By John McMurray
Given the spate of cards issued in recent years to commemorate prominent players and events from Super Bowl history, it is surprising that trading cards recognizing pro football’s most important game have generally not been prominent over time. The ones that do exist are most often affordable and easy to locate, even if it sometimes takes initiative to find them.
Topps, then the exclusive manufacturer of football cards, did not issue its first Super Bowl card until 1972, in the fall following Super Bowl VI. Even then, the game was commemorated by only a single card (No. 139), which simply included the heading ‘Super Bowl Game.’ It showed Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach scrambling. While this card is one of the few in that set to show game action of any sort, it is merely a black-and-white shot which also was presented without context and did not depict any particularly memorable play from that Super Bowl.
Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Topps would routinely issue only one Super Bowl card each year in a similar style, usually including a brief scoring summary with a few player statistics on the reverse. The cards were typically unremarkable.
In 1975, for instance, Terry Bradshaw is shown against the Minnesota Vikings after throwing a pass, and, in 1977, a group of Oakland Raiders defenders is pictured tackling a Minnesota Vikings runner. The generic scenes and the somewhat haphazard selection of photographs on Super Bowl cards of that period surely reveal uncertainty on the part of Topps as to how best to represent an entire game on a card. In retrospect, an annual subset containing memorable plays from each game would have done so more effectively.
On virtually all of Topps’ early Super Bowl cards, the game action shown was not of any obvious consequence. More glaringly, the 1978 Topps card for Super XII between the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos depicting Tony Dorsett does not show any Denver players at all and therefore does not provide any kind of broad portrayal of the game itself. Similarly, in 1986, the Topps Super Bowl card of the Chicago Bears-New England Patriots game shows only Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon handing the ball to running back Matt Suhey without any hint of a New England player in the background.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, it was through Fleer’s Team Action issues where fans could get a better view of contemporary Super Bowls on cards. In contrast to Topps cards, which airbrushed logos from team helmets for licensing reasons, Fleer’s cards included helmet designs as well as broader panoramic views which gave a fuller sense of the actual scene at the Super Bowl. The 1980 Fleer card (No. 69) from Super Bowl XIII is one of the best Super Bowl cards of its time, showing Bradshaw going back to pass with part of the Super Bowl logo visible on the field.
Over almost two decades, Fleer routinely included wide-angle scenes on its Super Bowl cards, generally including roughly a dozen players and capturing dynamic game action, even though the particular plays were still not ones of obvious consequence. While Fleer Team Action sets are a niche product and are somewhat difficult to locate, they do include some of the better action shots of the Super Bowl that have been produced.
Playing off of what was Fleer’s successful execution, Topps began using more colorful, panoramic photos on its Super Bowl cards in the late 1980s. Though blurry, the 1989 Topps Super Bowl card showing Joe Montana dropping back to pass against the Cincinnati Bengals (No. 1) is a marked improvement over the nondescript photo used by Topps in its 1982 set (No. 9), depicting an earlier Super Bowl between the same two teams. Topps also used innovative action photography of Super Bowls in its sticker sets.
It was Pro Set that brought Super Bowl cards into the modern era. Although Pro Set had first issued Super Bowl cards in its 1989 set, which depicted only a logo for each individual game, it was its 24 cards of Super Bowl MVPs released in 1990 which offered the first high-end Super Bowl issue. Even though Pro Set cards have little value due to widespread overproduction, it does not take away from the quality of the artwork used on these cards and their fine overall presentation. Today, more than twenty-five years later, these uniformly well-done Super Bowl MVP cards are likely the most sought-after Super Bowl cards ever produced.
Another fan favorite is the 1991 Pro Set Super Bowl XXV Limited Edition Silver Anniversary Commemorative Set, issued both in packs and in a 160-card boxed set. Underappreciated today, the set offers the best portrayal of the Super Bowl to date, distinguished by the quality of the photographs. Various cards show replica tickets of all of the Super Bowls to that point; an array of ‘Super Bowl Supermen’ including the respective MVPs as well as other stars, from Jets running back Matt Snell to Raiders punter Ray Guy; and collage cards which show assorted memorabilia related to the games. The vividness of the photos that Pro Set used was a noticeable step forward, particularly in contrast to the somewhat out-of-focus Super Bowl XXV card (No. 1) issued in the 1991 Topps set.
The finest part of the Pro Set Silver Anniversary set is the ‘Super Bowl Super Moments’ cards (Nos. 136-151), which offer sharp, borderless cards of particular events in Super Bowl history. Card No. 144 is dedicated to Jackie Smith’s memorable drop of a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIII while card No. 150 is of Phil McConkey’s celebration after catching a touchdown on a deflected pass. Not every Super Bowl has a Super Moments card, but it is cards of this type that offer a blueprint for the type of Super Bowl card, which could be produced more widely today.
In 2011, Topps issued its Super Bowl Legends cards, a high-quality release of Super Bowl Most Valuable Players that included variations, specialty cards, and autographs. Full of close-up action shots, this issue offers perhaps the definitive examples of well-produced cards that recognize the best players in Super Bowl history. With this set, the Super Bowl MVPs have been portrayed comprehensively.
What is still lacking is a set that gives detailed attention to the memorable moments in Super Bowl history. Perhaps it also speaks to what Super Bowl cards ought to be. Over time, Super Bowl cards have gone from close-up game action to panoramic shots, to cards of logos, to cards of MVPs, to some specific photos of memorable game moments. Pro Set even issued a card of Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl and another of members of the U.S. military watching the game from Saudi Arabia (1991, Nos. 350 and 351, respectively). Now, the time is right for a card company to focus on memorable moments in Super Bowl history more extensively than has been done previously.
When fans think of the Super Bowl, it is usually a few select moments from each game that stand out. John Stallworth’s over-the-shoulder catch against the Rams; Jack Squirek’s interception of Joe Theismann; Joe Montana’s touchdown to John Taylor; and Santonio Holmes’ catch against Arizona are just a few.
The 2015 cards of Malcolm Butler’s interception against Seattle produced by both Topps and Panini are a step in that direction. Emphasizing outstanding moments in Super Bowl history to a fuller extent would be a meaningful and enduring addition to the Super Bowl card landscape.
John McMurray writes about vintage cards for SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.