One problem with covering the world of sports uniforms and logos is that designs are usually attributed to institutions, not to people. We tend to say things like, "The Lions redesigned their uniforms," or "Nike gave the Jaguars a new look." Meanwhile, the human beings who actually created the designs go unmentioned, and the stories behind the design process go untold.
This is particularly troublesome when it comes to older designs, because pro sports teams tend not to be the best stewards of their own history. When a team is sold or moves into a new stadium, old files and archives are often discarded or misplaced. Office storytelling and institutional memory can fill the gaps for a while, but those tend to fade as older employees retire and staffs turn over. The result is that it's often impossible to know the story behind a team's uniforms, logo, or color scheme.
Take, for example, the Minnesota Vikings. If you ask the average fan who designed the team's horn-clad helmet and original uniforms, who created the team's familiar Norseman logo, or why the Vikings wear purple and gold, you'll probably get a blank stare. As recently as two years ago, you'd probably have received the same response from the team's entire front office staff.
The answers to those questions, it turns out, were hanging on a Los Angeles cartoonist's office wall for decades. And they're now part of a permanent exhibit at the Vikings' stadium in Minneapolis.
Confused? Here's the backstory: The Vikings' first general manager was former Los Angeles Rams public relations director Bert Rose, and their first coach was former Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. When it came time to create the new team's look in 1961, they turned to a prominent Los Angeles sports cartoonist named Karl Hubenthal, whom they knew from their days in L.A.
It was Hubenthal -- not a Vikings employee, not a Minnesota design firm, not the NFL Properties office -- who designed the Norseman logo and the team's original uniform set, including the distinctive horned helmet. Per Rose's instruction, Hubenthal executed the designs in purple and gold. Why those colors? Because those are the colors of the University of Washington, where Rose had attended college. So with the L.A. and Washington connections, the look of this quintessentially midwestern team had strong West Coast roots.
We know all of this because Hubenthal saved his original sketches of the uniform and logo, had them framed, and hung them on his office wall for many years. On the back of the frame he inscribed a note: "I designed the [Vikings'] uniform, helmet, and trademark logo at the request of Bert Rose, the first general manager of the new franchise, and Norm Van Brocklin, their first coach. I had known them when they were with the L.A. Rams. Rose was a U. of Washington grad, hence the purple and gold colors."
Hubenthal died in 1998. Toward the end of 2015, one of his daughters, Karen Chappell, was going through some of his old belongings and decided to ask the Vikings if they wanted to have the drawings. The timing turned out to be perfect, because the Vikes were in the final stages of building U.S. Bank Stadium, which was set to open in 2016. They were planning to include a team museum called Vikings Voyage.
"We knew right away that this was something that had to be included there," said Zachary Tarrant, the team's archive coordinator. "It was precisely the kind of thing we wanted to showcase. Not many teams have something so definitive and so tangible, all on display."
The resulting exhibit is pure eye candy for uniform fans, plus it provides a tantalizing glimpse at what might have been. Hubenthal's original design concept called for diagonally crossed stripes on the socks, evoking the leather straps or leggings worn by real Vikings. That seems like something Nike or Under Armour might come up with nowadays, but it was unheard of back in 1961. In addition, Hubenthal's original jersey design featured gold sleeve striping with a V-shaped pattern. That design element, along with the sock concept, didn't make it to the final on-field product.
It's hard to overstate what a revelation all of this is. For starters, it's extremely rare to see original uniform and logo drawings from this period. These materials are essentially the Rosetta Stone of the Vikings' visual heritage.
Moreover, while Hubenthal was an award-winning newspaper cartoonist with a long, storied career in sports graphics, his connection to the Vikings -- and the full extent of that connection -- was largely unknown until the drawings resurfaced. His Wikipedia entry makes no mention of the Vikings (although that will probably change once this article is published). A handful of serious uniform aficionados knew he had created the Norseman logo, but nobody appears to have known that he also designed the uniforms. The Vikings' original trainer and current team historian, Fred Zamberletti, who was on the sidelines for every single Vikings game from 1961 through 2011, said in a recent interview that he'd never even heard of Hubenthal.
As for the story behind the team colors, the University of Washington connection has been mentioned before (there's a brief reference to it, for example, in Jim Bruton's 2011 book, "A Tradition of Purple: An Inside Look at the Minnesota Vikings"), but it doesn't seem to be widely known. In fact, a video on the Vikings' own website says purple was chosen "to make a bold statement" and because the team "needed an identity," with no mention of Bert Rose or Washington.
By now you may be wondering, "Who was this Karl Hubenthal guy?"
The short version is that Hubenthal was one of the country's leading editorial and sports cartoonists from the 1950s through the 1980s. His work was a mainstay in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and was syndicated throughout the Hearst newspaper empire. He also did a ton of sports program covers, yearbook covers, and a lot more. Based in L.A., he was a West Coast counterpart to Eastern sports cartoonists like Willard Mullin and Bill Gallo.
Hubenthal's daughter Karen Chappell, who donated the drawings to the Vikings, is now retired and living in Iowa City after a career in academic administration. She was happy to talk about her father's connection to the Vikings. Here's a partial transcript from a recent interview with her:
Uni Watch: How did your father know Bert Rose and Norm Van Brocklin from their days with the Rams?
Karen Chappell: My father was a sports cartoonist and was based in Los Angeles, so he knew everyone in the front offices of the teams in L.A. -- the Dodgers, the L.A. Angels, Hollywood Park, Santa Anita Park, and of course, the Rams. He used to design program covers for the Dodgers, the Rams, and the two racetracks. He knew Bert Rose and Norm Van Brocklin very well. When I was growing up, he went to just about every single Rams game. My sister and I and my mom used to go with him to quite a few of those games.
When they asked him to design the logo and uniforms for the Vikings, do you know if he had ever done that kind of work for a team before?
Not that I know of. I've been going through some of his things, and I don't think he ever designed any other team uniforms.
He did design logos. I know he did a lot of work with the racetracks -- he did a logo for Hollywood Park that they put on their billboards, and he also did some logos for some of the jockeys.
Do you know how much your father was paid for doing the Vikings designs?
No, I don't. And you know, he kept very organized files for each year of his career, but there's no indication of how much he was paid for that job.
It's interesting that the Rams and Vikings both have horns on their helmets. Do you think your father was inspired by the Rams' helmet horns?
I have no idea. I think he probably started out with the logo of the Norseman, who has horns on his helmet, and then made that part of the football helmet.
Your father's original design concept includes a few elements that the Vikings ended up not using. For example, he included some diagonal striping on the socks.
Yes, the leggings. I know Dutch [Norm] Van Brocklin did not like the leggings, because we found a note in the file about it. He nixed those.
Your father's original design also included some unusual sleeve striping. Do you know why they didn't go with that?
No, I don't. And Dad never talked about that, so I'm not sure.
How did you end up deciding to donate the drawings to the Vikings?
My father had the drawings framed and hanging on his wall for years. After he died, I took them and had them up on my wall. But then I thought, "I'm going to call the Vikings and see if they have anything like this." When I talked to them, they did not have anything like this, so it made sense to donate it to them.
The Vikings' uniforms have been seen and enjoyed by millions of fans over the years, but almost none of those people knew that your father designed them. So it was his best-known piece of work, but he wasn't known for it. How do you think he felt about that, and how do you feel about it?
Well, I'm just glad we donated these materials to the Vikings, so that he does get that credit and recognition. But you know, it was a commercial art job, and commercial artists and designers often don't get credited. He did so many jobs like that.
Did this whole experience turn your father into a Vikings fan?
Not really. I'm sure he would have been a fan anyway, because of his relationship with Bert Rose and Norm Van Brocklin. But Dad was a football fan -- he liked all the teams, and probably the Rams most of all, because he lived in L.A.
But he was proud of that Vikings design -- it was near and dear to his heart. In January of 1962, he did a cartoon that said, "The first time I saw that Vikings uniform in action was my personal sports thrill of 1961."
Hubenthal left behind a huge body of work. Much of it is archived at Syracuse University and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University, and you can see a lot of his cartoons via a simple Google image search. But unlike many of his peers, he has not had his work anthologized into a book. Here's hoping his newly recognized role in NFL uniform history spurs a publisher to remedy that situation soon.
(Special thanks to Lukas Hoffland for his research assistance.)
Paul Lukas looks forward to telling the untold stories behind other uniform designs. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.