The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 31, 2013

Back to the drawing board

By Jim Campbell
For The Daily Item

— Chances are, if you played high school, college or even pro football in the 1940s, 1950s or even later, the cover of your game program was the work of a Pennsylvania artist — Lon Keller — a man whose art greatly influenced a Selinsgrove area athlete/artist.

Keller, born in Lititz in 1907, was a prolific “sports artist.” Christened Henry Alonzo Keller, he didn’t spend much more than his boyhood years in the Lancaster County community, however. He moved with his family to Pleasanton, N.J., and from there matriculated at Syracuse University. He took his bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from Syracuse in 1929, being graduated cum laude.

It was Keller’s Norman Rockwellian works that caught the attention of Bob Walker, a 1961 graduate of Selinsgrove High School, whose knack for realistic drawing led to his art being included in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Walker, who used his considerable talents to pursue more of an avocation than a vocation, was chosen to illustrate the Hall of Fame niche of former Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. The original niche illustration of The Dutchman (Van Brocklin’s nickname) was a composite rendition of Van Brocklin’s head on another player’s body. After years of discontent with the look of the niche illustration, the Hall of Fame decided to make a change and Walker’s work was chosen. The pen-and-ink drawing was done on 18-by 24-inch art paper. Because there are close to 300 inductees in the HOF, individual niches are no longer a part of the open display, but the talented Walker’s art is safely preserved in the Hall’s archives.

Walker, an outstanding wrestler and two-way football player (center and middle linebacker), was also influenced by the pen-and-ink sketches of Robert Riger in Sports Illustrated at the time. He recently recalled, “I guess you could say my classroom doodling led to more serious work.”

The long time California resident, while studying and wrestling at the University of Maryland in the late-1960s, was approached by a colleague to create a portrait of Washington Redskins linebacker Jack Pardee. The art was to be given to the ‘Skins Hall of Fame head coach, George Allen. In a nice, hand-written “thank you” note to Walker, Allen expressed his gratitude and appreciation of the life-like art.

On another occasion Walker produced a pen-and-ink drawing of Browns quarterback Brian Sipe. It was requested by a friend of Sipe to be given to the quarterback as a birthday gift. Sipe also expressed his pleasure with Walker’s realistic artwork.

Said Walker, “I first became aware of Lon Keller through his cover illustrations on our Selinsgrove High football program covers. I’m sure I wasn’t the only would-be artist who was profoundly influenced by his work. Keller’s players looked as though they were about to jump right off the page and score a touchdown, or smear a glory-boy quarterback for a huge loss. He was that good, that realistic.”

Keller’s first job after graduation was managing the campus store at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture. He also did freelance illustrating for Sun Oil’s (Sunoco) in-house newspaper and for the Keystone Automobile Club’s magazine.

This time was called The Golden Age of Illustration — featuring the work of Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, J.C. Leyendecker and the iconic Norman Rockwell. Before the advent of quality color photography, artwork was the best, if not the only, way to bring color to the many publications of the time. In those pre-TV days, color was usually only seen in a few Technicolor movies or on national magazine covers.

In 1932, Keller received his first sports-illustration assignment —the cover of “Franklin Field Illustrated” — Penn’s football program. The game was the traditional Thanksgiving contest between the Quakers and Cornell.

He continued to work as an illustrator, always working in oils and always on a 24- by 36-inch canvas. Like the aforementioned illustrators/artists, Keller’s work was of the “realism” school, and somewhat idealized. His football players were always masculine, ruggedly handsome and powerful — projecting an All-American image. It was said that Keller “always stylized the scene of football action with the illustrator’s equivalent of slow motion cinematography.”

While his work was well received, Keller had other goals. He wanted to be exclusively a sports artist. To accomplish this, he moved to New York City in 1938. Along the way he morphed from Henry Alonzo Keller or H. Alonzo Keller to simply Lon Keller. His distinctive — stylized, but distinguishable — signature appeared on literally millions of football program covers while working as chief illustrator for Don Spencer Co., a pioneer in low cost mass-produced programs.

So good was Keller’s work that the practice of leaving one’s program on the seats at the stadium at the end of a game changed drastically. People, because of the outstanding cover art, took the programs home with them as souvenirs.

On a personal note, during my senior football season — 1954 at Selinsgrove High — of the 11 game program covers, nine were done by Keller.

Faced with an image problem in the 1950s, the NCAA strongly suggested that covers emphasized the collegiate gridder as a student and athlete. Swivel-hipped halfbacks still appeared in cover art, but a letter-sweatered student carrying an armload of books instead of a football got almost equal billing — sometimes on the same cover. Keller was the first illustrator to incorporate women, usually co-eds and cheerleaders, in cover illustrations. Many of his pretty, perky blonde females had the look of actress/singer Doris Day — the epitome of “wholesomeness” of the era. Keller was up to the task. His covers lost none of their appeal, but they incorporated the elements that the powers-that-be desired.

Retiring to Bronxville, N.Y., after continuing to work well into the 1970s, Lon Keller painted “for pleasure.” His works were still exclusively sports — Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach being a favorite subject.

Keller passed away in De Land, Fla., on June 28, 1995. But he left an indelible mark on sports illustration.

Said Dave Boss, himself one who changed the face of football programs as the director of NFL Properties’ Creative Services Division, “He brought a bold vibrancy to cover art. No one ever surpassed Lon Keller in glamorizing the game. He did for print what the Sabols (father and son, Ed and Steve) did for film. I’m pleased that we were able incorporate as much of his work into our publications as we did. It truly enhanced what we were doing. I’m sure that Lon had a profound influence of such contemporary artists as Merv Corning, Bart Forbes, David Grove and Chuck Ren.”

Dwight Chapin of the San Francisco Examiner said, “His work was a throwback to an era when sports was fun — too bad it’s not still that way.”

While football was Keller’s calling card, it wasn’t the only sport to benefit from his talents. Perhaps his most enduring work is the famous New York Yankees’ “bat and hat” logo. It was commissioned in 1947. Featuring a bat as the straight stroke of the “k” in Yankees and crowned with a patriotic top hat, the logo has been called “the world’s most famous sports logo.” Keller recalled that his fee for the iconic logo was “a couple hundred dollars up front.” Certainly, the Bronx Bombers got their money’s worth.

When the New York Mets came into existence in 1962, the National League team had Keller design a logo for them. He incorporated the famed New York skyline, with a bridge connecting the city’s five boroughs into an image that still adorns the Mets uniforms and publications today.

Keller did many cover illustrations for the World Series, especially when the Yankees, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers were participants. In 1951, with the Dodgers enjoying a large late-season lead in the National League, he’d already finished the World Series cover featuring the Yankees and Dodgers. Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” quickly made that cover obsolete. Philosophically, Keller said, “Well, back to the drawing board,” and produced a Yankees-Giants cover.

Beginning with a cover illustration for the Penn Relays, Keller devoted his skill and talent to other sports-related endeavors. His illustrations were on the covers of programs for the Harlem Globetrotters vs. College All Stars series of the 1950s and 1960s. He did special cover illustrations for the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy, as well as the Falcon logo for the U.S. Air Force Academy. Hockey, roller derby and horse racing were also sports in which Keller dabbled.

One of boxing’s biggest championship fights, Joe Louis vs. Billy Conn (1946,) had Keller’s art on the program. And just for good measure, Keller did propaganda posters during World War II.

Deservedly so, Lon Keller was inducted into the New York Sports Museum & Hall of Fame in 1991.

Jim Campbell, a resident of Selinsgrove, worked 15 years in the NFL, a game-day sideline worker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, historian at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, research editor with NFL Properties, and communications director with the NFL Alumni. He authored “Golden Years of Pro Football” among a dozen or so other books, including four local histories of Snyder County and Selinsgrove. He retired from Bucknell, where he was director of athletic fundraising — The Bison Club.