At last month’s Uni Watch party, reader Walter Helfer brought along an old sketchbook filled with amazing MLB uniform illustrations that he’d done in the early 1980s — one page for each MLB team. They were beautiful, detailed, and annotated with all sorts of pithy commentary. This was essentially Uni Watch before Uni Watch was Uni Watch.
As soon as I saw Walter’s illustrations, I knew I wanted to feature them here on the site, so I asked him to send me a batch of scans, which you can see above. I also invited him to write a little something about them. Here’s what he submitted:
I was an artistic kid and had trouble wrapping my head around sports. Always threw to the wrong base and couldn’t hang onto the basketball to save my life! But something clicked in eighth grade and I embraced hockey. The colors and iconography appealed to me, plus I knew how to skate. Baseball only started to grab my attention around my senior year in high school — there began to be enough teams with garish uniforms that caught my eye. I also realized I enjoyed watching pitchers and being able to tell them apart by watching their windups.
Drawing athletes and uniforms turned out to be a great icebreaker and allowed me to introduce myself to new kids and to network. I welcomed a genre that allowed me to practice copying graphics and typefaces, and hopefully overcome my colorblindness. It now occurs to me that the baseball pictures were my earliest stab at rendering an entire league; when I tried to move on and complete other sports projects, the exercises took on a rote quality and I started to become bored.
I hope nobody takes umbrage at the snarky things I said about certain teams. By the same token, when I tried to praise something, it often came off as over-earnest and corny. Keep in mind that all of these were the work of a 20-year-old.
The more I looked through Walter’s work, the more questions I wanted to ask him, so I conducted an email interview with him. Here’s how it went:
Uni Watch: So these illustrations were done in 1982, when you were 20 years old. Is that accurate?
Walter Helfer [that’s him at right]: Yes. I was a sophomore or junior in college. Drawing helped me to unwind between studies.
UW: What kind of art education did you have, if any, prior to doing these?
WH: Figure drawing in my first year of college; before that it was experimenting with paints and watercolors in high school, with some still life and sculpting. I have a vivid memory of a middle school art class where all the boys drew and colored in the football helmets of their favorite teams. That may have been the spark that turned me on to sports.
UW: Did you do all the drawings freehand, or did you employ tracing, projection, etc.?
WH: By this time I was drawing academically, building figures out of cylinders, spheres and cones, so yeah, it was freehand. I like tracing, but I had progressed beyond that point by the time I was seventeen.
UW: Did you use colored markers, colored pencils, paint, crayons, or what?
WH: You name it! Crayons were pretty well in my past. On a recommendation from my dad, I used Magic Markers. It was important to have a medium that dried quickly and wouldn’t come off on other sheets of paper when they rubbed together. You’ll notice t he white pinstripes on the Cubs’ road uniforms were done in white pencil; I hadn’t yet discovered the utility of Dr. Martin’s white ink or ruling pens. I wanted the option to take the pinstripes out if I didn’t like the way they looked! In college I discovered Pantone markers. They laid down a nice, even wash of gray or pastel blue for the road uniforms.
UW: Are all of the illustrations based on photographs? If so, do the illos match the teams of the original photos? In other words, would you sometimes use a photo of Team A to create an illustration depicting Team B (keeping the pose but swapping the uniform)? For example, the Brewers’ home player looks so much like Goose Gossage! Was that really a Brewer, or did you just put a Brewers uni on a depiction of Gossage? Similarly, the Twins home player looks like Steve Bedrosian.
WH: Actually, the Twins pitcher was modeled on Dick Tidrow. [D’oh! Should’ve known that. — PL] But I had favorite players, and Rich Gossage was one of them. Everything is modeled on a photograph, taken from a Street & Smith’s magazine or Baseball Digest, or what-have-you. I took pains to swap the uniforms; it was crucial to me to make that creative decision and render a team of my own choosing.
UW: It seems like you usually (but not always) depicted one player wearing fairly traditional stirrups and another player wearing much higher-cut stirrups. Was that intentional?
WH: No, that was the fashion in that era. Some guys had the spaghetti straps, others wore the stirrups in the Uni Watch-approved fashion. Even then I appreciated stripes on the stirrups, and made sure to call attention to them. Only a couple of players stood out, like George Hendrick or Rusty Staub.
UW: It seems like a surprisingly high percentage of your illustrations show players wearing eyeglasses. Coincidence, or was that something intentional on your part?
WH: No, that was by accident. Even though I’ve worn glasses since the second grade, and another of my favorite pitchers was Kent Tekulve, I wasn’t cognizant of it. You should mention this to my sister, the optometrist! She thinks I never draw anyone with eyeglasses!
UW: With a few exceptions, you always depicted white players. Again, coincidence or intentional?
WH: That is a coincidence, I’m afraid. I have a better angel who nudges me to make portraits of diverse groups of people, but that always follows a period of deliberation. When inspiration strikes, it takes the form of “Young white male frowns at a spaceship” or “Young white male boards a trolley car.” When I make an illustration of a woman or a person of color, it’s because I allowed the mental image to percolate for a few hours before committing it to paper. I’m not as color-blind as I would prefer.
UW: A lot of the players seem to have the same (or at least very similar) faces. Were these faces based on real people in
WH: As luck would have it, my favorite celebrity at that time was Adam Rich, the mop-topped child from Eight Is Enough. Look at my baby-headed Mariners infielder — infielder”>he wore No. 8! My favorite people always seemed to have big heads of hair, and Adam came on the scene at an auspicious time. I was drawn to mop-topped students at school, I liked shaggy cartoon characters, I liked hirsute athletes. Of course now I’m bald, so it’s karma!
UW: In a few instances, NOBs are visible on the backs of your jerseys, but the names shown (Hlubek, D’Benedetto) are names that don’t appear in the MLB player registry. What’s the story behind these names? Like, did you just invent generic NOBs, or do these names mean something to you?
WH: I used invented names, usually as an excuse to experiment with an especially lovely typeface, like the White Sox’s fancy block, or Philadelphia’s vertical arch. I think Dave Hlubek was the guitarist for Molly Hatchett, but I’m fuzzy on that! [True enough. — PL]
UW: You have (or at least had) interesting handwriting, especially your “E” and “A.” What’s that about?
WH: You have Rick Griffin to thank for that. Outside the sports realm, I enjoy psychedelic art and inventive lettering. (On a related note, if I ever buy a major league baseball team, Roger Dean is designing our lettering!
UW: Do you have other illustrations from other seasons, and/or for other sports?
WH: Hockey and football were right up there with baseball. Checking my archives, I see that I didn’t save as many of those pictures. Maybe they weren’t up to my high standards. If I colored in the uniform but neglected to outline the drawing with a thin black marker, that was problematic. It suggested I ran out of interest as soon as the uniform was done, and the rest of the drawing didn’t warrant finishing.
UW: Did you end up going into an artistic job/career/etc.?
WH: Yup, I’m a graphic artist in Manhattan. And things are trending upward, because I never have time to check in on Uni Watch when I’m at work!
UW: These drawings are now over 30 years old. Why have you saved them all these years?
WH: The completeness of the project seemed to warrant it. Usually, I’d embark on some sort of profound task, and lose interest a few entries in (typical Aries), but this was one I actually saw through that had some scope to it. If I’d done the Original Six NHL teams, I might have done it too quickly to appreciate it.
UW: Anything to add?
WH: Yeah, I published a comic book in 1989. It was called Oblivion, and I wrote it out of an urge to cash in on a trade that was wildly expanding. This was around the time of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and people who saw my sketchbook artwork were always saying, “You should totally do a comic book.” So I did, only I didn’t enjoy the writing. It was fatuous and turgid. Plus, I was a staff of one, and couldn’t follow a schedule. So by the time the second issue came out, my distributors had lost interest. Lessons learned: use someone else’s money next time, and find someone to do the writing.
Great stuff. Big thanks to Walter for sharing his artwork and thoughts. To everyone reading this, I strongly recommend spending some serious quality time with Walter’s illos and commentary — it’s totally worth it.
By Brinke Guthrie
Interesting item here (and shown above). The tag says it’s from Starter, but I’m not sure I believe that. Those are official Chicago Bears logos at the top, for sure — it’s that “other” Chicago logo that caught my eye. Sittin’ cross-legged on the floor, 25 or 6 to 4.
Okay, so what else do we have this week? Let’s take a look:
• Merry Christmas from your 1969 San Francisco 49ers.
• Look at this 1967 NFL electric football game. You didn’t get players with this version. Did these little colored helmet circle things all end up in the corner of the end zone, too?
• Check the quaint high school-style artwork on the cover of this 1966 Packers program. Can you imagine the NFL using this now?
• Speaking of cover artwork, this 1958 Rams yearbook cover just knocks me out. How clean and retro.
• Back in the day, even when I saw this at the local drugstore in Dallas as an 11-year-old, it bugged me: This Chargers gumball helmet was not even close to accurate.
• And I clearly remember these in Dallas too: a 1971 Springbok Cowboys puzzle. Didn’t get it ’cause puzzles frustrated me no end. They still do, actually. Nice artwork, though.
• And we wrap up this week’s haul with a grab bag of early-1970s NFL merch. What really interests me here is the 1970s NFL merchandise catalog. That could fill up a future Collector’s Corner installment all by itself!
Seen something on eBay or Etsy that you think would make good Collector’s Corner fodder? Send your submissions here.
Tick-Tock: Today’s Ticker was compiled and written by Garrett McGrath, except for ’Skins Watch, which was handled by Paul.
’Skins Watch: Here’s more on the move to restrict Native American team names in Houston schools. Key quote: “The time has come for the Houston Independent School District — the most vibrantly diverse school district in the nation — to acknowledge that some decisions made generations ago need to be reconsidered. Traditions are important. But respect for cultural difference and sensitivities matters more” (thanks, Phil).
Baseball News: The Yankees are adding a plaque in Monument Park for Nelson Mandela. It will be unveiled, fittingly, on Jackie Robinson Day. … Jarrod Saltalamacchia posed with his new Marlins jersey and his record-setting NOB yesterday at the Winter Meetings. … The Diamondbacks are auctioning off the opportunity to photobomb their 2014 team photo. … Boston Magazine is running a picture of Xander Bogaerts hugging the Commissioner’s Trophy on their cover this month–but he is wearing “Postseason” patches on his sleeve and cap (from Alex Spanko).
NFL News: “I don’t recall NFL officials doing this before,” Cork Gaines says. “In the Monday Night game, the ref wore a position-appropriate white head warmer, while the other officials had black head warmers.” … The Bears retired Mike Ditka’s No. 89 last night. And in a very cool move, they also retired his sweater vest. … 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh switched to wearing cleats on the sideline not for style but because he was wearing improper footwear when he tried to break up a sideline tussle on Oct. 20. “No traction,” Harbaugh says, “I don’t want to be in that situation again.” (from Jameson Costello) … The bloodclot Arizona Cardinals are 14-3 overall and have won 8 in a row including the win this past weekend over the Rams (from Michael McLaughlin). … We all know the Cowboys put little Dymo tape NOBs on their helmets — they’ve been doing it for decades. But check this out: Last night the Dymo label on Jason Witten’s helmet had his number and the name Betsy. According to some quick Googling, Betsy isn’t Witten’s nickname or anything like that. Anyone know more..? (Screen shot by Steve Sarran.)
College Football News: “Louis Nix is well known for his strong connection with the Notre Dame student body,” says an ND fan. “On Sunday he tweeted a picture notifying his followers that left a bag of team issue gear in the middle of South Quad on the Notre Dame campus. It did not take long for students to find.” … Clay White and Jeff Alexander noticed the trend of long and loose sleeves on players making a comeback during the Civil War game last month. The trend reminded them of Ken Dorsey.
Basketball News: The New York Knicks can shelve their new alternate orange jerseys, having worn them the league minimum sixth time on Sunday during their 114-73 blowout by the Celtics. They’re 0-6 in the orange jerseys.
Grab Bag: For the Masses: Chris Weber is trying to figure out who manufactured the San Fernando High School Football uniforms, any ideas? … MLS announced that the new World Cup ball will be used for next season. … The 1932 USA Olympic Bobsled Team had some terrifying masks (from Jake Elwell). … New logo in the works for the next generation of New York City cabs. … What would the union jack look like if the Scottish bit were removed? (from Tom Mulgrew) … $400 is a steal for this camo sport coat (from Patrick O’Neill). … “Simpson Race Product has taken the HANS device — a revolution in auto racing uniform safety systems — and made a number of changes to make it even more comfortable for the driver,” says David Firestone.