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NEW YORK—Football at the Met. No, not Metlife Stadium where the Super Bowl will make history next month. The Met, as in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The institution is presenting a pop-up exhibition celebrating football’s history through the ages with vintage trading cards. It opens Jan. 24 and runs through Feb. 10.
The 150 cards, beginning with a series from 1894, are part of approximately 600 football cards from the museum’s vast collection of 300,000 trading cards donated to the Met by the late card collector and cataloger Jefferson Burdick. All predate the founding of a national football league in 1920 and the first Super Bowl in 1967.
The cards—which feature football greats, lesser-known collegiate players, owners and teams—were inserted into such products as candy, gum, and tobacco.
With the Super Bowl being played Feb. 2 in nearby East Rutherford, N.J., the first time the game is being held outdoors in a cold-weather city, organizing the “Gridiron Greats” exhibition was a natural, said Freyda Spira, the Met’s assistant curator of the department of drawings and prints.
While some may view such an exhibition at the Met as an anomaly, the Burdick collection is part of the museum’s mission to include printed material “for a mass public,” Spira said.
“Commercially printed lithographs are part of our printed visual culture,” she added. “It’s viewed within the spectrum of what art is.”
The earliest cards, produced by the P.H. Mayo Tobacco company, featured black and white photos of Ivy League football stars in collegiate sweaters.
The rarest card in the exhibition is of John Dunlop from Harvard. He is the only player in the series whose name and school affiliation were inexplicably omitted.
It’s not known how many Dunlop cards are in existence but one in perfect condition can sell for $15,000 to $20,000, said Bob Swick, publisher and editor of Gridirons Greats magazine.
Among the greats, the collection features Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, whose career included six national college championships and entry into the Hall of Fame in 1951, the first year of induction.
The cards “present a very historical view of where the game of football came from,” Swick said.
Burdick, an electrician from Syracuse, N.Y., began donating his 300,000-card collection to the Met in 1947. In organizing the material at the Met over a 15-year period, Burdick devised a classification system that has become the standard for cataloging trading cards. He died in 1963.
Burdick’s collection has offered the museum ample material for special exhibitions over the years, including one on baseball cards, of which he amassed 30,000.
Other museums in and around the city presenting Super Bowl-related exhibitions include The Children’s Museum of Manhattan, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, and the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J.