TIME WAS, TV GUIDE WAS A FIXTURE in American family rooms across the country. Known for engaging artists to illustrate its covers, in anticipation of the 1977 NFL football season, the weekly guide of television listings turned to Romare Bearden (1911-1988) to render its cover. As a result, the work of one of America’s most important and visionary Black artists landed in countless U.S. households in the late 1970s.

Bearden created a brightly colored collage on a turf green background, depicting nine racially diverse football players in a tangled pile up. The work was featured on the Sept. 17-23, 1977, edition of TV Guide.

Regarded for his inventive, layered compositions cut from the photo-rich pages of Life and Ebony magazines, it appears Bearden executed this project solely with solid colored paper. His signature appears on the bottom left of the cover image and the contents page includes a cover credit to the artist.

In addition to the new fall television shows, the cover lines promote “Pro Football Winners.” Inside, the corresponding report on page 47 by Melvin Durslag is titled “Secrets of a Super Bowl Champion” and taps the expertise of Oakland Raiders coach John Madden to “spot greatness in a player” and “this season’s winners.”

FOR A BRIEF PERIOD, Romare Bearden pursued art and was an accomplished athlete—not in football, but in baseball. Few Bearden bios mention that while in college he was a serious baseball player. The Bearden Foundation’s timeline states that in 1930 he transferred from Lincoln University to Boston University where he took art courses and was a star on the baseball team. A report in The Atlantic delves further into his athletic career.

According to the article, Bearden began pitching for the BU varsity baseball team and showed so much talent that he was recruited to join the Boston Colored Tigers, the city’s all-black semi-pro team. It is unclear how long he played for the black ball club, but his pitching was impressive enough to gain the attention of the Philadelphia Athletics, whose owner offered him a spot on the major league team. The overture had one caveat—in order to play, Bearden would have to pass for white. He declined to do so. Unwilling to abandon his race and family, Bearden’s proud—and perhaps prescient—decision cleared the way for him to focus on his art. By 1932 he had transferred from BU to New York University and his interest in cartoon illustrations blossomed.

FORTY-FIVE YEARS LATER, the football cover was Bearden’s second for TV Guide. Earlier in the year, he created a cover for a landmark television event—the January 1977 airing of the mini series “Roots” based on the book by Alex Haley.

Although Bearden illustrated covers a decade earlier for mainstream publications Fortune, Time and The New York Times Magazine, with TV Guide’s circulation at 20 million in 1977, his work for the digest-sized weekly enjoyed much wider national distribution. CT


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