By Doug Koztoski
Strongly securing the handoff from Baltimore Colts’ quarterback Johnny Unitas, fullback Alan Ameche took a few steps and plunged into the end zone. With that touchdown, so ended the 1958 NFL Championship battle with the New York Giants. The overtime contest, labeled “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” served significantly in pro football ultimately bypassing big league baseball a few years later as the most popular major U.S. sport.
For the 1959 sports card year, the main baseball cards were the Topps set and the Fleer Ted Williams issue. In addition, Bazooka Gum boxes featured baseball players for the first time, covering most of the gum container’s underside. Football cards, lo and behold, also appeared on the Bazooka boxes in the same manner later that fall.
Baseball and Bazooka/Topps teamed up often with “cards on boxes” in one form or another from 1959 through 1971, but football players, the focus of this article, showed up only on the bookends of that timeline.
Eighteen different players are in the 1959 Bazooka gridiron offering, 19 cards total when you include the Chuck Conerly variation. Conerly played exclusively for the New York Giants, so that ’59 Bazooka Empire State version of him is the correct one; the quarterback listed as a Colt, naturally, is not. As a side note, after his playing days, for a while Conerly portrayed the Marlboro Man in cigarette commercials on television.
The unnumbered cards begin and end the set with a true Baltimore player, however. And both are stars of the “Greatest Game” – Ameche and Unitas, respectively.
Ameche, the 1954 Heisman Trophy winner, just happened to be the ’59 Bazooka card that collector Joe Mancino started his set with, about 20 years ago. Overall, he gravitates toward the issue for a few reasons. “I like the photography in it, the photos are bold, they’re colorful, they stand out,” Mancino said. “I like the large size” of the cards, he added, which measure just shy of 3-by-5 inches.
Mancino noted that most of the cards from the ’59 Bazooka football issue consist of mid-range “chest shots” or even closer images. But he noted the Jim Brown photo was “a cool card,” one of his favorites in the set, since the running back is shown in “a whole body pose.” Y.A. Tittle and Eddie LeBaron are the only two players in the set wearing helmets.
Collector Howard Stevens, whose eBay handle is 59Bazooka, has also collected the football cards for years, and he likes the pasteboards for similar reasons.
“The photos are so incredibly amazing,” said Stevens. “I like the shape; they are oversized. I like the logo on the bottom. I think they are the best-looking cards ever made.”
Just a few months ago Stevens sold a ’59 Bazooka Jim Brown card that included the entire back section of the box. The collector still has a few cards from the set he would like to sell, but one that he is holding on to for the foreseeable future features Cleveland Browns star kicker and tackle Lou Groza.
Stevens’ Groza still has the tab on the bottom, where kids were prompted to “Collect the whole set of giant sized trading cards of National Football League stars.” Much of the time, the ’59 Bazookas that go on the market are tabless.
With the Conerlys, the Groza is another of the set’s short prints; Pittsburgh Steeler Tom Tracy is the other. Like several collectors of the issue, Mancino needs only Tracy to complete the ’59 Bazooka grid squad.
Stevens said a few years ago he saw a Tracy card with no white borders (thus cutting into the photo) that sold for about $800. “It was in such bad condition,” he said, that he could not justify paying anything close to that price.
Additional stars in this ’50s Bazooka set include Frank Gifford, Bobby Layne, Ollie Matson and Joe Perry.
A new age
During the 1960s, pro football truly matured. The American Football League, for one, began with the 1960 season and in a few short years they gave the NFL a run for their money. By 1970, the dueling leagues had merged to form one powerful league with two conferences.
For the 1971 NFL season, football cards appeared again on the Bazooka Gum box bottoms, but these featured three players per box, where the overall card panel area was not quite as wide in 1959, but they were slightly longer.
The 1971 Bazooka football set consists of 12 three-card panels, with each player’s card numbered. Mancino has 10 of the 12 panels, including a couple of them professionally graded.
“I like the (’71) Fran Tarkenton, since he is on the Giants,” the New York native said of his favorite team. But after that, the set’s flavor largely vaporizes for him.
“The cards are small (in the ’71 offering) and they don’t have the pizzazz of the ’59 set,” he said. Plus, he finds the basic “head shot” ’71 photography too limiting.
Among other Hall of Fame types in the ’71 Bazooka group: Joe Namath (the set starter), Dick Butkus, Floyd Little, Sonny Jurgensen, O.J. Simpson, Bart Starr, Gale Sayers, Bob Griese, Lance Alworth and the only player to appear in the ’59 and ’71 gum box sets – Johnny Unitas.
Non-sugar coated prices
Whether in 1959 or 1971, the Bazooka football cards came with a “frame of dashes” around each card/panel and it’s common to find the cards cut off the boxes, and into/below the lines, especially from 1959, making high-grade samples from that set rare. (Intact 1959 Bazooka boxes, by the way, are virtually nonexistent. See the auction sidebar for some recently realized prices on a few complete yet empty ’71 boxes.)
In Excellent condition, the Standard Catalog of Vintage Football Cards has ’59 Bazooka commons at $75 each; the set listing for $2,500. Brown and Groza lead the issue at $335 each; Gifford, Unitas and the Colts version of Conerly are all in the $225-$250 range.
As for the ’71 Bazooka gridders in the same shape, the guide gives a $1.50 price for commons, $100 for the set; Namath and Simpson bring around $15-$18 apiece. Near Mint prices for raw cards from either set are normally about double of their Excellent catalog value.
So whether it is the rare ’59 Bazooka football set or their more common cousins from 1971, if you have not done so already, it might be a good time to do your best ’58 Championship game Ameche goal line overtime impression with them. Take the plunge, you just might score big.
Some slick picks of the guys with sticks
Another Bazooka Gum sports card set from the era featured hockey players for the 1971-72 season. The 36 hockey Bazooka cards, coming three to a panel, are about as tough to come by as a goalie flicking a puck into the opposing team’s net during a game.
In late 2015, one eBay auction saw a PSA 6.5 ’71 Bazooka hockey panel featuring Tony Esposito and Rod Gilbert go for $1,586. A raw Esposito in Fair/Poor shape sold around the same time for $36.
In a 2010 Heritage Auctions sale, a Bobby Orr ’71-’72 Bazooka changed hands for around $3,100. That Orr card was encapsulated by SGC with the “Authentic” designation, since SGC does not “grade” any card that is hand cut. The pasteboard of this hockey icon, the last in the issue, looked to be around EX overall, yet it had some tape residue on the lower right card front.
Doug Koztoski welcomes comments related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.