ABCs of Vintage Football Cards

P is also for Playing Cards

September 15th, 2011  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards

1974 West Virginia Mountaineers Bobby Bowden playing cardIt seems natural to put pictures of football players on playing cards, and I am surprised that not more teams have done it. Playing cards aren’t much different from trading cards, and there are close to 54 players on an NFL or college team. Throw in the coaches, cheerleaders, and mascot, and you can easily top off a deck.

A few colleges in the 1970s distributed playing cards of their football teams; I am guessing that one company printed them for most of the schools. You can see the decks I have so far on the Playing Cards page of the Vintage Football Card Gallery. Each time I added a set, I wrote a blog article about it. Here are the links to the articles:

Jim Thorpe 1963 Stancraft playing cardThere are several other 1970s college decks out there, and I hope to find them and add them to the Gallery. If you know where I can find any of them, please let me know. These are the decks I know of:

  • 1972 Alabama
  • 1973 Alabama
  • 1973 Auburn
  • 1973 Florida

In addition to the 1970s college cards, I know of two other decks of pre-1980 playing cards that picture football players. The first is 1963 Stancraft playing cards, which were issued in conjunction with the opening of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Gallery’s 1963 Stancraft playing cards page includes more details about the set. The second is a deck produced by the Littlefuse fuse company; it contains pictures of famous linebackers–and fuses! You can read about the Littlefuse Linebacker playing cards in a previous blog article.

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Z is for Zebras

May 16th, 2010  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards, Football Card Trivia

Last fall, when I wrote in the Collectors Universe forums that I was starting the ABCs, I said that I hadn’t yet thought of a topic for Z. One of the participants there (thanks, nam812!) suggested “Z is for Zebras.” Great idea, I thought, but only a few vintage cards of officials came to mind, and all of them were in the 1966 and 1967 Philadelphia sets. If I had only those to write about, “Z is for Zebras” would be a short article.

I learned last week, though, that Bruce Alford was a longtime NFL official who had appeared on a card as a player. I wondered if other officials had appeared on cards as players, too. Wikipedia happens to have an all-time list of NFL officials, so I perused the list, looking for names I recognized from cards. Including Alford, I found four. That was better, now I could include them in this article, as well.

First, the Philadelphia cards. The 1966 and 1967 Philadelphia sets each include a Referee Signals card and a few cards that have referee signals on the back. In the 1966 set, the referee signals appear on the backs of the “play” cards; in the 1967 set, they appear on the backs of the team cards. The Referee Signals cards and the back of the 1966 Philadelphia Vikings Play card are shown here.
1966 Philadelphia Referee Signals football card1967 Philadelphia Referee Signals football card1966 Philadelphia Vikings Play football card back

Except for an occasional official in the background (thanks, revmoran!) or random striped shirt in an action photo, that’s really about it for officials on vintage cards. But then we have the zebras who appeared on cards in their pre-zebra days:

Bruce Alford, who recently passed away, spent six years as a player in the AAFC and NFL, then officiated in the NFL for twenty years. He officiated Super Bowls II, VII, and IX. Alford appeared as a player on a 1951 Bowman card.

Al Conway was the Eagles’ first-round draft pick in 1953, and he appeared on a 1953 Bowman card. According to, he never played a league game, but he went on to officiate for 28 years in the AFL and NFL.
1951 Bowman Bruce Alford football card1953 Bowman Al Conway football card
Pat Harder played eight years for the Cardinals and Lions, and he appeared on four cards in that span: 1948 Bowman, 1948 Leaf, 1950 Bowman, and 1953 Bowman. His 1948 Bowman card is pictured here. After retiring as a player, Harder was an official for seventeen years. One game he officiated was the Raiders-Steelers playoff game in which Franco Harris made his Immaculate Reception.

Finally, Frank Sinkovitz was a center and linebacker for the Steelers for six years. He appeared on the 1950 Bowman card pictured here, and a 1951 Bowman card. After his playing days, he officiated for 26 years. One game he officiated was Super Bowl XV.
1948 Bowman Pat Harder football card1950 Bowman Frank Sinkovitz football card
So there you have it, the NFL officials rookie card collection. If you can think of additions, let me know.

Now I know my ABCs…

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Y is for Yale

May 14th, 2010  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards, Football Card Trivia

1888 Goodwin Champions Henry Beecher football cardAmerican football began in the colleges, and the first football cards were of college players. The very first football card, the 1888 Goodwin Champions tobacco card shown here, pictures Henry Beecher, captain of the Yale football team. The scan of the Beecher card is from a recent Huggins & Scott auction; a big thanks to them for letting me use it.

1894 Mayo Cut Plug Brinck Thorne football cardThere are fifty cards in the 1888 Goodwin Champions set, ranging from jockeys to oarsmen to chess players, and Beecher is the only football player. The 1888 N162 Goodwin Champions page on shows the composition of the full set. According to Wikipedia, the 1888 Champions set was “the first Goodwin set to use colored chromolithography.” As I understand it, this allowed mass production of the colored cards. It also made Henry Beecher appear to be wearing lipstick.

Six years after Beecher’s card, the first football-only set of trading cards was introduced, and it also featured Yale players. The 35-card 1894 Mayo Cut Plugs set contains players from the Big Three football schools of the time: Yale, Princeton, and Harvard. One of the cards, Brinck Thorne, is pictured here. See M is for Mayo Cut Plug for details on the Mayos.

1955 Topps All-American Pudge Heffelfinger football card1955 Topps All-American Larry Kelley football cardYale also produced the first professional football player, Pudge Heffelfinger, who was paid $500 for playing a game in 1892. (According to the Inflation Calculator, that’s $11787 in 2009 dollars.) And Yale produced two of the first three Heisman trophy winners, Larry Kelley in 1936 and Clint Frank in 1937. Heffelfinger and Kelley both appear on 1955 Topps All-American cards, pictured here.

After 1937, Yale began losing more games than it won, and only a handful of Yale alumni from after that season have appeared on football cards. There are (five Yale alumni in the 1955 Topps All-American set, but none of them played there after 1937.) One notable alumnus was Brian Dowling, who was the inspiration for B.D. in Doonesbury. You can read about Dowling in an earlier blog article.

For much more on Yale football, see the Harvard-Yale Football Gallery.

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X is for X’s and O’s

May 6th, 2010  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards, General Collecting Info

A few vintage football cards show diagrams of plays. To me the diagrams seem like filler, and I am not fond of them. I can’t think of a better subject that starts with “X,” though, so here’s a quick rundown. (Hmm, does that mean I’m using them for filler, too?)

The 1964 and 1965 Philadelphia sets include a “Play of the Year” card for each team. On the front of each card is a diagram of the play and a small image of the team’s head coach. The small images are a nice touch, I suppose, but I would have preferred dedicated cards with full-size images for the coaches.

Among the coaches on the Play of the Year cards are Don Shula and Vince Lombardi. Neither coach, to my knowledge, was pictured on card of his own during his career. The 1964 Play of the Year cards could be considered Shula and Lombardi’s rookie cards, but I haven’t seen them designated as such. Pictured here are the 1964 Packers Play of the Year card and the 1965 Philadelphia Colts Play of the Year card.

The back of each team’s Play of the Year card includes a list of the offensive players, which I like. Occasionally a player’s friend or relative will ask me if I have a card of the player, but I have to tell him that the player never appeared on a card. Since some cardless players’ names appear on the Play of the Year cards, I can at least offer one of those cards to the friend or relative.

As I wrote last year, the Play of the Year cards actually feature some pretty ordinary plays. I theorized then that Philadelphia chose short plays so the diagrams would fit on the cards. Could the Lions’ play of the year really have been just a ten-yard completion? “But Jim, what about that 75-yard TD pass from Earl Morrall to Terry Barr?” “Sorry, Lou, it won’t fit on the card.” I am sticking to my theory.

The Philadelphia cards are the only ones I can think of with play diagrams on the front. A couple of other issues have them on the back. One of these is the 1955 Bowman set, which has a generic play diagram on the back of most cards. Cards of players with lots of stats don’t have diagrams on them, but cards of linemen, defensive players, and rookies all do. Some of the generic diagrams appear on multiple cards, too. Filler, I tell you.

Finally, we have the 1976 Wonder Bread set, which gets my vote for the worst card backs ever. Each features a diagram one of Hank Stram’s favorite plays, along with a detailed description of the play. As I complained in my article about the set, what kid would give the diagrams a second look? But Stram had just taken over as the Saints’ coach in 1976, so perhaps Topps (who printed the cards for Wonder Bread) was trying to ride the buzz about that. Whatever buzz there was didn’t last long, though: even with Stram’s playbook, the Saints went 7-21 in 1976 and 1977. Maybe the Saints’ opponents studied his Wonder Bread cards.

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W is for Wonder Bread–and Other Food Issues

April 30th, 2010  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards, General Collecting Info

Old football cards weren’t packaged just with bubble gum. They also came in and on packages of cereal, bread, hot dogs, potato chips, and dairy products. Some food issues were regional: they included players from a single team and were distributed only in that team’s part of the country. I covered most of those issues in K is for KDKA–and Other Regional Sets. In this article I’ll cover the food issues that were distributed nationally and included players from multiple teams.

1974-1976 Wonder Bread and Town Talk Bread

In 1974, 1975, and 1976, Topps printed small sets of football cards for distribution by Wonder Bread. The cards from all three sets are plain, plentiful, and cheap. The 1974 Wonder Bread set includes thirty cards of star players, and its design closely resembles 1971 Topps. The cards of the offensive players, punter, and kicker have red borders, and the cards of the defensive players have yellow ones. Some of the images on the Wonder Bread cards–such as the Willie Brown pictured here–also appear in Topps sets.

The 1975 and 1976 Wonder Bread sets each contain twenty-four cards. Each set represents an all-star starting lineup: offense, defense, kicker, and punter. I described these sets in “New in the Gallery” blog articles, so I’ll just point you to those: 1975 Wonder Bread Cards and 1976 Wonder Bread Cards.

Topps also printed a variation of each Wonder Bread set for Town Talk Bread, a brand that was distributed only in Western Pennsylvania. I did a little research, and I found that in 2005, the Town Talk and Wonder Bread brands were owned by the same company. Apparently, the two companies were already affiliated in the mid-1970s.

The differences between the Wonder Bread and Town Talk cards are trivial. According to Beckett, the 1974 Town Talk cards “are distinguished from the Wonder Bread issue by the absence of a credit line at the top of the cardback.” On the 1975 and 1976 Town Talk cards, the credit line on the back reads “Town Talk Bread All-Star Series,” rather than “Wonder Bread All-Star Series.”

Because they were distributed in only one area, the Town Talk cards are much scarcer than the Wonder Bread cards. Most of the Town Talk cards I see are priced ten times higher than their Wonder Bread counterparts. You can usually find a few Town Talk cards on eBay.

1962 Post Cereal

1962 Post Cereal was a large set for its time, with 200 cards. The cards came on the backs of cereal boxes, several to a box, so they are all hand-cut. The set contains several pre-rookie cards of Hall of Fame players; one of them is the Bob Lilly pictured here. You can see the rest on my pre-rookie card page.

The images on the Post cards are amusing. Most show the players in fake action shots, and the players appear to be hunching over to fit into the frame. Y.A. Tittle is wearing his helmet, of course, and I believe he is the only helmeted player in the set. (See Y.A. Kept His Hat On.) As I wrote in a previous article, the Post cards used footnotes to indicate which players had been traded during the off-season. Each card of a traded player shows both his old team and his new one. I can’t think of another vintage football card set that explicitly identifies the traded players.

Two of the cards in the Post set have variations. Both cards, Jim Ninowski and Sam Baker, have footnotes because the players had been traded. On each of these cards, the asterisk for the footnote can be either black or red. Yes, we nutty card collectors need to have them both.

1952 Wheaties

The 1952 Wheaties set is a sixty-card, multi-sport set. It contains two cards each for thirty athletes, and the cards came ten to a box on Wheaties boxes. The cards are slightly smaller than standard trading cards, at 2 by 2 3/4 inches.

Six of the thirty athletes in the set–and hence, twelve of the cards–are football players: Doak Walker, Otto Graham, John Lujack, Tom Fears, Glenn Davis, and Bob Waterfield. You can see the football cards in the 1952 Wheaties set in the Vintage Football Card Gallery.

1970 and 1971 Kellogg’s

Lance Alworth 1970 Kellogg's football cardYet another cereal company, Kellogg’s, got into the football card game in 1970. Kellogg’s included small, plastic-on-paper “3-D” cards in their cereal boxes in both 1970 and 1971. The Lance Alworth card pictured here is a 1970 Kellogg’s card; the Jim Hart is a 1971 Kellogg’s.

The Kellogg’s cards came in thin paper wrappers that you could see through, and I know at least one person who collects the cards still in the wrappers. I make fun of him, but I actually think it’s cool. The 1970 Kellogg’s cards were available as a complete set via mail order, but the 1971 cards weren’t, so the 1971 cards are scarcer. The plastic coating on the cards makes the corners sturdier than cardboard, so the cards are easy to find in high grades. The plastic is susceptible to cracking, however.

Both sets feature facsimile signatures on the front, and lots of stats and detailed personal information in tiny print on the back. They’re pretty cool cards, and I imagine that kids made their moms buy lots of cereal to get them.

You can see both 1970 Kellogg’s and 1971 Kellogg’s football cards in the Vintage Football Card Gallery.

Other Food Issues

As I said at the top, several other food issues were distributed regionally. These regional issues include 1959 and 1960 Bell Brand Rams, 1960 Mayrose Cardinals, 1961 Lake to Lake Packers, and 1961 Golden Tulip Chargers. You can read about them in K is for KDKA–and Other Regional Sets.

One group of food issues I haven’t covered yet is the run of 1959-1964 Kahn’s Wieners sets. I’ll write about those in a separate article.

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V is for Values

April 22nd, 2010  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards, General Collecting Info

What is My Card Worth?

I get a lot of email from people asking what their old football cards are worth. To answer this question, I put together a couple of web pages, Football, Baseball, and Other Sports Card Values and Where to Sell Football, Baseball, and Other Sports Cards. For quick answers, check out those pages. For more details, read on.

Most times, the answer is “not much.” The reason is that most vintage cards are not rare: the card companies printed great numbers of them, and their supply far exceeds demand. Our moms threw out a lot of cards, but just as many cards survived the years.

Not many of them survived undamaged, though. When we bought the cards as kids, we played with them and beat them up. We flipped them, put them in our spokes, sorted them every which way, wrote on them, and then tossed them into shoeboxes. I still have some of the cards I bought as a kid, and most of them look as if I kept them in my back pocket. Some of those priceless gems are pictured here.

So, though most cards aren’t rare, they can be scarce in perfect or near-perfect condition. (See G is for Grading.) This is where demand can exceed supply and push prices up. Serious collectors seek cards that look like they’re straight from the pack, and when there are more collectors who want a card than there are high-grade examples of it, the card becomes valuable.

Some cards are rare in any condition–1894 Mayos, for instance–so even the beat-up ones are valuable. If you find one of those behind the fridge, hang onto it. Nobody has asked me to appraise a Mayo, yet, though. Typically it’s a water-stained 1974 Topps Art Malone card with “Jimmy” written on the back.

Factors Affecting Supply

There is no way to know exactly how many copies of a card were printed or how many exist in high grades. There are, however, indicators of supply that people who write price guides take into account when assigning prices to the cards. Some examples:

  • Relative scarcity – Though exact print numbers of vintage cards are not known, with experience in the hobby, you can begin to tell which sets were printed in greater numbers than others. My experience tells me, for example, that high-grade 1959 Topps football cards are easier to find than 1958 Topps cards.
  • Series – The card companies sometimes released cards in series: Series 1, Series 2, etc. Some series had smaller print runs than the others, so the cards in those series are scarcer. Typically the later series had the smaller print runs, presumably because kids buying the cards lost interest as the season went on.
  • Short prints and double prints – Each card typically appeared more than once on an uncut sheet of cards. If a card appeared less often than most of the others, it is called a short print. If it appeared more often than most of the others, it is called a double print. A series can have either short prints or double prints–depending on which were the exception on the sheet–but I’m not aware of any series with both. See my 1963 Fleer Virtual Uncut Sheet page for an example of a sheet containing short prints.
  • Errors and Variations – Some cards had errors that were corrected during production, so both the error cards and corrected cards were printed in smaller numbers than the rest of the set. (See E is for Error Cards.) Some cards had two or more variations–for example, Lance Rentzel’s name appeared in either black or red on his 1970 Topps card–and each variation was printed in smaller numbers than the rest of the set.
  • First and last cards – Theoretically, the first and last cards of a set got more wear from rubber bands and such, so their supply in high grade is lower. I think it’s bunk, but the price guides price the first and last cards significantly higher because of this assertion.

Another factor that affects a card’s supply in high grade is where it was on an uncut sheet. (See U is for Uncut Sheets.) The corners and edges of uncut sheets tended to get damaged in production, just as the corners and edges of individual cards do when handled. This tendency is hard to quantify, though, and as far as I know, none of the price guides take a card’s sheet position into account. The example I always use of a scarce corner card is the 1960 Fleer Jim Woodard, which you can read about on my 1960 Fleer virtual uncut sheet page. Though all 1960 Fleer cards were printed in equal numbers, the Woodard card, which was on the bottom left corner of the printed sheet, is much scarcer than any of the other cards in the set.

As I said above, to my knowledge, in years past, the card companies did not publish the number of cards they printed. (Perhaps they do now; I don’t know much about modern cards.) The card grading companies, however, keep records of how many of each card they have graded. These records are called population reports. If you have a subscription to PSA’s population report, for example, you can go to their web site and find out how many 1960 Fleer Jim Woodard cards they have graded (eighteen, as of today), and how many they have assigned a grade of 9 (just one). By looking at the population reports, you can get an idea which cards are scarcer than others. Population reports are imprecise indicators of the overall population, though: collectors tend to get expensive cards graded more often than cheaper ones, and sometimes they crack graded cards out of their cases and get them re-graded, throwing off the population numbers. Plus you never know when the person holding all the mint Jim Woodard cards is going to fetch them from his mom’s attic and send them all to PSA.

Factors Affecting Demand

Moving to the buyer’s side of the transaction, here are some of the factors that affect demand. I have discussed most of these in earlier articles.

  • Set popularity – Some sets are more desirable to collectors because of their design and the players they include. For example, most football card collectors really like the 1955 Topps All-American set.
  • Player popularity – Some players are more popular than others, naturally. Hall of Famers, Heisman winners, and players who were famous outside of football (e.g., Jack Kemp) are usually more in demand than average players.
  • Player potential – This is much bigger factor for players who are still playing, but it can also affect retired players who are Hall of Fame candidates. If a retired player–for example, Jerry Kramer–still has a good shot at the Hall of Fame, the prices of his cards will tend to be higher than the cards of a player who is not being considered.
  • Rookie cards vs. non-rookie cards – Collectors like to collect rookie cards, especially of Hall of Famers. (See R is for Rookies.)
  • Team popularity – As I wrote in an earlier article, some teams have a larger following than others. I find that Packers, Raiders, and Cowboys cards sell more readily than cards from other teams.
  • News – A player’s death or a team’s performance can increase the demand for that player’s or team’s cards, though this effect is usually temporary.

Price Guides

I presume that to assign the prices to the cards in a given set, people who write price guides gather a sample of actual retail card prices, then consider the factors above to get the prices for the rest of the cards. The assigned prices are usually in the ballpark, but there are plenty of cases where they are not. Often cards are much scarcer in high grades than the price guides indicate, and sometimes they are far less in demand than the price guides appear to think they are.

In addition to price guides, there are services that provide a history of the prices realized for graded cards on eBay and in other auctions. The services are useful, but their sample sizes are often small. If three PSA 8 1967 Philadelphia Atlanta Falcons logo cards sold on eBay in the last year, and their selling prices were $72, $49, and $25, what should you expect to pay for one? And are you willing to search eBay each week and wait for the next one to appear? I use these services, but I also consider other factors when deciding what to pay: the prices realized for similar cards, how frequently the card is available for sale, the person selling the card, and how nice the card is for the grade. To me, a PSA 7 that is well-centered is worth a premium over one that is noticeably off-center.

The bottom line is that no price guide or pricing service is perfect. They will usually get you in the ballpark, but keep in mind that the prices can be based on small samples or large generalizations, so the prices for some cards can be off by multiples. As with anything, the more educated you are and the harder you shop, the better bargains you can find. Personally, I try not to sweat it: if I pay a reasonable price for a card I want, I’m happy. Sometimes I’m happy even if I pay an unreasonable price. For some people, the thrill is in getting cards as cheaply as possible; for me, fretting over a few dollars takes the fun out of it. To each his own, of course.


U is for Uncut Sheets

March 6th, 2010  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards, error cards, General Collecting Info, Interesting Message Board Threads

Occasionally you will see uncut sheets of vintage cards up for sale. Studying uncut sheets can give you insight into why some cards are much harder to find than others. For example, by looking at the uncut sheets for a set, you can see why some cards are considered short prints or double prints. For most sets, the price guides indicate which cards are short prints or double prints, and they adjust the cards’ prices accordingly. I say most, because some short prints are not documented–those in the 1964-1967 Philadelphia sets, for instance.

Uncut sheet of 1966 Philadelphia football cards

(Image from; click on it to see whole sheet.)

Short prints and double prints are just part of the story. A card’s position on an uncut sheet can also affect its scarcity, because cards on the corners and edges of the sheets were more likely to be damaged in production. I have not seen this factored into price guides’ prices, though: if two common cards were printed in equal numbers, the price guides will usually–if not always–assign them the same price.

The price guides do assign higher prices to the first and last cards in a set, asserting that the first and last cards generally got more wear than the other cards. Supposedly, lots of kids sorted their cards into numerical order, put rubber bands around them, and banged them around. In practice, though, I find that first and last cards aren’t noticeably scarcer in high grades than the other cards, unless they happened to be on the corners and edges of the sheets.

A recent–and timely!–thread in the Collectors Universe forums includes pictures of numerous uncut baseball card sheets and a nice discussion about short prints and double prints. The thread shows the patterns that the card companies used when arranging cards from sets of different sizes on the sheets. Depending on the size of the set (or series within a set), the card companies repeated rows of cards on the sheets in different patterns. I recommend reading the thread.

Pictured here is the card I always use as an example of one that is scarce because of its position on the sheet. It’s a 1960 Fleer Jim Woodard card, and it was in the bottom-left corner of the sheet. The Woodard is easily the toughest card in the set–PSA has graded only four of them 7 or better–and a PSA 8 would sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. Most other PSA 8 1960 Fleer commons sell for $10-20.

Over the past year, I have put together a number of “virtual” uncut sheets in the Vintage Football Card Gallery, including one for the 1960 Fleer set. I have included a little discussion for each sheet, as well. Rather than repeat the information here, I’ll just point you to the pages for the sheets:

Here are more of the ABCs:

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T is for Topps, Part 4: the 1970s

March 1st, 2010  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards, General Collecting Info

Topps has printed football cards every year from 1955 to 2009, but since this is a vintage football card blog, I need to stop somewhere. Which years are considered vintage? There is no official definition, but most collectors put the end of the vintage era between 1970 and 1975. As a kid, I collected cards until 1973, so that’s where I’ll stop with this article.

1970 Topps

The 1970 Topps football set is the only set I completed as a kid. I’m not nostalgic about it. Looking at all of the football sets that preceded it–Topps and otherwise–I think the 1970 Topps set is drab. As in 1958 and 1967, Topps used a portrait style on their 1970 cards, and the “matting” covers a large portion of the images. Also, starting in 1970, Topps no longer had the rights to print team logos on cards. In 1968 and 1969, Topps used the team logos to dress up the cards, but in 1970 the logos were gone. Not only that, but in 1970, Topps used only player photos that did not include helmets, in order to avoid showing the team logos on them. Sets prior to 1970 included a lot of nice photos of players with their helmets, but starting in 1970, if Topps showed a helmet on a card, they had to airbrush its logo away.

Like the 1969 Topps set, the 1970 Topps set was released in two series of 132 cards. Card #132, the second series checklist, was included in both series, so it is a double print. As in the 1969 set, some of the second series 1970 cards have scratch-off backs. As in 1969, most of them went unscratched. (See S is for Scratch-Offs.)

Though I’m not fond of the set, there was one great thing about it: every second series pack included a Super Glossy insert card. The 1970 Topps Super Glossies are easily my favorite insert set, and perhaps my favorite set overall.

1971 Topps

1971 Topps is my favorite regular 1970s set. The colored borders on the 1971 Topps cards make them brighter than the other 70s Topps cards, and also more challenging to find in high grade. (Cards of AFC players have red borders; cards of NFC players have blue ones.) The cards don’t have team logos on them, but the little cartoon football players on the front are kind of fun. There’s a different cartoon player for each position.

The 1971 Topps set was the first set to acknowledge the players that were All-Pros the previous season. The All-Pros’ cards have borders that are half blue and half red, like the Paul Warfield card shown here. The 1971 Topps set was another 263-card set released in two series, and its second series checklist appeared in the first series, as well.

It is in the 1971 Topps set that we see the first airbrushed helmets. Though the set doesn’t include any “in action” cards labeled as such, three of the regular cards–Joe Kapp, Jake Scott, and Dennis Shaw–show images of the players in action, and the logos on their helmets have been airbrushed away. This was the start of a dreadful practice.

1972 Topps

In 1972, Topps fully embraced airbrushing. The 1972 set included 42 “Pro Action” cards, and the helmets on those had to be airbrushed. Topps also used sideline photos for a few players, and they had to airbrush the helmets on those, as well. While they were at it, if a player had been traded to a different team, Topps just airbrushed an old photo to give him new colors. Why bother getting a new photo when you can just airbrush an old one?

The 1972 Topps set did have some firsts: it was the first to include “league leaders” cards, and it was the first to include cards for the previous year’s playoff games. Both of those are nice features. It was also the first to give All-Pro players both a regular card and an All-Pro card–overkill, if you ask me. Some star players–Floyd Little, for example–appear on four cards: regular, All-Pro, league leaders, and Pro Action.

This set was also the first–and, to my knowledge, only–football set to be released in three series. The third series appears to have been an afterthought. Why do I think this? Well, the first two 1972 series had a total of 263 cards, like the full 1969, 1970, and 1971 sets. The second series checklists from those sets appeared in both the first and second series, and so did the 1972 second series checklist. If Topps had planned a third series in 1972, wouldn’t they have continued this pattern and included a third series checklist in the second series? Also, 38 of the 88 third series cards are All-Pro and Pro Action cards, basically fillers. The remaining 50 cards are player cards, and though a few are Hall of Famers, none of them are major stars. The biggest names of the day–Unitas, Sayers, Simpson, Bradshaw, Namath, Staubach, Butkus, Griese, and Dawson–are all in the first or second series. And none of the league leaders who appear on cards 1 through 8 are among the player cards in the third series.

The third series was also released very late in 1972. I know I had lost interest in cards by the time they came out, because the only third series cards I had in my childhood collection were from a pack my brother gave me for Christmas. Evidently not many other kids bought the third series cards, either, because when I resumed collecting in 1989, they were scarce and worth much more than cards from the first two series. Larry Fritsch Cards apparently bought a lot of unopened third series cards, though, and as Fritsch has been selling them, the prices have fallen. Not only have a lot of third series cards entered the market recently, but they’ve all been brand new! Fritsch still has unopened boxes of 1972 Topps third series cards for sale.

1973 Topps

In 1973, Topps went to the other extreme and released all of their football cards in a single series. If the modern era is defined by large sets released in a single series, then 1973 is the beginning of the modern era for football cards. Topps was now clearly going for quantity over quality: there are 528 cards in the 1973 Topps set, and they are the plainest of the plain. Gone are any nice touches, even simple things like using the team’s colors in the little ribbon on the left side of the cards. Topps did, at least, use the same ribbon colors for all of the players on the same team. All St. Louis Cardinals cards, for example, have blue-and-orange ribbons.

Surprisingly, though Topps dramatically increased the number of cards in their set in 1973, they omitted some of the special cards they introduced in 1972. Like the 1972 set, the 1973 Topps set contains league leader cards and cards of the previous year’s playoff games, but it does not include Pro Action or All-Pro cards. The 1973 set does include three funky boyhood picture cards, but the bulk of the set is player cards. The large increase in the number of player cards meant that a lot of players made their first appearance on a card in 1973. I might be off by a card or two, but I count 196 rookie cards in the 1973 set! To me, the number of new faces is the set’s best feature.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a 70s set without some serious airbrushing. Here are a couple of beauties. The Paul Robinson card looks like a face-in-hole picture.

As I said at the top, 1973 was the last year I collected cards as a kid. Coincidentally, that’s about the end of what most collectors consider the vintage era. It’s also when Topps appeared to go into full cost control mode. By 1973, Topps was using the sparest of designs, they evidently chose not to spend money to license team logos, and they crudely airbrushed old photos of players rather than acquiring new ones. If I remember correctly, they did not include inserts in packs of 1973 cards, either.

I presume that with no competition, the company was just minimizing costs to maximize profits. Or, maybe, because inflation was high in the 70s, they were trying to reduce costs so they could keep prices low. Their customers–kids like me–didn’t care much what the cards looked like, so long as our favorite players were on them. Now, though, as vintage card collectors, we have dozens of old sets to choose from, and I prefer most 50s and 60s cards to those from the 70s.

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T is for Topps, Part 3: 1964-1969

February 12th, 2010  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards

In 1964, the Philadelphia Gum Company obtained the rights to print cards of NFL players, and they did so from 1964 to 1967. (See P is for Philadelphia.) For those four years, Topps switched to printing cards of AFL players. The cards that the two companies produced reflected the images of the leagues: Philadelphia’s NFL cards were conservative and consistent, and Topps’s AFL cards were colorful and innnovative.

In 1968, after the NFL and AFL agreed to merge, Topps obtained the rights to both leagues, and Philadelphia stopped printing football cards. Topps closed out the decade with two colorful sets containing both NFL and AFL players.

1964 Topps

The 1964 Topps set contains 176 cards, a large number for only eight AFL teams. 166 are cards of individual players (the others are team cards and checklists), so there are 20 or 21 player cards for each team. At the time, that was about twice the usual number of players per team, so Topps was able to include more cards of non-stars than usual. Give or take a card or two, there are 73 rookie cards in the set! Among the rookie cards are these bookend Hall of Famers, Bobby Bell and Buck Buchanan of the Kansas City Chiefs.

The 1964 Topps cards have colored backgrounds and colored stars around the borders. I don’t see a pattern to the colors Topps chose for the backgrounds, except that each card has a background color different from the player’s jersey color. Most of the cards have the player’s name, position, and team in white letters on a black background, but a handful–such as the Bobby Bell card–have either white-on-blue or white-and-black-on-red labels. If there is any significance to the alternate label colors, I don’t see it.

The 176 cards in the 1964 set would have been printed on two 132-card sheets, with 88 cards repeated. That means that there are either 88 double prints or 88 short prints in the set, depending on whether your glass is half-full or half-empty.

There is one mistaken identity in the 1964 Topps set: Ray Abruzzese’s card actually pictures Ed Rutkowski. Topps evidently was focused on spelling his name correctly.

1965 Topps

I described the classic 1965 Topps set in J is for Joe Namath–and the 1965 Topps Tall Boys, so I won’t cover it again here. On to 1966…

1966 Topps

In 1966, Topps used the “little television” design previously seen on 1955 Bowman baseball cards and on the highlight cards in the 1961 Topps football set. I imagine that by the third time around, it had lost its cuteness. (I noticed today that even the checklists in the 1966 Topps set are in the shape of TVs.)

Though the Dolphins joined the AFL in 1966 and were included in this set, Topps reduced the set size to 132 cards. They also wasted one on the Funny Ring Checklist. Because of the reduced set size, there are only 13 rookie cards in the set, and there are no Hall of Famers among the rookie cards. I’d call the set a letdown after 1965.

So, what’s interesting about the 1966 Topps cards? Well, the brown borders show wear easily, so finding high-grade cards is a challenge, and challenges are always fun. Also, some cards, such as the John Farris card shown here, can be found with a stripe along one edge. (I’ve seen yellow, red, and black stripes.) The stripes don’t seem to affect the grades that PSA assigns the cards, but to me they’re distracting, and I prefer cards without them. I presume that cards with a stripe were on the edge of the sheet, but I have not seen an uncut sheet to verify that.

Since the set fit perfectly on a 132-card sheet, none of the cards are short prints. The backs of some cards are white, and the backs of others have a yellowish-brownish tone, suggesting that some sheets were printed on different paper stock than others. Here again, I prefer cards with white backs to those with toning, but PSA does not appear to discriminate.

1967 Topps

In 1967, Topps returned to bright colors, and 1967 Topps football cards resemble some of the psychedelic art of the time. (The Peace poster shown here is from This is another 132-card set with no short prints, no Hall of Fame rookie cards, and no real oddities. I think, though, that it captures the spirit of the AFL and the country better than any of the other 60s sets.

As I wrote in an earlier article, 33 of the 1967 Topps football cards were reprinted in 1969 for a Milton Bradley game called Win-A-Card. The backs of the Milton Bradley cards have a slightly lighter color than the regular cards (yellow v. orange), and some of them, along their borders, show parts of other cards that were included in the game–such as 1968 Topps baseball cards.

1968 Topps and 1969 Topps

As I said at the top, the 1968 Topps and 1969 Topps sets contain both NFL and AFL players. Topps made these sets bigger to accommodate the larger number of teams, and it released each set in two series. Like most of the Topps cards of the 60s, the 1968 and 1969 sets are colorful and bright.

For more detailed information on these sets, see my virtual uncut sheet pages. Here are the links:

More of the ABCs:

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T is for Topps, Part 2: 1960-1963

February 5th, 2010  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards

Topps produced a great variety of football cards in the 1960s: AFL cards and NFL cards, cards with natural backgrounds and cards with colored ones, cards oriented horizontally and cards oriented vertically, cards bordered by stars and cards that looked like little TVs, standard-sized cards and “tall boys.” A collector who focused on just 1960s Topps football cards could build a large, attractive, and interesting collection.

Topps had competition in the 1960s, and I attribute some of their creativity to that. The competition coincided with the emergence of the AFL: while the AFL and NFL competed for fans, the card companies aligned with the leagues and competed as well.

Fleer was the card company of the early AFL. From 1960 to 1963, Fleer produced three AFL-only sets and one AFL/NFL set. In the same time period, Topps produced three NFL sets and one AFL/NFL set. Both companies produced their combined AFL/NFL sets in 1961.

In 1964, Philadelphia Gum Company obtained the rights to print cards of NFL players, and they did so until 1967. Topps countered with AFL-only sets from 1964 to 1967.

In 1968, after the NFL and AFL agreed to merge, Topps obtained the rights to both leagues. By the early 1970s, without competition, Topps’s creativity began to wane. That rant is for a later post, though. This week we’ll look at Topps’s offerings from 1960 to 1963, the years they competed with Fleer.

1960 Topps

1960 Topps is my least favorite 60s Topps set, probably because it is less colorful than their later sets. I am not fond of the big footballs with the players’ names in them, either: they remind me of the big white footballs on 1953 Bowman cards. Though Topps evidently had the rights to use the teams’ logos, they put them only on the team cards, which is unfortunate. I do like that the images of the players cover most of the cards, unlike the peephole views on 1958 Topps cards.

The 1960 Topps set was printed on a single 132-card sheet. There is a virtual 1960 Topps sheet, and a few notes about the set, in the Vintage Football Card Gallery. One bit of trivia about the set is that three of the cards–Bill Wade, Doug Atkins, and Frank Varrichione–have reversed images. Another is that, to my knowledge, this was the first Topps set to contain inserts in the packs. The inserts were metallic stickers: novel, but homely.

1960 Topps was the first major set in which all cards from a given team were grouped together numerically. I always liked this feature. Topps continued the practice until 1968, then abandoned it. Coincidentally–or was it?–1968 was the year they no longer had competition.

Finally, the 1960 Topps set was the first in which the Dallas Cowboys appeared. The Cowboys joined the NFL in 1960. Doyle Nix is the only Cowboy in the 1960 Topps set who did not appear on an earlier card for a different team.

1961 Topps

The 1961 Topps set was released in two series, the first containing NFL players, and the second containing AFL players. This is how Fleer released their 1961 set, as well. Though the price guides give higher values to the second series cards in both sets, the second series cards are in fact more plentiful than the first series cards. Be skeptical of your price guides.

1961 Topps was the first set to contain action cards, like the Eddie LeBaron card shown here. Each action card was framed by a woodgrain TV, a precursor to the 1966 Topps cards. The 1961 Topps and Fleer sets were the first to contain Minnesota Vikings cards. The Vikings were an expansion team in 1961.

Oddly, most of the Houston Oilers in the 1961 Topps set are shown in pink jerseys, though their team color was powder blue. Only George Blanda was spared the pink treatment.

1962 Topps

I love the design of the 1962 Topps set. Each player card shows two images of the player: an above-the-waist still image, and a black-and-white inset photo of the player in action. Some of the inset photos show the wrong players, however. It turns out that Topps even altered some of the photos to give the impostors different numbers.

The 1962 Topps set is tough to assemble in high grade, because the black borders show wear easily. I think high grade is the only way to go, though, since even a little wear can make the cards look bad.

I have seen a few recolored cards from this set, where someone tried to touch up a corner or an edge with a black marker. You can often detect recoloring by looking at the edges of a card, because the ink from a black marker will bleed onto the edge.

Other than the unique design, I can’t think of any remarkable features of this set. The unique design is enough for me, though.

1963 Topps

The 1963 Topps set is another tough one. Its colored borders are slightly more forgiving of wear than 1962’s black borders, but this is another set I would try to get in high grade.

There are a lot of short prints in the 1963 Topps set; they are marked in the Vintage Football Card Gallery. That tells only part of the story, though. Many of the short prints–in particular some of the Steelers and Redskins–are practically impossible to find well-centered. Most of the problem cards were on the edges of the sheets. You can see what the sheets looked like on my 1963 Topps virtual uncut sheet page.

There is one bit of innovation in the 1963 Topps set. The backs have questions with hidden answers, like some scratch-off cards. (See S is for Scratch-Offs.) You don’t scratch them to see the answers, though. Instead, you hold a piece of red cellophane over them. I used to have a bit of the red cellophane, which I assume came in a pack with the cards, but I can’t locate it now. I might never know the answers to these questions.

One last thing worth mentioning is that the backgrounds of many 1963 Topps cards vary in color: you can find them with either a blue sky or a purple one. There used to be a good article on geocities about the variations, but the article is no longer there. Someday maybe I’ll write about the variations myself. Until then, you can see the purple and blue variations of Willie Wood’s rookie card in one of my previous blog articles.

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T is for Topps, Part 1: the 1950s

January 22nd, 2010  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards, General Collecting Info

You can’t talk about vintage football cards without talking about Topps. Topps printed football cards in 1950, 1951, and every year from 1955 until 2009. Earlier this week, I was a little apprehensive about writing this post, since that’s a ton of sets to cover. Then I realized that since I run this place, I can split the topic up however I want!

Since this is a vintage football card blog, I’ll cover the Topps sets until the mid-1970s. That still leaves over twenty sets to talk about, so I’ll break them down further and do just a few years at a time. This is part one, the 1950s.

1950 Topps Felt Backs were Topps’s first football cards. They left nowhere to go but up. The Felt Backs are homely little suckers, especially when compared to Bowman’s attractive 1950 set. (See B is for Bowman.) You can see most of the 1950 Felt Back set in the Vintage Football Card Gallery.

There are a few sources of information about the Felt Backs on the ‘net: An article on the PSA web site has a description of the set, but no pictures. (I assume the author of the article, Staff Writer, has left the company.) The Redskins Card Museum has nice pictures, both front and back, of the Redskins Felt Backs. The Topps Archives Blog has a picture of a window display for the cards, and a picture of a birthday card with a Felt Back pack attached. The birthday card is kind of cool, and there were birthday cards like it that had other toys attached, such as balloons.

I do like one thing about the Felt Backs: the whimsical adjectives describing some of the players. James Murphy is a “deft passer and quarterback.” Bimbo Cecconi is a “blazing halfback.” Bob Bucher is a “tough guard.” And so on. And the little pennants on the back are interesting. Who knows, maybe the cards will grow on me.

Topps’s next offer, 1951 Topps Magic, was more standard than the Felt Backs, but still innovative. As I wrote in S is for Scratch-Offs, the magic part of the cards was the scratch-off section on the back. Most of the cards I see have been scratched, and unscratched cards carry a premium, price-wise.

Like the 1950 Felt Backs, the 1951 Magic set featured college players. Several of the players–Bill Wade, Babe Parilli, and Marion Campbell, for example–went on to have long pro careers, and they appeared on numerous cards in later years. Parilli had the longest career of any of them, playing nineteen seasons for six NFL, CFL, and AFL teams!

After 1951, Topps took a break, and Bowman continued to print cards of NFL players. When Topps returned, in 1955, they produced the 1955 Topps All-American set. This classic and popular set has its own place in the ABC’s, so I won’t discuss it here. See A is for All-Americans.

In 1956, after buying out Bowman, Topps was finally able to print cards of NFL players. Sandwiched between the 1955 All-Americans and the equally classic 1957 set, the 1956 Topps set is somewhat overlooked. I like the cards, though. As I wrote in B is for Bowman, the 1956 Topps cards have elements of both the Topps and Bowman issues from 1955. Like the 1955 Bowmans, they have colored backgrounds and auras around the players, and like the 1955 Topps All-Americans, the have the team name and logo in a little box on the front.

The 1956 Topps cards are also the same size as 1955 Bowman and Topps cards. 1956 was the last year Topps printed cards in this large size, though. To my knowledge, except for the 1965 Topps “tall boys,” all of the Topps sets since 1956 have been the smaller standard size. I assume they made the change to save cardboard.

The 1956 Topps set was the first to include team cards, a nice feature. To my knowledge, it’s also the only set that identified the players on the team cards. I wish all sets did. I sell a lot of team cards to friends and families of the players, especially players who did not appear on cards of their own. Because the images of the players are small on team cards, it is sometimes hard to tell the players apart.

As I mentioned above, the 1957 Topps set is another classic. Like the 1955 All-Americans, 1957 Topps cards have both a portrait and an action shot, a design that collectors find appealing. (Topps would use it again in their 1962 set, another popular issue.) There are six rookie cards of Hall of Famers in the 1957 set, including Bart Starr and John Unitas, the league’s premier quarterbacks for the decade to follow.

1957 Topps was the first football card set to be released in two series. Most of the second series cards are scarcer than cards in the first series, and many are poorly centered. The challenge of finding the cards in high grades, combined with the attractive design and big names in the set, make the 1957 Topps set fun to collect.

In 1958, Topps took a step backward, in my opinion. The 1958 Topps cards are darker than in 1957, and their images are not as clear. The dark colors–such as the black on Jim Brown’s rookie card–tend to show snow and scuffing, as well. And I think the “matting” covers too much of the images: the effect is like looking at the players through a telescope, or a knothole.

The 1958 Topps set is also smaller than its predecessor: 132 cards, released a single series. To me, it is like the 1953 Bowman set, a letdown after a classic. Unlike the 1953 Bowman set, it has a couple of key rookie cards–Brown and Sonny Jurgensen–and those are the cards that save it.

Rounding out the decade is the 1959 Topps set, a return to bright, colored backgrounds, and two series of cards. For a fun summary of the set, see T.S. O’Connell’s article on the Sports Collector’s Digest web site. For a discussion about some of the cards that are tougher to find, see my virtual uncut sheet page for the 1959 Topps set. I can’t add much to what’s written on those pages, so I’ll just let you check those out.

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S is for Scratch-Offs

January 9th, 2010  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards

In the 1950s and 1960s, when the card companies were still marketing to kids, they tried to make the cards interactive and fun to play with. They made cards you could punch out and stand up, they put puzzles on the backs of the cards, and they inserted stamps, stickers, and decals into the packs with the regular cards. They also liked to put scratch-off cartoons and quizzes on the card backs.

1951 Topps Magic cards were the first football cards with scratch-off backs, the scratch-offs accounting for the “magic” in the name. The material Topps used for the scratch-offs was similar to that used on today’s lottery tickets: a silver-gray coating that crumbled off when you scratched it. Scratching off the crumbly coating revealed a picture of the player’s school, along with the school’s name. The feature apparently was a hit, because most 1951 Topps cards I see have been scratched.

The next football cards with scratch-off backs were 1958 Topps cards. Topps used a different material this time, a white substance that revealed a gray picture when rubbed, but that didn’t come off of the card. All of the player cards in the set had scratch-off backs, but, as shown on this Sonny Jurgensen rookie card, the questions and answers were not about the players on the cards. Even now, I’m disappointed.

Unlike the 1951 Topps cards, most of the 1958 Topps cards I see have not been rubbed. Perhaps it’s because the pictures were not as clear as on the 1951 cards. Or perhaps scraping the little silver-gray pellets onto the floor had been part of the fun. For whatever reason, after 1951, the magic was gone.

The scratch-offs on 1959 Topps football cards were also unrelated to the player, but they differed a bit from 1958. Part of the picture on each card was visible before rubbing, and you rubbed the card to reveal the rest. Maybe Topps exposed part of the picture to entice kids to rub the card, but I don’t see many 1959 Topps cards that are rubbed, either. To my knowledge, this was the only set in which parts of the pictures were already showing.

The backs of player cards in the 1960 Topps football set also had scratch-offs, but this time there were no questions and answers, just “Football Funnies” cartoons. I have just one rubbed card, the Matt Hazeltine card pictured here, and the cartoon on it isn’t even related to football. I know they were selling to kids, but I think Topps should have just printed the players’ stats, instead.

Topps persisted with the scratch-offs in 1961. Rubbing the back of a 1961 Topps card revealed a generic cartoon of a player in action, labeled with the name of the player on the card. Though the cartoons were generic, Topps at least took care to get the players’ numbers right. Elbert Dubenion, whose card is shown here, indeed wore number 44.

After 1961, Topps took a break from scratch-offs, instead simply printing cartoons on the card backs. The Philadelphia Gum Company picked up the slack, using the scratch-off feature on their cards in 1965 and 1967. Scratching a 1965 Philadelphia card revealed a picture of one player, and the name of another. To find the name of the pictured player, the card back directed you to a different card, which had the answer. This was a bit convoluted for a kid, I’d say. Philadelphia dispensed with the scratch-offs in 1966, but retained the picture-on-one-card, name-on-another quiz.
In 1967, Philadelphia again put scratch-offs on their cards, but this time they used simple questions and answers related to the player on the card. I don’t know how well the scratch-offs worked back then, but I recently rubbed the Dale Hackbart card shown here, and I can barely see the answer. (It’s “He teaches school.”)

Topps returned to scratch-offs in 1968, but they didn’t put them on every card. Only about 20% of the cards have the “Coin Rub” on the back, and the other 80% have cartoons about the players printed on them. I imagine that limiting the number of scratch-offs was a cost saving measure: someone at Topps wanted the scratch-offs, and someone else said “Why? The kids don’t scratch them, anyway.” And so they compromised. Rubbing the Coin Rub backs reveals cartoons like those on the other cards.

Cards with Coin Rub backs appear in both series of 1968 Topps cards. I thought that Topps might have arranged the Coin Rub cards in a pattern on the uncut sheets–perhaps all in the same row or column, for instance–but they appear to have scattered them randomly on the sheets.

In 1969 and 1970, Topps again put scratch-offs on only a small number of cards. As in 1968, the scratch-offs revealed cartoons about the players, like those on the other cards. In 1969 and 1970, though, the scratch-offs appeared only in the second series of each set. Perhaps this was an effort to boost interest in the second series, after kids had burned themselves out trying to complete the first series. To my knowledge, 1970 Topps is the last set containing cards with scratch-off backs.

Considering how few scratch-offs actually got scratched after 1951, I am surprised that Topps put them on cards for as long as they did. Maybe they assumed that kids were busy scratching them, and didn’t know otherwise until years later, when old cards started coming out of attics. Collectors today don’t appreciate the scratch-offs, either: customers often ask me whether the backs of cards I am selling have been scratched.

I am also surprised, considering collectors’ aversion to scratched cards, that PSA is not harsher when grading them. I often see PSA 7s that have been rubbed, and the 1958 Topps Sonny Jurgensen card above is a PSA 8 OC. To me, a rubbed card ought to grade excellent at best, since an exposed cartoon is certainly more distracting than, say, a quarter-inch hairline crease. What do you think?

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R is for Rookie Cards

December 24th, 2009  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards

As I wrote on my pre-rookie cards page, “rookie card” is an unfortunate term. Years ago, most players’ “rookie” cards were not printed in their rookie years, but sometime later, after they were established as pros. Many players, even Hall of Famers, didn’t appear on cards until well into their careers. Some didn’t appear on cards until long after their playing days were over. Dick Lane, for example, had 14 interceptions–still a league record–as a rookie for the Rams in 1952, but he didn’t appear on a card until 1957. Don Hutson played for the Packers from 1935 to 1945, but no one printed football cards from 1936 to 1947, so Hutson’s rookie card is a 1955 Topps All-American.

So “first card” would be a more accurate term than “rookie card.” Even that isn’t quite right, though, since players sometimes appeared on cards in minor sets before their rookie cards were issued. To be a rookie card, it is understood that a card has to have been printed by a major card company, such as Topps or Bowman. And it has to be a regular issue card, not an insert. So “first regular issue card printed by a major card company” is more precise, though it would make for a long abbreviation. And there’s even some contention about that: PSA’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Rookie Players registry set accepts either 1950 Topps Felt Backs or 1951 Bowmans for the rookie cards of Lou Creekmur and Ernie Stautner. Why? Perhaps because the 1950 Topps Felt Backs are small and ugly. So the registry’s definition of rookie card is “first regular issue card printed by a major card company, unless it’s small and ugly, in which case you can substitute a different one.”

There are other slight hitches. One is that sometimes cards picture the wrong player. Packer fullback Jim Taylor’s rookie card, a 1959 Topps, actually pictures Jim Taylor of the Cardinals. So does his 1960 Topps card. The 1959 Topps card is generally known as Taylor’s rookie card, but his picture doesn’t actually appear on a card until 1961. Some collectors consider his 1961 Topps and 1961 Fleer cards to be his real rookie cards, and Taylor himself reportedly won’t sign his 1959 Topps card.

Also, how about the 1964 Philadelphia Packers’ Play of the Year and Colts’ Play of the Year cards, which have small images of Vince Lombardi and Don Shula? Are they Lombardi and Shula’s rookie cards? I would say so, but my Beckett doesn’t have them marked as such. It does have them priced like rookie cards, though.

And why aren’t cards in the 1961 Nu-Card set considered rookie cards? Roman Gabriel, John Hadl, and Ernie Davis all appear in that set, but their Topps cards from later years are considered their rookie cards. The Nu-Card set pictures college players, but so do the 1951 Topps Magic and 1955 Topps All-American sets, and cards in those sets can be rookie cards. Is the 1961 Nu-Card set not considered a major issue? To my knowledge, the cards were distributed nationally, and there are plenty of them around, so they seem to me to be a major issue.

Whether or not a card is a rookie card has a large influence on its price, of course. Rookie cards, especially of Hall of Famers, are popular with collectors, so there is a high demand for them. Why are rookie cards more popular than other cards? Well, honestly, I think that someone with an early influence on the hobby–perhaps someone compiling a price guide–said “rookie cards should be worth more,” collectors said “okay,” and so it was. Intuitively this makes some sense, since older cards are generally scarcer than newer ones, and a player’s first card would tend to be his scarcest. This certainly isn’t true in all cases, though, so declaring rookie cards more valuable than others is largely artificial.

Perhaps rookie cards were declared valuable to help fuel the modern card market. Modern card collectors like to buy new players’ rookie cards, speculating that the players will become stars and their cards will become valuable. Collectors in the vintage card market do some of this, too: since rookie cards of Hall of Fame players are valuable, collectors speculate by buying cards of senior candidates for the Hall of Fame. The Bob Hayes rookie card pictured here is an example of a card whose price jumped recently, when Hayes was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Some players have more than one rookie card; this happened when more than one company printed cards of the same league in the same year. Sammy Baugh has a 1948 Bowman rookie card, for instance, and also a 1948 Leaf rookie card. Jim Otto has both 1961 Topps and 1961 Fleer rookie cards. For most years before 1970, though–the years I think of as vintage–only one company per year printed cards for a given league, if anyone printed football cards at all.

It seems to me that the concept of a rookie card serves as a convenient way to identify a player’s most desirable card. Which card is a player’s rookie card can sometimes be ambiguous, but identifying a player’s rookie card is much less contentious than, say, trying to decide on his most attractive card, or his scarcest. Picking a most desirable card for each player helps collectors narrow their collecting focus: they can collect rookie cards of Hall of Famers, Heisman winners, players from their favorite team, etc.

I have 80-90% of the rookie cards marked in the Vintage Football Card Gallery, including those of players who appear on only a card or two. You can use the Advanced Search page to look for rookie cards in combination with other criteria.

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Q is for Quarterbacks

December 11th, 2009  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards

Card companies love quarterbacks, and quarterbacks appear on more than their share of vintage cards. This isn’t surprising, since quarterbacks are typically the most recognizable members of their teams. Even considering that, at times the card companies have gone a little quarterback crazy. As I wrote in other posts, the only two Packers in the 1953 Bowman set are quarterbacks, and there are four Bears quarterbacks in the 1957 Topps set.

One set that isn’t quarterback crazy is the 1935 National Chicle set. Only 2 of the 36 National Chicle cards are quarterbacks. In 1935, football was still primarily a running game, with rushing attempts outnumbering passing attempts 2.5 to 1, and rushing yards exceeding passing yards 1.5 to 1. By 1948, when the next major football card issues were released, these ratios had changed dramatically, and total passing yards for the league had surpassed total rushing yards. Football cards reflected this shift: the 1948 Bowman set, for example, includes 17 quarterbacks for 10 teams. The black-and-white “Pitchin'” Paul Christman card shown here is from the 1948 Bowman set.

As the passing game emerged, quarterbacks also became more photogenic. On nearly all old quarterback cards, the quarterback is holding the ball, and in most cases, he’s ready to pass. He’s often straining to throw it past imaginary defenders: running, jumping, and otherwise contorting himself. Sometimes an artist would even enhance the contortions. Check out John Huarte’s 1965 Topps card–he looks like a puppet!

Quarterbacks also have lots of stats, of course, and fans love stats. I actually remember being disappointed as a kid when I turned over a lineman’s card and didn’t see any stats. Quarterbacks have relatively long careers, also, and that makes for plenty of material for the backs of the cards.

Interestingly, it seems that the card companies were more apt to put unproven quarterbacks on cards than players from other positions. In 1957, for example, Topps printed a card of Cardinals quarterback Paul Larson, but not one of Lamar MaHan, who had been the Cardinals’ starting quarterback for three years. McHan remained the starter in 1957, and Larson threw just 14 passes. In 1960, Fleer printed another card of Larson, this time with the Raiders. The Raiders’ starting quarterback in 1960 were Tom Flores and Babe Parilli, but they did not appear in the 1960 Fleer set. Larson appeared in only one game, and he did not throw a pass.

By contrast, defensive players (see D is for Defensive Players) and offensive linemen usually had to play well for a few years before the card companies would put them on cards. I suppose that the card companies, in order to maximize sales, simply printed cards of players with the greatest name recognition. Quarterbacks might be well-known right out of college, while other players in other positions needed to play in the pros for a while before becoming household names.

To query the Vintage Football Gallery for all of the quarterbacks from your favorite team, just use an address of this form: This works for other positions, as well.

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P is for Philadelphia

November 28th, 2009  |  Published in ABCs of Vintage Football Cards, Football Card Trivia

The Philadelphia Gum Company printed football cards from 1964 to 1967. For those four years, Philadelphia had the rights to NFL players, and Topps had the rights to AFL players. The contrast between the companies’ products is striking: the Topps sets of those years are colorful and varied, and the Philadelphia sets are simple and conservative.

All four of the Philadelphia sets are similar. Each of them has 198 cards, grouped by team, and the last two cards in each set are checklists. The teams are ordered alphabetically by city, with Baltimore first in 1964 and 1965 and Atlanta first in 1966 and 1967. Each set contains a team photo card for each team.

I find the 1964 Philadelphia set to be the most attractive of the four, because the colored nameplates with the white borders around them make the cards brighter than the other years. Most of the 1964 cards are easy to find in high grade, though, and that takes some of the fun out of it. A few cards–the checklists come to mind–are challenging because of centering. (See C is for Checklists.)

The Play of the Year cards are the plainest in the 1964 set, and in truth they feature some pretty ordinary plays. They do include photos of the coaches, though, and among the coaches are Vince Lombardi and Don Shula, who had not appeared on cards before. My Beckett catalog does not recognize the Lombardi and Shula cards as their rookie cards, but I don’t know why. The back of each Play of the Year card also lists the offensive players involved in the play. Some of these players never appeared on cards of their own, but at least their names appear here in print.

The 1964 Philly set includes the rookie cards of five Hall of Fame players–Herb Adderley, John Mackey, Willie Davis, Jim Johnson, and Merlin Olsen. Philadelphia misspelled Adderley’s name on his card, and they misspelled it the next three years, too. Other bits of 1964 Philadelphia trivia are that Jim Brown’s Cadillac appears in the background on all of the Browns’ cards, and that the player pictured on Garland Boyette’s card is actually Don Gillis.

1965 Philadelphia is the dullest of the four sets. It has essentially the same composition as the 1964 set–single-player cards, team cards, play cards, and checklists–but it has little color because the nameplates have a black background. Most of the players even look unhappy.

The one bit of innovation in the set is the “Who Am I?” rub-off quiz on the card backs. Oddly, rubbing the card reveals a player’s picture and the answer for a different card, so you have to rub one card to get the question and rub another card to get the answer. Also, my friend Steve from said that not all of the rub-offs work. In Steve’s words, “You’ll get some duds because of age and condition.”

On a positive note, the set holds the rookie cards of five Hall of Fame players: Paul Warfield, Mel Renfro, Paul Krause, Carl Eller, and Charley Taylor. And Renfro is actually smiling!

Perhaps collectors noticed that the 1965 set was dull, because the next year Philadelphia shook things up a bit. The 1966 Philadelphia set returned to colored nameplates, for play cards it had action photos instead of X-and-O diagrams, and it even had two cards–Morrall and Scholtz and Gabriel and Bass–with two players on them. The set also gave the Atlanta Falcons a proper introduction. Since the Falcons were new to the league, the card company could not include an action card for them from the year before, so instead they included a Falcons insignia card. The insignia was big and bold, and it happened to be the first card in the set.

One thing I noticed about the 1966 action photos is that they were all shot in New York and Los Angeles. As a result, the action cards picture a lot of Giants and Rams defensive players. Each of the action cards has a referee signal on the back, and card #196 is dedicated to referee signals. Compared to Topps’s cards, which had cartoons and fun facts on the back, Philadelphia’s cards were all business.

The 1966 Philadelphia set is much tougher than its predecessors to complete in high grade. While some cards are plentiful, others are scarce, and I suspect that a lot of them are undocumented short prints. I found a picture of an uncut sheet that suggests why. For a 198-card set, I would expect there to be three 132-card sheets, with each sheet containing two-thirds of the set. Between the three sheets, there would then be two of each card. The sheet I found, though, contains 110 of the 198 cards, and the top two rows are repeated. There had to be at least another sheet that held the remaining 88 cards, but I can’t think of how a small number of additional sheets could have been configured to even out the distribution of cards. Rows 3 through 6 on the sheet I found contain some of the tough cards in the set, so I’ll wager that those rows did not appear on another sheet.

Like the two earlier Philadelphia sets, the 1966 set contains the rookie cards of five Hall of Fame players. Six years ago it contained only two, Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. The other three–Bob Brown, Gene Hickerson, and Bob Hayes, have all been inducted in the past five years.

For more details on the 1966 Philadelphia set, you can read Jim Churilla’s article on the PSA web site.

In 1967, Philadelphia printed their last set of football cards. Like the 1966 set, it has a funky distribution: some cards are plentiful in high grades, and some are downright scarce. The company got a bit less conservative in 1967, coloring the borders yellow and adding colorful cards of the team insignias. 1967 was the year that New Orleans joined the NFL, so a bit more color was fitting.

Two bits of trivia are worth mentioning: Raymond Berry’s 1967 Philadelphia card actually pictures Bob Boyd, and Paul Hornung appears on a Saints card, but he retired before the start of the season. The 1967 Philly set contains three rookie cards of Hall of Fame players: Leroy Kelly, Jackie Smith, and Dave Wilcox.

Though I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, it seems that in the Philadelphia years, the Philadelphia and Topps issues reflected the images of the leagues they represented. The Philly sets were conservative, consistent, and unadorned. The 1964-1967 Topps sets were colorful and innovative, with stars and tall boys and TVs. Philadelphia had the talent, and Topps had the flash. Philadelphia’s run was too short to draw conclusions, but by 1967 it seems as though Topps was prompting Philadelphia to lighten up, just as the AFL was pressuring the NFL to enliven its game.

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