By Arnold Bailey
It’s time to leave Deflategate and other off-field issues behind and focus on the “second” football season: the playoffs.
For collectors, a good start would be a look back at the Topps Felt Backs, a set of cards that are as unusual as they are historic.
The Felt Backs were produced 65 years ago, in 1950, when football games were decided on fields of play rather than in courtrooms or boardrooms.
The cards are historic because this was the first Topps set devoted to a single sport. The cardmaker distributed the cards in packs of the company’s Varsity brand gum. Topps followed with some modest baseball sets a year later before building up to the dominant role it maintains to this day. Just think of where the hobby would be if Topps hadn’t decided to focus on individual sports with its card sets.
For this debut, Topps produced a collection of unusual little cards. The “little” describes the cards’ size – they measure only 7/8-by-1-7/8 inches. It also describes the number of cards in the set, just 100, a modest total compared to more recent issues.
If you’re a collector who likes brevity in the descriptions that accompany athletes’ photos, these are the cards for you. Their “descriptions” consist of just two, three or, in rare cases, four words – sort of like labels to help set the players apart.
And if you like to collect unique, one-of-a-kind cards that picture star athletes, these are the only football cards ever produced for 69 of the 100 players Topps included in its checklist.
Player selection is an interesting mix of star players and team captains from 71 colleges and universities. Topps filled the set with college players because Bowman held the licensing rights to the NFL, then still in its early development.
North Carolina has four players in the set, and Notre Dame, South Carolina, Cornell and Tulsa have three each. There are 18 schools represented by two players each, and single players represent 48 other institutions.
Compared to current college ratings, some schools on the Topps checklist seem misplaced today. But previously mentioned Tulsa and Cornell, plus Delaware, William & Mary, Columbia, Wake Forest and Villanova, fielded strong teams back then.
The fronts of these unnumbered cards are dominated by black-and-white player photos set against color backgrounds. Most cards are vertical in design with head-and-shoulders photos. Some players are wearing what are now antique-style helmets, others are helmet-less. A few are shown from the waist up, which works all right except when they are posed as kickers. Then, their lower legs seem to be growing out of their shoulders. Seven of the cards have horizontal formats.
Four colors were used as backgrounds (blue, green, red and brown). But there must have been an ink malfunction during some of the print runs because 25 of the cards have both brown and yellow backgrounds. This variation means that true master set comprises 125 cards, including the 25 variations.
In boxes under each photo are the player’s name, school and position. This is where Topps adds an additional word or two or three, to provide a slightly more specific description of the player. No lengthy card-back statistics and narratives here; the most Topps adds are words like “triple threat” for a quarterback who could pass, run and kick.
Quarterbacks also are described as “clever,” “crack,” “brilliant” and “fast-stepping.” To describe halfbacks, there are adjectives like “blazing,” “galloping,” “leading,” “speedy,” “elusive” and even “punting,” since specialists like kickers were rare back then. Ends were described with words like “pass-snaring,” while fullbacks were “crushing” or “crashing.” Linemen (centers, guards and tackles) were “brawny,” “charging,” “rugged,” “tough” and “jarring.”
Each college has a card-back color pennant. Because full-size pennants were made of felt, the tiny card-back versions are made of a felt-like substance applied to the cardboard. In general, the little pennants follow appropriate school colors. But they often cause condition problems.
The checklist includes 24 All-Americans (plus one college quarterback, Boston College’s Butch Songin, who earned All-American honors in another sport, ice hockey), 27 team captains or co-captains, many four-year lettermen (freshmen were allowed to play varsity ball in the post-World War II era), 13 players who would become members of the College Football Hall of Fame, four future Pro Football Hall of Famers, 30 who played in the NFL or were drafted by an NFL team, six who played in both the NFL and the Canadian Football League, three who played only in the CFL, plus one who later coached in Canada and led his team to the CFL’s Grey Cup.
Among black players are Dan Towler of Washington & Jefferson, described as “the greatest running back you never heard of” when he was in the NFL, and Levi Jackson, the Yale halfback who was the first of his race to captain an Ivy League team.
The brightest stars of this card set include Joe Paterno, then a Brown University back but later a college coaching legend at Penn State until the misdeeds of an assistant coach stained his image. There are All-Americans like Notre Dame end Leon Hart and lineman Jim Martin; Southern Methodist’s great triple-threat Doak Walker; North Carolina’s super runner Charlie Justice (runner-up to both Hart and Walker when they won Heisman Trophies in 1949 and ’48, respectively); Leo Nomellini, the lineman from Minnesota who had a long NFL career; California’s Jackie Jensen, who also made history in baseball and was among several multi-sport stars in the Felt Backs set; Oklahoma’s Darrel Royal; and linemen Lou Creekmur of William & Mary and Ernie Stautner of Boston College.
There are at least three variations in the set. The cards of Delaware lineman Johnny Miller and Duquesne center James O’Day have their names are printed above rather than below their photos. Minnesota lineman Clayton Tonnemaker shows no position.
Nomellini was on the most football cards – 51 – of the Felt-Back players, and one is in the 1948 Leaf set, which has a dozen stars who also would be in Topps’ 1950 issue.
There are other interesting players like William & Mary guard George Hughes, who was a World War II veteran who flew 23 Air Force combat missions. And there’s Andy Pavich, the powerful Denver fullback who was sent onto the field alone to test conditions during a blizzard before a game against Utah. When he sank into the snow up to his waist, officials had the evidence they needed to postpone the game.
To borrow a key phrase from the NFL’s Wells report, it is “more probable than not” that the game of football 65 years ago was a lot more fun for collectors, fans and even players than suffering through the Deflategate saga.
Felt Backs’ Baseball Connection
Several football players in the 1950 Topps Felt Backs card set also starred in baseball, and two of them – Jackie Jensen and Bob “Red” Wilson – are better known by collectors for the baseball cards that picture them.
Jensen is one of only two athletes to play in both the Rose Bowl, when he was an All-American back at California, and the World Series (in 1950 with the N.Y. Yankees). (The other is Chuck Essegian, who played for Stanford and the Los Angeles Dodgers.)
Jensen also played in the first College World Series in 1947 and, as a pitcher, outdueled Bobby Layne to lead California past Texas in the regionals. Layne went on to be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the same series, Jensen also played against future U.S. President George H. W. Bush, who was Yale’s first baseman.
Jensen has 75 baseball cards, capped by his rookie issue in the 1951 Bowman set.
Wilson, an all-conference center at Wisconsin, played 10 seasons as a catcher in the major leagues. With the Tigers, Wilson caught “Yankee Killer” Frank Lary and batted .354 in 1954 and ’55 in games when Lary had a 16-3 record against New York. Wilson also caught Jim Bunning’s no-hitter in 1958 for Detroit against Boston. He was pictured on 14 baseball cards, including his 1953 Topps rookie.
Others on the Topps Felt Backs checklist who also played baseball (but are not on baseball cards) include Pete Zinaich, who captained both the football and baseball teams at West Virginia University; Dick Gilman, a Kansas quarterback who was a teammate of Mickey Mantle when they played minor league baseball at Joplin and also roomed with the Yankee legend at a prospects camp; Bo Hagan, a quarterback at South Carolina who pitched briefly in the minors with a 1-6 record in one Class-D season and was later a successful coach; and Frank Mataya, a Washington State quarterback who earned 13 varsity letters, including four in baseball.
Another Felt Backs baseball connection was in the collegiate career of Harry Szulborski, a star halfback at Purdue who counted future big league slugger Bill Skowron among his Boilermakers teammates. Skowron went to Purdue on a football scholarship, but turned his attention to baseball after just two years in college.
Arnold Bailey is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.