By George Vrechek
In the previous installments of this article, we looked through the vintage catalogs at what to collect next in various sports after you have collected the popular and available sets. In this final installment, we look briefly at vintage (pre-1981) hockey, boxing, golf and the other sports.
Hockey – the popular sets
There is a surprising number of vintage hockey cards, primarily due to Topps producing sets for both Canada and the U.S. Topps first issued a set in 1954. (I’m going to consistently omit referring to the cards as covering two years, 1954-55.) Topps returned again for good in 1957. The Canadian O-Pee-Chee Co. produced hockey cards in the 1930s. In 1968, O-Pee-Chee entered into a licensing agreement with Topps and had Topps print nearly identical cards with the required English and French bios until 1994. From 1974-77, O-Pee-Chee also produced WHA sets. Topps-produced sets increased from 66 cards to 132 to 264 and finally 396 (multiples of a standard 132-card sheet).
Parkhurst also issued 904 cards in sets from 1951-64 (except for 1956). Parkhurst sets range from 50 to 105 cards. The cards get pricier and harder to find if you work your way back from the 1970s. Cards of Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr will be expensive regardless of the year, but at least there aren’t any noticeable single prints or high numbered series. If you are in Canada or near the border, the older cards should be easier to find than elsewhere.
If you collected all 64 regular Topps, O-Pee-Chee and Parkhurst vintage sets from 1951 through 1980, you would have 9,360 cards and you might start looking around for what hockey cards to collect next.
Topps wouldn’t be Topps if it didn’t produce some pesky inserts. If you ignore coins, stamps and cards that turn into rings, I counted about 280 cards from the 1970s in 11 sets from Topps or O-Pee-Chee that you can add to your quest. There is also a 1966 Topps 66-card USA test issue that is expensive when you can find it.
Hockey cards 1900-1929
Hockey has been played in Canada since the 1870s. Lord Stanley’s Cup was first awarded to the best amateur team starting in 1893. By 1910, a variety of professional leagues and teams developed including the Montreal Canadiens.
In 1918, the NHA morphed into the NHL, which was a three-team league for its first two years. Had there been sets for NHL players then, you would only need about 30 cards. At that time, there were seven players on the ice, rather than six, but there were only three or four guys on the bench.
Let’s start at the beginning as to the earliest appearances of hockey cards. All of the cards in this grouping are going to be expensive unless they have been run over by a Zamboni. The oldest card seems to be a 1906 Ogden Cigarette issue showing an outdoor hockey game at McGill University and titled “McGill Men of Hockey.”
Thanks to the tobacco insert card hey-day, there are a few sets of hockey cards produced in the 1910-12 era – C55, C56 and C57 (131 cards). Early pioneer pro players included Georges Vezina, Newsy Lalonde and Art Ross.
Sweet Caporal tobacco issued 45 postcards of hockey players in 1910-11. There were many candy sets and one more tobacco set issued in the 1920s. Jefferson Burdick found most of them and gave them the following catalog numbers:
– C144 1924 Champs Cigarettes – 60 cards
– V122 1924 Champion Athletes
– V128-1 and V128-2 1923 and 1928 by Paulin’s Candy – 160 cards
– V130 by Maple Crispette 1924 – 29 cards
– V145-1 and V-145-2 from 1923-24 – 100 cards.
There were also 14-card sets in 1923 and 1924 of the Crescent Ice Cream Selkirks Fishermen sporting big fish on their sweaters but, of course, no helmets.
Other issues during the 1920s included cards or photos such as the 1924 Crescent Falcon-Tigers, 1924 Holland Creameries, 1925 Dominion Chocolates, 1927 LaPatrie and 1928 LaPresse photos. There seem to be about two dozen issues and about 700 cards before 1929 featuring hockey players based on Beckett’s most recent price guide for hockey.
The 1930s and 1940s
Many teams joined the NHL in the 1920s but started to fade away again in the 1930s. By 1942, there were only six teams left; they have been referred to as the “Original Six,” although a more apt name would be the “Surviving Six.”
Five annual sets of O-Pee-Chee hockey cards started in 1933. Worldwide Gum also issued hockey sets in the 1930s. Again, Burdick found most of the issues and gave them numbers.
Compared to the portraits on the 1920s cards, some of these players looked to be almost in action. At least they might have a stick in their hand and you could see their skates. The equipment and uniforms look like players in woolly pajamas with newspapers for shin guards compared to hockey outfits today.
– V252 1933 Canadian Gum – 50 cards
– V288 1933 Hamilton Chewing Gum – 21 cards
– V129 Anonymous from 1933 – 49 or 50 cards
– V304 O-Pee-Chee comprised of 180 cards in sets between 1933 and 1937
– V301 1939 and 1940 O-Pee-Chee Hockey Stars, 5-by-7 photo card premiums – 150 players
– V356 1936 World Wide Gum Ice Kings – 135 cards, plus six premium cards.
There was a 1934 Montreal issue from Sweet Caporal consisting of 48 photos inserted in programs. The Goudey Sport Kings set included four hockey players: Eddie Shore, Ching Johnson, Ace Bailey and Howie Morenz. Photos of hockey players were issued by Beehive (from the St. Lawrence Starch Co., Port Credit, Ontario) starting in 1933 and continuing in three distinct stages to 1967. There were about 1,031 cards, plus plenty of variations. Quaker Oats issued 230 player photos between 1938-54.
There were also matchbook covers with hockey players and cards from Sweden and England, but I’m leaving them out of the card count. There were a few smaller NHL and minor league team sets issued in the 1930s as well. The Exhibit Supply Co. had 65 hockey players in its arcade cards for Canada. Only a few hockey sets were issued in the 1940s, resulting in perhaps 43 sets between 1930 and 1949.
The 1950s through 1980
Berk Ross had four hockey players in its multi-sport set in 1951. Royal Desserts had eight in 1952. Team issues started to be more common, as we have seen in other sports. I estimated that there were about 10 sets issued each year on average between 1960 and 1980, including sporadic sets for NHL, AHL, WHL and other minor league teams. Some of the older card sets include Laval Dairy, Juniors Blue Tint, Bas du Fleuve and St. Lawrence Sales. Many issues were strictly in Canada. There were also cards issued in Sweden.
From 1960-63, York Peanut Butter issued 135 hexagonal cards of Canadiens and Maple Leafs. In 1963-65, there were 65 Chex Photos. Post had 13 players on its cereal boxes in 1967. In 1970, Dad’s Cookies had 144 cards. The 1970 Esso issue had 254 stamps. There weren’t many other large or continuous issues. It is worthwhile to get a hockey-only catalog and peruse what is available and affordable in this period.
I estimated that the vintage hockey card universe exceeds 15,000 cards, providing fertile territory for avid hockey collectors and those moving to hockey after working on other sports. With “just” the post-1950 Topps, Parkhurst and O-Pee-Chee regular sets, you would have two-thirds of the vintage hockey cards. The rest of the vintage hockey cards are going to be a little harder to track down.
Boxing and golf
The production of boxing and golf cards was the polar opposite of the basketball and football cards. There were few basketball and football cards before 1948. Whereas boxing and golf cards had several sets issued in the tobacco era and in the 1920s and 1930s, but there were few vintage issues after 1951.
I counted at least 800 boxing cards issued before 1952. The 1951 Topps Ringside set and boxing cards in the T218 set are available and relatively affordable.
With golf card collecting, you can pick up interesting issues from the U.K., such as those from Churchman. Golfers and boxers are also included in many of the same multi-sport issues previously discussed.
Also appearing on vintage cards, thanks primarily to the creativity of the tobacco card issuers, were wrestlers, swimmers, track stars, billiard players, roller skaters, auto racers, horseshoe players, tennis players, cyclists, skaters, skiers, boaters, jockeys, oarsmen, bobsledders, curlers, bull fighters, canoeists, fencers, cricket players, lacrosse players, soccer players, weight lifters, tobogganers, snow shoers, shooters, horse riders, sailors, hand ball players, walkers (professional pedestrians) and aviators. N43, Allen & Ginter’s 50-card World’s Champions, was an early favorite of collectors. Sports like rowing attracted huge crowds and the best athletes in some parts of the country. Tobacco company insert cards would pair nice-looking young ladies with a variety of subjects ranging from sports to ancient mythology to yacht club colors.
The 48-card Goudey 1933 Sport Kings set was a gum card classic. The 1977-79 Sportscaster cards included 2,184 athletes in 146 sports with 82 percent of the cards depicting sports other than baseball, football, basketball and hockey. I did not try to add up the rest of this crowd. You may be able to collect every vintage card of participants in some of these sports, making them the most realistic sport completion goal.
An important finding is that if you pick up a catalog for any sport that includes modern cards, make sure you have an adequate magnifying glass or a microscope. To control the phone book-size of some of the price guides, the font sizes get shrunk down to almost nothing. Vintage cards need to be in a separate book from modern cards to do them justice. Unfortunately, price guides may go the way of the phone books and be available only online in the future. I hope not, because the catalogs are a history of the hobby and interesting casual reading whether you collect the cards or not.
It is challenging to determine what should be counted as a vintage sport card.
Whatever totals are derived will lack precision and universal agreement. The more you know about scarce, vintage sports issues, the more you realize how extensive the field is and how difficult it is for anyone to be expert in all vintage cardboard. Vintage card collectors may likely have different experiences as to what cards are candidates for sets to pursue next and may have different information on some of the myriad of issues covered in these articles. Any feedback on these subjects is welcomed.
However, the order-of-magnitude numbers I calculated are that 73 percent of the vintage single cards are baseball, followed by football (13 percent), hockey (10 percent) and basketball (2 percent). Let’s not forget the boxing, golf and miscellaneous other sports. We will arbitrarily assign them 2 percent of the pie.
The entire pie of vintage sports cards is conservatively estimated at more than 150,000 cards using my definitions of cards and what I could find.
Vintage basketball is the smallest card category of the major sports and is the most likely for garnering most of the cards unless they have George Mikan on them. You can also conceivably collect a majority of hockey cards, especially if you are at shows in Canada. Football collectors will have trouble finding many local team sets, however; the only really old football set is (N302) 1884 Mayo. It is possible for collectors to pick up 75 percent of the universe of football cards.
Collecting all vintage baseball cards is impossible. Jefferson Burdick told us that years ago. There are at least 110,000 vintage baseball cards, and most collectors will be lucky to ever get 25 percent of them.
Vintage tier level idea
Any reader who has even half of the vintage sports card pie (75,000 singles) is invited to write the next SCD article on how you did it. I know a collector who is just about at that level. However, the veteran set collectors I surveyed averaged 28,000 vintage sports cards. Some people gauge collections based on graded conditions. I think it would be interesting if people targeted increasing their singles of vintage sports cards. You could reach certain tiers of recognition.
If you had 35,000 single vintage sports cards, you would be in the Charles Bray (pioneer editor and auctioneer) Tier. At 50,000 cards, you would be in the Lionel Carter (pioneer baseball card collector) Tier. When you reached 65,000 cards, you would be elevated to the Buck Barker Tier. Barker would have been enthused about this concept since he attempted to collect every baseball card and was always looking for the obscure player in obscure sets. If you reached 80,000 cards, you would enter the Jefferson Burdick (Father of Card Collecting) Tier. If you owned more than 100,000 vintage single sports cards you would get to name the tier yourself. Of course, there would have to be some fancy (and well-paid) independent organization to certify all this and do surprise audits to take the rubber bands off your cards and count them all. If you would like to let me know where you stand in my whimsical tier system, I will be glad to report the results anonymously.
It is fun to try to figure out what to collect next, even if it is an endless pursuit. Now where did I put those non-sports type cards?
George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.