The Football Card Collecting Challenge: 20,137 Cards from 313 Sets

By George Vrechek

In the first two installments of what will be a five-part series, we looked through the vintage baseball card catalogs at what could be collected next after you have tackled the popular and available vintage card sets.

In this installment, we look at football cards before moving on to basketball, hockey and the other sports. Let’s look first at the popular vintage football sets.

Topps cards 1957-1980.

Topps cards 1957-1980.

Topps football 1956-1980
Once Topps gained a contract directly with the NFL in 1956, the company produced annual sets. Cards from 1956-80 are devoid of any particularly impossible series other than the 1972 high numbers, which Topps sold as surplus to dealer Larry Fritsch.

However, the printing sheet layouts resulted in a good portion of the cards being printed in slightly smaller quantities, and premiums for the shortprints in these relatively small sets are a pain.

After 1972, all cards were produced at the same time. Annual issues grew from 120 cards in 1956 to 528 in 1973 and remained at that level, creating 7,457 regular cards between 1956-80. There were also about 821 inserts, checklists and other cards produced by Topps prior to 1981.

Fleer issues between 1960 and 1963 seemed to get more difficult to find each year.

Fleer issues between 1960 and 1963 seemed to get more difficult to find each year.

Philadelphia and Fleer
Philadelphia and Fleer danced between each other and Topps featuring AFL or NFL players in the 1960s. The 792 Philadelphia cards (1963-67) are easier to find than the 528 Fleers (1960-63). The Fleers seem to get progressively more difficult by year. Without an NFL exclusive, Fleer returned in the 1970s with 339 in-action cards, 134 Hall of Famers and 134 cards in other small sets not involving individual players.

Scarcity of football vs. baseball
An analysis I made of the frequency of football cards versus baseball cards appearing on eBay showed that football cards were about one-half as plentiful per card in the set as baseball cards for the entire period between 1956-73, meaning that you were twice as likely to find a Topps baseball card you needed than a Topps football card.

The analysis covered more than 800,000 eBay listings of Topps cards. The early ’60s were the most lopsided for baseball over football. In the 10 years between 1958-67, the number of cards in Topps baseball sets exceeded their football sets by a factor of 3.6 to 1.

Bowman, Topps, Leaf and the Exhibit  Supply Co. issued cards between 1948-51.

Bowman, Topps, Leaf and the Exhibit
Supply Co. issued cards between 1948-51.

1948 to 1955
Bowman’s 108-card 1948 set is difficult. The 1950-52 sets are 144 cards each and not too hard to acquire except for the 1952 Bowman large cards. The 1948-55 sets resulted in 1,068 Bowman football cards. The tough 1948 and 1949 Leaf sets totaled 147 cards. The Exhibit Supply Co. issued 60 football cards between 1948-52. Some common players were only printed during one of the years, resulting in some difficult and expensive commons, as well as numerous variations. Without an agreement with the NFL, Topps issued cards of college or retired players with the 1950 Felt Backs, 1951 Topps Magic and 1955 All American sets (275 cards). I have included college players in my card counting.

An ideal collection
If you collected all of the above-mentioned football sets, you would have a wonderful collection of 11,755 cards. If you took a pass on the difficult Leaf sets, 1948 Bowmans, 1950 Topps Felt Backs and the 1952 Bowman large cards, you would still have 11,256 cards.

I surveyed 19 vintage football card collectors and found their collections averaged 6,200 cards, whereas the average for the vintage baseball card collectors I surveyed was 17,000. As we will see, the football collectors actually corralled a greater percentage of the available cards than did the baseball collectors.

How much more is there to collect in vintage football cards after you have worked on the popular sets described? I took a look at the latest Krause Publications Standard Catalog of Vintage Football Cards for sets prior to 1981.

Prewar football is limited, but expensive – from left: background 1935 National Chicle premium, 1935 National Chicle Nagurski and 1894 Mayo.

Prewar football is limited, but expensive – from left: background 1935 National Chicle premium, 1935 National Chicle Nagurski and 1894 Mayo.

Prewar cards
Unlike baseball, there is a surprising lack of prewar football cards unless you consider the matchbooks from the 1930s as cards. I counted 143 cards from the following sets from the catalog: 1894 Mayo, 1935 National Chicle, 1935 R311-2 National Chicle Premium Photos, 1939 Gridiron Greats Blotters, 1908 Michigan Dietsche Postcards and 1930 Notre Dame Postcards. The catalog omits other postcards that were plentiful at the beginning of the 1900s. Football teams of all kinds pictured local players on regular postcards or “real” postcards. Grange, Rockne and Thorpe are in the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings set. The catalog lists the Mayo cards at $87,500 in Near Mint and the National Chicle set at $35,000. The other sets supposedly aren’t too expensive; however, finding them may be a challenge. But that is it for prewar cards, according to the catalog.

There are several cards of football players that didn’t make it into the last catalog, especially those that were included in multi-sport sets.

– Yale captain Harry Beecher is the sole footballer in the 1888 N162 Goodwin Champions set.
– B33 tobacco blankets had schools featuring generic football players, as did the 1910 Murad Cigarette issues.
– In 1924 Lafayette College had 20 cards of their football players.
– 1926 Shotwell Candy had 26 cards of Red Grange.
– The 1926 Sports Company of America set included 14 football cards.
– People’s Baking issued 24 cards of Stanford and Cal players in 1929.
– Wheaties boxes in the 1930s also had some football players.
– Sammy Baugh and Bronko Nagurski were on 1938 Dixie Lids.

Misc group -WilliamsOther national postwar issues
I found 41 issues with 2,305 cards that fit into a category I’ll call postwar national or at least regional issues. This group ranges from expensive early ’50s cards to cheap cards from the ’70s.

– The largest issue is the 1967 Williams Portraits of 512 NFL players. These 8-by-10-inch drawings were a Kraft Cheese mail-in promotion and are nice-looking, findable and a little expensive. They are hard to put a rubber band around though.
– Between 1959 and 1964, Kahn’s issued 288 cards of players in packages of wieners starting with just Browns and Steelers but then expanding to all NFL teams in 1963 and 1964.
– Post Cereal had a big, difficult 200-card issue of NFL players in 1962, which required consuming unpopular cereals and carefully cutting the cards from the boxes.
– Kellogg’s had 60 3-D cards in both 1970 and 1971.
– Wonder Bread had 78 cards between 1974-76. The cards are not hard to find; however, Wonder Bread owned Town Talk Bread as well, and sets were created with a Town Talk Bread credit on the back for limited distribution in western Pennsylvania. The Town Talk variations are hard to find.
– Clark Volpe had a 66-card set of drawings in 1970 covering eight of the teams.
– Nu-Card issued cards of 80 college players, plus 264 college pennant inserts – a few more than I will ever need.
– There were also Bazooka panels in 1959 and 1971. The 18-card 1959 set was listed at $5,000 in Near Mint in the catalog.
– The 32-card 1952 Bread for Health bread end labels set was listed at $4,300 in the catalog.
– Kellogg’s Pep Cereal featured five players in 1948.
– 1951 Berk Ross includes eight football players.
– The 1952 Wheaties card set includes 12 players.
– 1954 Quaker Sports Oddities includes six football players.

Canadian miscCanadian and Mexican cards
Between 1958 and 1980, Topps produced 1,483 cards of Canadian Football League (CFL) players either under the name Topps or through a licensing agreement with O-Pee-Chee. Parkhurst, Post, Crown Brand, Wheaties, Jogo and a few others issued 771 CFL cards. In 1977, Topps issued 528 cards for Mexico, which I’ll add in with this grouping of neighbors to our north for 2,782 cards in this category. The Mexican set seems to have wound up with just a dealer or two according to collector Ken Morganti, who has tried to hunt them down.

Local or team issues
Jays Publishing and the teams themselves issued 54 small team sets made up of 967 cards. I also identified 86 sets with 2,061 cards, which I would categorize as local issues. These sets include Rams Bell Brand, Cardinals Mayrose Franks, Packers Lake to Lake, Bills Jones Dairy and Colts Johnny Pro. Therefore, there are around 3,000 cards which may not be terribly expensive but are scattered over 140 sets and are not easy to find, especially outside the local team areas.

Other items
I have not included in the card count other football collectibles such as matchbook covers, cups, discs, stickers, stamps, records, bucks, decals, police sets and the plethora of Coca-Cola caps. There are undoubtedly additional card issues that didn’t make it into the last catalog. I would expect that they are local or team issues that would be expensive if they were pre-1960.

The number of football cards each year started with a trickle, jumped up in the 1960s with Fleer and Philly sets, and kept climbing as Topps increased the size of its sets. The blip in 1977 reflects the Topps Mexican set.

The number of football cards each year started with a trickle, jumped up in the 1960s with Fleer and Philly sets, and kept climbing as Topps increased the size of its sets. The blip in 1977 reflects the Topps Mexican set.

Thoughts from a football card dealer
Joe Colabella has been a dealer for 43 years and has specialized in football cards for the past 23 years. As to the current trends in football collecting, Colabella observed: “The graded card phenomena has divided collecting into two forms. There is the investor collector who has to have 8s or 9s, which is impossible in many cases. The second area is the ’70s-’80s-type collector that is evolving again, who is merely assembling sets in varied conditions at a fair price. With the few dealers who still offer cards and eBay, this can be done at book or less prices depending on the grade. There are still folks who collect for collecting sake, not for merely the investment potential.”

As to the scarcity of football cards, Colabella’s experience is that football cards are even less plentiful than my analysis indicated. He added: “Many of the obscure football sets have never been available. There was a find of Kahn’s sets about 25 years ago with around 60 or so sets of ’62, ’63, ’64 Kahn’s football sets from a worker from Kahn’s. I doubt that there are more than 100 complete sets of all three years assembled now. I have been known for Mayo football; there may be 12-15 sets known.”

The percentage of the 20,000 vintage football cards is shown for each category.

The percentage of the 20,000 vintage football cards is shown for each category.

Findings
The vintage football cards I have described total 20,137 cards from 313 sets. There are undoubtedly additional small, vintage football sets I didn’t come across. Unlike baseball, with a host of expensive prewar sets, there are few prewar football sets.

Annual card issues were always smaller than for those for baseball, both in the number of cards in a set and the number of cards printed. While someone would be lucky to collect 25 percent of the 110,000 vintage baseball cards, it is conceivable to collect 70 percent of the 20,000 vintage football cards, if you go after the popular sets, plus CFL cards. If you wanted to collect 70 percent in value as opposed to the number of cards, you could probably get by with a very small shoebox and just put the prewar cards in it.

George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at vrechek@ameritech.net.

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