Christian Yelich is one of Major League Baseball’s brightest stars. Currently in his seventh big-league season, he narrowly missed winning the Triple Crown in 2018. Last season, the reigning NL MVP led the league in batting, slugging, total bases, OPS [on-base plus slugging] and OPS+ [OPS adjusted for ballparks]. A two-time All-Star and 2014 Gold Glove winner, the 27-year-old slugger may very well be on his way to Cooperstown.
His maternal great-grandfather, Fred Gehrke, is already a Hall of Famer.
Gehrke was former Ram halfback who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame – not for how he carried the ball but for painting horns on his team’s leather helmets, touching off a colorful and enduring quest for logos in pro sports. Gehrke received the Hall of Fame’s first Daniel F. Reeves Pioneer Award in Canton, in 1972. That was apt, as it was the pioneering Reeves, former owner of the Rams, who enthusiastically approved Gehrke’s pioneering idea.
Gehrke beat out two Heisman Trophy winners – Tom Harmon and Les Horvath – to earn a starting halfback position with the 1947 Los Angeles Rams.
Born in Salt Lake City in 1918, Clarence Fred Gehrke was a talented athlete with a creative mind. He played in the NFL for the Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Cardinals from 1940 through 1950. A two-way standout, Gehrke was a halfback/defensive back who scored 23 NFL touchdowns and recorded 13 interceptions in 69 NFL games. He helped the Rams to an NFL title in 1945, the team’s last year in Cleveland, and was voted All-Pro. Gehrke twice led the NFL in yards per carry and was tops in punt return average once.
An art major at the University of Utah, Gehrke began thinking how plain pro football helmets looked. “I made a pen-and-ink sketch of a ram’s horns one day in 1947 and showed it to our new coach, Bob Snyder,” explained Gehrke. “He couldn’t visualize it and told me to go home and paint it on a helmet.” Gerk took a brown leather helmet and drew the horns on with chalk, then painted the rest of the helmet blue. He added gold inside the chalk lines to shape the horns.
Gehrke stayed up all night working on the helmet. “It was not easy,” said the ambitious halfback. “On those helmets, the leather was not even. It was hard to paint.” Gehrke presented the finished helmet to Rams owner Dan Reeves, who took one look and said, “That’s it! Do it.”
The first owner to move a team west of the Mississippi, the first to hire African Americans, and the first to televise games, the forward-thinking Reeves was always eager to improve his team’s appearance.
Snyder told Gehrke to paint 75 and, working freehand, he completed one per night over the summer of 1948 at his Inglewood home, lining them up on his garage floor. Gehrke was paid $1 per helmet, which covered only the cost of the paint. He provided the labor for free, and for the next two years carried cans of blue and gold paint with him to touch up the helmets after each game.
At the Rams 1948 home opener, there was an audible “Ooooh” from the 92,000 fans in the Coliseum as the team took the field wearing logos on their helmets. It was an absolute first in pro football and paved the way for the modern-day uniform marketing craze in sports. The Rams have changed the color scheme of their helmets over the course of the past seven decades, but the iconic horns logo has largely remained unchanged
By 1949, the Riddell sporting goods company had created a plastic helmet, baking in Gehrke’s design. The logo idea caught on and, over the next decade, most other teams – beginning with the then-Baltimore Colts – adopted their own designer helmets. College and prep teams followed. Only the Browns retained plain headgear.
Former Rams head coach Bob Snyder considered the 5’11”, 190-pound Gehrke “the finest left halfback in the National Football League.”
The Rams traded Gehrke to the Chicago Cardinals in 1950. Midway through the season, the Cards dealt the 31-year-old halfback to San Francisco. Tired of the constant traveling that came with being an NFL player, Gehrke retired following the 1950 season. He took a management position with Northrop Corporation, a Los Angeles-based aircraft manufacturer for whom he’d worked during football off-seasons to supplement his income. On weekends, he worked alongside former teammate Tom Harmon providing color commentary on college Saturdays and 49ers games on Sundays. The partnership lasted 13 years.
Disenchanted with the administrative red tape of the aircraft industry, Gehrke left Northrop to join the Denver Broncos of the American Football League in 1964. The Broncos had hired a former University of Utah teammate, Mac Speedie, as head coach, and Speedie convinced Gehrke to join him in Denver as the club’s director of player personnel. Gehrke rose to general manager then vice-president, helping the once-beleaguered Broncos reach the 1977 Super Bowl. When the team was sold to new ownership in 1981, Gehrke was asked to resign. Two years later, he joined the Denver Gold of the upstart United States Football League. When the USFL folded in 1984, Gerk’s life in football came to an end.
Gehrke also invented two staples that are commonplace in the modern game. After having his nose broken three times during the 1946 season, he developed the first full facemask. While the mask protected Gehrke’s face, it obstructed his vision, and he abandoned the mask the following season. While working with the Denver Broncos, Gehrke coached special teams in addition to his front office duties. Thinking that kickers would be better in a game if they could warm up on the sidelines, Mr. Gehrke designed the first kicking net, now seen on the sidelines at the prep, collegiate and professional levels of football.
Fred Gehrke died at his home in Palm Springs, California, February 9, 2002. Two months earlier, his great-grandson, Christian Yelich, had celebrated his 11th birthday 150 miles west, in Thousand Oaks.