The Pros (Simon & Schuster, 1960)
Robert Riger & Tex Maule
Out of print – available secondhand
Listed: Pro Football Journal Top 100 Football Books, #14
There are many good books of NFL photography but this could be the one that started it all. Robert Riger was an illustrator who started taking photographs as research for his drawings. Football is a fast-moving game, so it helps to be able to freeze the action. He ended up becoming better known for his photography.
Riger was already a 30-year-old freelance illustrator when Sports Illustrated launched in 1954 and the magazine became a regular home for his drawings and photographs. The Pros collects some of his best work, with commentary from Tex Maule, who covered football for Sports Illustrated from 1956 to 1975.
The book has a strange, uneven structure, perhaps because it was among the first of its kind and there was no real template for a book of sports photography. Part One, just 15 pages, covers the 30 years up to 1950 and provides a whirlwind tour of the origins of the NFL, stories of some star players and a basic overview of how strategy developed. It’s illustrated with Riger’s drawings, which are marvellous – capable of suggesting motion, or for that matter emotion, with just a few strokes.
Part two, the bulk of the book, covers the NFL in the 1950s and generally goes position-by-position, with a few paragraphs by Maule accompanying Riger’s photos of the key players of the day. The final part documents five games, including both the 1958 and 1959 NFL Championship Games. Coincidentally, both Championship games featured the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, so there’s an element of a narrative thread there, though both ended in victory for the Colts.
The Pros isn’t really clear what story it wants to tell and suffers from a lack of clear emphasis. It’s really a book about the NFL in the 1950s with the history section being stuck on the front as an excuse to use Riger’s drawings. It doesn’t feel satisfying. Worse, Maule writes in the overwrought manner of the times, which makes everything feel unintentionally comical:
“Next to a great quarterback, the most precious discovery for a pro talent scout is a great defensive halfback. For a defensive halfback must have all the speed of the fleetest runner, the hands of a superb end, the courage of a lion, the reactions of a hunting cat and the intuition of a woman.”
Still, while Tex goes off for a cold shower, we can admire the photography. It’s not the text that’s important here, after all. This is a fascinating collection of images from a long-gone era of football, though the photos are not as well reproduced as in Walter Iooss’s Football, unfortunately, and Riger doesn’t have Iooss’s eye for a killer image.
Even so, this is the NFL captured on the brink of becoming ‘America’s Game’ and it serves as an enjoyable time capsule.