesler Kicking a Football,” from the Ford Motor Company Collection, was captured by MIT’s Dr. Harold Edgerton and is amazing in its detail—it captures the moment the foot connects, creating a puncture in the football. Upon closer inspection, you’ll see, “At the top of the ball, note the dust suspended in mid-air as the rapidly accelerated ball leaves,” as the photographer wrote.

Needless to say, it’s a good idea to head to the (other) Met in New York City to get a little perspective before rushing to see the action live at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.