Fred Kail gets a chuckle out of some of the alternately flattering or ominous descriptions of his fate. The stories run the gamut from his being wildly rich and enjoying a life of luxury on a beachfront in Hawaii to having long since punched his ticket and departed to the hereafter; the reality – as is often the case – lies somewhere in between.
The sculptor who is thought to have created the very first NFL figure with his pot-bellied Joe Jolter that came into being more than 50 years ago, is very much alive and well and living in Lutherville, Md.
His colorful Joe Jolter statues were launched in 1956, then he came up with his 3-point lineman (“Bruce Bruiser”) football figure, and then a first-ever baseball figure in 1957. Part of the lore that surrounds the affable Kail is the notion that the figure was inspired by the equally legendary NFL Hall of Famer Art Donovan; the baseball figure is occasionally attributed to 1950s National League slugger Ted Kluszewski.
For nearly four decades, Kail was a major international graphic design consultant, a stint that followed years of trying to market his NFL and MLB statues on his own. Like so many incredibly talented artists that I’ve interviewed over the years, the business side would frequently prove to be difficult waters to navigate, including many years of painting the individual statues at the kitchen table of his mother’s home in Hagerstown, Md.
In those early days, despite the homespun quality to the production process, he would personally paint dozens of pieces every weekend, and the orders started to roll in, first from his beloved Colts (and an enthusiastic Art Donovan), and later from Washington, Philadelphia and Detroit. Many of the baseball and football requests were specific player’s jersey numbers. Otherwise, he would simply use a “00,” (as shown this page).
Kail says several hundred of the football pieces were sold, but the baseball figure, some in solid gypsum, some ceramic, never reached more than 100. The Kail pieces have long been among the royalty of hobby figural items: difficult to find and exuberantly priced when they do appear. The Japanese reproductions of his “Joe Jolter” series sell for hundreds of dollars apiece; figures personality painted and signed by Kail frequently reach into the thousands.
“Art Donovan of the Colts became a big customer, buying dozens of the statues with his number on them and giving them away to all his friends,” Kail laughed. It was widely postulated in our hobby that the baseball figure was inspired by Ted Kluszewski, the Cincinnati Reds great power hitter in the mid-1950s. Kail was suitably coy about Big Klu, but conceded only that such a link was at least possible, although he claims recollections of old magazine cartoons from the 1940’s and early 1950’s had a great deal of influence in the creation of “Joe” as well.
With the encouragement of some college friends, Kail showed the Jolter figure to Colts officials and was wildly surprised that they quickly agreed to sell the 10-inch figure at the stadium for $5. The NFL club asked for nothing in return, citing the figure as a great promotional item. That’s not quite how it works nearly 50 years later.
“The collectibles business amazes me,” said in a phone interview last month. “NFL Properties suggested several years ago that the ‘Joe Jolter Collection’ be brought back,” Kail said, noting the idea would be something akin to an Anniversary Edition. The objective was to bring “Joe” out of retirement, so to speak, a project that Kail is still working on these days. “Joe Jolter” has some equity because of the age and because it was the first NFL figure and the first licensed figure (1961),” he continued.
His most recent project is the stunningly realistic “Classic Gridiron Collection” that depicts some of the most famous teams in NFL history in a fashion unlike anything undertaken before. “This is closer to fine art,” said Kail, “depicting football and the intense, rugged game of raw-boned men … with grass-stained and muddy uniforms, and bloodied noses.”
A number of these remarkable pieces can be found in online auctions, and Kail produces many of them through special request orders from collectors throughout the country.
It’s an ongoing process for Kail, who explained that he’s had talks with NFL officials about reviving the Joe Jolter series or even doing something with the newer “Classic Gridiron Collection” that would be such a major new direction in figural items for the hobby.
“We desperately looking for someone to pick this up,” is the way Kail describes the ongoing search to find a licensing and manufacturing partner.
Still, it’s those original pieces that have propelled Kail’s name into the hobby spotlight, leaving Kail statues as clearly an iconic name in the figural world. Along with a vast legion of supporters in online auctions and in the catalog auctions from the major auction houses, Kail has a following that includes a number of friends that he has made over the years.
Kail noted that a number of famous people owned his figures, including President Kennedy and President Richard Nixon, both of whom reportedly had Redskin figures. “Colt figures were seen in photos in the offices of Millard Tawes, Governor of Maryland, and Webb Ewbank, coach of the Colts,” said Kail.
Given the quality of his work, it’s hardly a surprise that it would turn up in such august collections.