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Metropolitan Museum of Art Tackles Some Gridiron Greats

With Super Bowl XLVIII a little more than a week away, football fever has gripped every corner of New York City. And that includes one of the world's biggest art museums.

Starting today, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art can see a selection of football cards printed between 1894-1959 in the exhibition Gridiron Greats: Vintage Football Cards in the Collection of Jefferson R. Burdick. Photographs, magazines, and a varsity football sweater taken from the the museum’s collections are also part of the show.

There are about 150 cards on view. They were selected from the Met's Burdick Collection of 500-600 football cards and more than 30,000 baseball cards, and they span the earliest days of the sport.

"This exhibit is really about tracing the history of the game back to where it began, with Princeton and Rutgers in their first game in the 1860s and sort of bringing it through American visual culture," says FreydaSpira, assistant curator in the Met's Department of Drawings and Prints. "I want people to get a sense of where we've come from and how things have changed."

The oldest cards in the show are from the first set of football cards ever made. Manufactured in 1894, they’re long and thin like early baseball cards but with black-and-white images instead of color.

The cards feature university players who have been mostly forgotten — with one exception. Harvard’s John Dunlop is known, at least to collectors, because his card is the rarest, most valuable football card in the world. Why? For some reason, it was printed without his name and team.

"People really like error cards, things that have weird things about them," Spira says. "And it was at the end of the set, so it sort of is more rare because it would get more beat up. So he’s our Honus Wagner of football cards.”

The Dunlop is one of a few special cards in Gridiron Greats. The Met also has cards featuring legendary players like Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, BronkoNagurski, and Frank Gifford. There’s also a card of Kenneth Washington, the NFL’s first black player.

These other cards come from sets released in the 1930s and 1950s, and they track the evolution of the game. As professional football became more popular, the cards began showing players from NFL clubs in action shots or in heroic portraits. Some of these cards are still in black and white. But others capture players in beautiful, eye-popping color.

To use an art-world comparison: The earliest cards look like old Civil War photographs, while the newer ones look like they were painted by a Pop artist.

“I wanted to show a range of different kinds of imagery and styles,” Spira says. “Especially in the context of the museum, it's nice to have that range so that you can make those visual jumps between things.”

It might seem weird to go to museum like the Met to see old football memorabilia. But when you see the cards in Gridiron Greats hanging on the wall, it’s immediately clear: These are works of art.

Gridiron Greats will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 10. Visit the museum’s website to see more cards from the exhibition.

Photos courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

girdiron greats metropolitan museum of art