Wednesday, 29 April 2015

A Stitch in (Tiger) Time

One very interesting specialist area of Canadian football history collecting is cloth patches or crests that were originally intended to be sewn onto jackets or shirts. Sometimes the crests were just to show your allegiance to a particular team and sometimes they also functioned to show proof of membership in fan clubs to gain admittance to games as well as other team related gatherings.

A fascinating aspect of the patches is how the designs would mirror the team logos as they evolved over the years. The Hamilton Tigers logo image above left came from a game program but looks like it was a sewn patch from the thirties. Patches were popular in that era for the players themselves to wear on team clothing. The other logo above right was the version of the tiger head logo used by the team in the forties.

As early as 1949 the head had evolved to the image above left and was then somewhat slightly simplified to the most familiar snarling tiger in the above right image in the fifties.

Cloth patches from that era had difficulty replicating the large amount of detail in the tiger's face, in fact the Hamilton logos were amongst the most ornate in all of North American professional sports.

This fabulous patch does an excellent job of replicating the tiger's face from the logo and it was probably manufactured to distribute to the players and team personnel after the franchise's first Grey Cup as the unified Tiger-Cats.

The same head was part of the complete big cat team logo, one of the most famous in Canadian Football history for its attractiveness and expressive ferocity, which was well epitomized by the hard-rock Hamilton championship caliber teams of the fifties and sixties.

But early versions of this logo on patches don't really do the menacing power of the tiger much justice. This item is strangely more reminiscent of the modern day Ti-Cat logo shown further down in this post.

Here is a quite strange looking hybrid patch with a portion of the jumping tiger but much less ferocity in the face, and besides he appears to be driving a Mercedes for some reason.

Eventually a reasonable facsimile of the full logo became available for stitching onto fan apparel.

The head only logo was reprised for versions of small team patches that were issued around about the early seventies as part of full league patch sets. By this time the league was managing the licensing of the team images in a more professional and organized manner.

The full jumping tiger logo continued to be used on patches in the eighties and nineties in varying designs and degrees of detail.Some examples are above and below. Note that these patches and most of the others in this post are not necessarily to scale.

In 2005 the team switched their logo to be a much more cartoon-y and ultimately less threatening version of the jumping tiger with nowhere near the amount of graphic detail that the old logo had.

Patches of the new logo in varying styles are of course available as well. Personally I greatly prefer the classic version.

All of this material and similar or related cloth patch items for all of the other CFL teams as well as non-CFL related Canadian football patches will be detailed and priced eventually in Collecting Canadian Football Volume 3. These items are great examples of how memorabilia is indivisibly bound with the history of the sport and social recreation of Canadian football.  

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Who were these guys?

All Canadian football fans are familiar with the nine classic franchises that were (and with the exception of the Ottawa Rough Riders) still are, the essence of the professional game in this country. These franchises' well known vintage logos adorn the top of this blog. Besides these nine teams that represent decades of equilibrium, you have the modern oddities of the Montreal Concordes in the eighties, the two Ottawa replacement teams in this century and the ill-fated American teams of the nineties.

But if you spend anytime looking at Canadian football material on ebay and other sports auction sites, in particular when you venture back prior to 1950, you will soon come across what may be strangely unfamiliar teams that often competed against members of the classic franchise group, or were the precursors to those well known teams.

Prior to 1950 Hamilton had two teams (that in 1950 merged to form the Tiger-Cats), the Tigers and the Wildcats who competed in two different unions:

the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union or I.R.F.U. traditionally known as the Big Four, which was originally organized in 1907, and would go on to eventually form the Eastern Division of the CFL with the classic teams (Argonauts, Alouettes, Tiger-Cats and Rough Riders), and

the Ontario Rugby Football Union or O.R.F.U. which was the older league organized in 1883. This league was home to many teams that won Dominion Championships prior to 1909 and Grey Cup Championships from 1909 onward. But eventually this league would lose the capability to be competitive with the Big Four clubs and the teams from the Western Interprovincial Football Union or W.I.F.U.

The Argonauts, Tigers and Rough Riders all were formed in the latter stages of the 19th century, competed for a time in the O.R.F.U. and eventually landed in the I.R.F.U.  Montreal's early franchises were members of the Quebec Rugby Football Union or Q.R.F.U. until they also joined the I.R.F.U. Montreal had the most variability in their pre-war teams (as the Alouettes were a post WWII entity), illustrated above are two of their clubs that played in the I.R.F.U. in the thirties.

The O.R.F.U. teams are much less well known today, although some had considerable success as both the Sarnia Imperials and Toronto Balmy Beach were Grey Cup champions. Other teams such as the Ottawa Trojans were short lived and have been pretty much completely forgotten. While the level of play in the O.R.F.U. was surpassed by that of the I.R.F.U. and W.I.F.U. teams after WWII, it is worth noting that players such as Cookie Gilchrist and Frank Filchock played some time in that league so it might have been higher caliber action than generally credited.


Membership in the different unions was somewhat fluid with teams sometimes migrating back and forth from season to season and inter-league games happening as part of pre-season and playoff contests. During World War II the leagues were in flux as teams were restructured to provide athletic recreation for many of the players who had signed up for active or reserve service. The programs below are from this time period.

The same reconfiguration of the teams during the war years also happened out west.

Outside of the war period the situation out west was somewhat more stable as there were fewer teams and many of them used the same nickname for long periods of time. Occasionally the western teams were matched up against some of the O.R.F.U. clubs in playoffs until after 1954 when the O.R.F.U. stopped competing for the Grey Cup.

But the further back in time you look the more likely you are to come across unfamiliar franchise names in the west as well. Since the number of competing football unions as well as the general population were far less out west, these programs are usually scarcer than their eastern counterparts.

What seems to most modern fans to have been a stable group of unchanging teams over the long history of Canadian football is actually far from the reality. The story of the development of the sport in Canada is a complex patchwork quilt of competing unions, teams, levels of play and the progressive evolution from amateur to professional status. When you layer in the collegiate teams that were embedded in many of the unions from time to time as well as the different levels of senior, intermediate and junior competition there is a wealth of material to collect, research and preserve across the decades and across the geographical expanse of this country's sporting landscape history.


Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Upper Deck and Collecting Modern CFL Cards - (Volume 1 Addition)

In 2014 the CFL finally returned to the "Big Leagues" in terms of trading card product produced by one of the leaders of the industry in North America. Not to take anything away from the stellar job Jogo did carrying the ball for three decades or even other companies who made decent CFL sets for a couple of years here and there, but there is some historical significance to the fact that it had been 43 years since the last O-Pee-Chee (a licensee of U.S, trading card giant Topps) CFL set.

Hobby (24 packs per box) and Retail (8 packs per box) boxes of Upper Deck's 2014 CFL offering (boxes not to scale). It is uncertain whether the retail boxes were ever actually stocked by any retailers in Canada, they may have been just available for online purchase.

Upper Deck was decidedly the most important catalyst of the sportscard boom of the late eighties / early nineties when their innovative and groundbreaking baseball cards revitalized the industry and spurred the company's massive growth. After decades of dominating the sportscard industry Upper Deck started to decline in the professional sports area and began losing some of it's major league licenses to rival companies (like Panini! the Italian based company known for its sticker sets worldwide). Having no football license anymore with the NFL the company reportedly approached the CFL Players Association and offered to take over CFL card production.

Base cards in the set include 100 offensive players, two player checklists, short printed defensive players and short printed star rookies. 

The company actually produced a trial set of CFL All-Star cards in 2013 although distribution was apparently by random ebay seller and there did not seem to be any presence of the cards whatsoever on the Upper Deck company web site or online store. But it wasn't until 2014 that the CFL received the full blown Upper Deck card issue treatment with multiple subsets and deliberate short-printing of many type of cards and varieties that is somewhat de rigueur for today's modern trading card set.

Chase cards in the set include Grey Cup Moments, CFL Signatures and Short Prints and Autograph Short Prints of CFL Legends Doug Flutie and Warren Moon. These cards are all quite limited with only 10 of the Flutie & Moon Autograph cards made. 

The 2014 cards were available from the company web store, but only for sale to Canadian addresses, a novel idea whose exact purpose is not entirely clear. In any case the cards themselves are high-quality with well thought out subsets and there is no lack of chase cards for those inclined to enjoy that part of collecting. The set has been well received judging by dealer sales and business in the product on ebay has been brisk with considerable sums changing hands for some of the scarcer cards. But as with most new product I would estimate that prices will stabilize over time to roughly a third of  some of the high bid prices that were realized when the set was first released.

O-Pee-Chee returns to the CFL courtesy of the retro subset which also features (unstated in the promotional material) blank back short printed cards. Upper Deck now licenses the O-Pee-Chee brand name. Other subsets include the attractive and popular O-Pee-Chee team logo patches, game worn jerseys and game worn jersey patches. 

When it comes to collecting modern cards, the CFL collecting community is a little different from the fans that collect the four major North American leagues. Generally speaking the collectors of vintage sports cards and memorabilia are often completely uninterested in any modern (usually meaning 1990 and up) product at all, regardless of sport, rarity or subset topic. The huge glut of overproduced and overwrought modern product in the nineties and beyond failed to hold their interest, was expensive and did not hold its value very well. Many of the features of these products, such as extremely limited chase cards and classic game equipment cut up to be encapsulated on cards, they found distasteful and they were frustrated that these aspects made it impossible to collect whole sets. On the other hand there is obviously a very different demographic market for these newer products with many younger fans of the NHL, NBA, NFL & MLB actively collecting and pursuing these types of cards.

Additional special issues included two Rider cards that customers were given when purchasing Upper Deck packs at the Rider store and a 2014 All-Star set released at the Grey Cup in Vancouver. 
So while the CFL's collecting base is decidedly older and dominated by those focusing on vintage material, there is still a lot of crossover interest from the same collectors for the newer cards and products. In part this is because the CFL card market did not get anywhere near as much of the over hyped glut of modern cards spewed out over the last two decades as the other North American sports did. CFL card collectors are normally just happy to have any cards to collect, period!  The distinct younger generation that grew up on these types of modern issues is basically absent for the CFL. With few exceptions, there were no mainstream trading card products to buy for over 40 years, neither traditional cards at the corner stores in the 70s & 80s nor newer technology cards at the hobby shops in the 90's and 2000's.

Oversize blank backed cards were available at the Grey Cup in Vancouver as well for certain players to sign. It is unknown why some of the cards say "Players Edition" and others do not. Presumably these are genuine Upper Deck products but more research is required.

There is no disputing that the Upper Deck product is top-notch and it will be interesting to see whether or not the company can succeed in establishing a vibrant collecting base for modern style CFL products. This is part of the league's strategy to grow the brand and engage younger generations as life long fans of the game. Thanks to super CFL collector Steve Irwin for some of the images and information used in this post.