One of the things we like about collecting older sports memorabilia is that it offers a tangible look at the past. While it may seem as if the NFL has been a behemoth on the sports landscape for ages, that’s not really the case. There was a time when even the biggest stars in the league not only answered their mail, but helped track down teammates for signatures, wrote letters to fans and paid for the postage to send items back. Chris Nerat of Heritage Auctions is among the legion of Green Bay Packers collectors and he recently shared a group of fan-player correspondence that offer one of those sweet glimpses back to a far less greed- driven hobby.
There is a letter written in 1937 by the greatest receiver of the NFL’s first 50 years, Hall of Famer Don Hutson. In a flowing script, Hutson apologizes to a fan named Edward Justice of Wilmington, DE who had apparently sent him a note requesting some Packer autographs. Whether it arrived too late in the season for Hutson to receive it or whether it got stuck in the Packers office until he’d returned to his native Alabama isn’t known. Hutson tells the fan the letter “followed me all over the country” before arriving home for the off-season. He tells the fan to drop him another line when the 1938 season gets underway and he would “get all of the team to sign for you”.
That apparently happened because the next fall, Hutson pens another letter.
“Under separate cover, I am sending you a Packer program autographed by all the players. I hope this makes up for my late reply. Please excuse me this time. Sincerely , Don Hutson”.
Sure enough, another image from the collection is that program, from an October game against the Pittsburgh Pirates that contains blue ink signatures of many of the Packers including coach Curly Lambeau and star quarterback Arnie Herber. The cover is inscribed, “To Ed Justice, from The Green Bay Packers”.
In contrast to the scribbles of many of today’s players, the autographs are unhurried and legible. And while the Packers of 1938 may not have been in as much demand as the Packers of 2013, signing probably no more than a few hundred autographs in an entire season, that’s an almost jolting sight. One can almost picture Hutson passing the program around the dressing room, collecting the signatures of his teammates to complete his public relations mission. It’s possible someone did it for him, but considering there wasn’t much of a ‘front office staff’ in the late 1930’s NFL, that’s unlikely.
It was a time when far less distance separated fans from players and the relationship was intertwined. Both needed each other. The NFL’s future was far from secure. Players sold tickets, promoted endlessly and often hoped their paycheck wouldn’t bounce. The Packers were in better shape than most, but the league was beginning to move into larger cities and the future was often cloudy.
And while it may not be possible to expect today’s players to pen handwritten notes to fans who’ve been waiting a long time for their mail to be returned, the “Hutson letters” are a reminder of why so many people came to love sports and those who played them so many years ago and why so many still do. Take a look at the correspondence and that 1938 autographed program via the photo gallery below.