Got a really interesting communiqué the other day from reader Matthew Earl, as follow:
I was interested in getting something that had the Lions’ new logo/helmet on it, so I was lured in by this T-shirt, which I mail-ordered as a unique uni item. (For clarification, the dates under each helmet read, from left to right: 1950, 1960, 1983, 2003, and Present).
The obvious question I have for you is this: What’s the deal with the 1950 gold helmet? I had assumed that licensed clothing is accurate, but I began to question this after I received the shirt. The Lions’ press release regarding their new uniforms includes a breakdown of uni changes made over the years, including mentions blue helmets occasionally being used. But the word “gold” doesn’t appear in that breakdown.
My own research has turned up only one possible reference to the Lions using a gold helmet: this auction item, which was supposedly worn by Bobby Layne in 1953 — not the 1950 referenced on the shirt.
Given all this information, I felt I had no recourse but to return the shirt for a refund, as I was opening myself up to an indefensible discussion at best and ridicule at worst.
OK, there’s a lot to chew on here, not the least of which is Matthew’s “[assumption] that licensed clothing is accurate.” As many of you know by now, licensed gear often has all sorts of errors — sometimes due to sloppy work on the licensee’s part, sometimes due to the sketchy nature of historical data.
Are any of those factors at work here? Tough to say. I’m not aware of the Lions having worn gold helmets, but pre-1959 NFL history isn’t well documented, so there are plenty of gaps in my mental database. According to Tim Brulia’s Pro Football Uniform History Project, the Lions wore silver, blue, and red helmets at various points over the years (yes, red), but there’s no mention of gold. Then again, Tim frequently sends me updates and revisions as he uncovers new data, so maybe the gold helmet — which could look very much like a silver helmet in a black-and-white newspaper photo — is just something he missed. Tim, do you know anything about this?
Meanwhile, let’s go back to that Bobby Layne helmet. The auction listing states the following:
The gold was a break from tradition; the silver [stripe] held a link to the franchise’s formidable past, thus the combination. It should also be noted that during the 1953 season, the Lions wore the gold helmet with a silver center stripe during 12 out of 13 regular season games, including the NFL Championship game. On Saturday night, October 3rd, during a 27-17 victory against the Colts in Baltimore, they wore solid royal blue helmets. The entire 1953 season of Lions game highlights were reviewed, and the gold helmet/silver center stripe styling is apparent throughout, save for the Colts’ night game.
Another issue, which needs edification, is the “amateurish” greenish splotches [that] adorn the helmet’s shell. One might think that a professional football helmet would never have such discoloration. While that assumption is probably correct even for the 1950s, there is a plausible explanation. The gold paint used during this period was not pure; it was a blend of yellow, golds, and copper. The copper pigments had a tendency to degrade and turn green. A picture of an early 1950s Lions helmet was used on the four-color cover of Myron Cope’s book, ‘The Game That Was.’ It depicts the same greenish discoloration.
Fortunately, there exists an exact mate to this helmet from another Lions superstar legend, Doak Walker. The Pro Football Hall of Fame has Walker’s complete uniform from 1953 — jersey, pants, shoes, and helmet. The helmet shows identical greenish degradation to the shell.
Now, there’s a lot of typical auction house bullshit in that text (“formidable past,” “superstar legend,” blah-blah-blah — can the flowery prose and just give us the facts, please), but you get the gist: According to the auction text, there are at least two other examples of gold Lions helmets floating around out there — the Myron Cope book cover and the Doak Walker uni at the Hall of Fame.
I haven’t been able to find an image of the book cover (anyone have that book?) or had time to check with the Hall (oh, but wait, someone already posted this in the comments, so there you go), but that’s sort of beside the point. The big issue here, which we’re experiencing for the umpteenth time, is that pro football uniform history is woefully underdocumented. If the auction listing is correct, then the Lions’ uni history listed on the team’s own web site is inaccurate (and so is Tim Brulia’s listing, but that’s more forgivable); if the info on the Lions’ site is accurate, then the auction house is pulling a fast one — and is able to do so with impunity because there are so few resources that allow us to confirm or reject the info in the auction listing. Either way, it’s a mess.
I’m interested in knowing whether the Lions ever wore a gold lid, but I’m a lot more interested in getting the NFL’s uniform history sorted out. It’s situations like this one that really make you appreciate Marc Okkonen. His MLB database, for all its flaws, is miles beyond the sorry state of NFL documentation.
As for Matthew’s T-shirt, I’d say the jury’s still out. Maybe the Lions did wear a gold helmet in 1950. Or maybe not. I suspect we’re a long way from knowing for sure.
Could someone please scrape me off the floor and dump me into bed?: Assuming we get all the finishing touches taken care of today (or tonight… or tomorrow morning…), the Candela Structures show will open tomorrow at noon at the City Reliquary in Brooklyn. Opening reception at 7pm Saturday evening, although it’ll be hard to actually see the exhibit once place fills up, so I’d suggest getting there by 6pm if you actually want to learn the story behind the structures. Of course, if you’d rather just drink and mingle, that’s fine too.
Teeny-Tiny Ticker: Reprinted from yesterday’s comments: Now that’s a bullpen buggy. … Neil Best ran a really interesting video clip of Branch Rickey discussing the Continental Baseball League (the proposed alternate league that would have brought baseball back to New York after the Dodgers and Giants left) on his blog yesterday. … All that’s wrong, and right, with life, in a nutshell (with thanks to Chris Lamping). … Chad Gaudin’s 40th-anniversary patch was missing from his right sleeve yesterday (as spotted by J.R. Gain). … Interesting piece here about MLS logos and branding (with thanks to Matt Carlson). … Lots of Yankee Stadium demolition photos here (with thanks to Kevin Rozell). … Whatever.