Historians will tell you that professional football first captured the imagination of Americans when they watched the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. The first title game to go into sudden death overtime, “The Greatest Game Ever Played” unfolded at Yankee Stadium in front of a raucous crowd and a swelling TV audience.
Mesmerized by the skills of a young quarterback named Johnny Unitas, fans and viewers were awed as the poised signal caller orchestrated an unlikely drive that would tie the game in its dying seconds. Unitas would worked magic again in overtime to lead the resilient Colts to victory. Many credit this dramatic contest for introducing pro football into America’s collective psyche.
Today, the NFL is the country’s No. 1 sports entity, the successful holder of the most lucrative TV contract in sports and an unparalleled fan base. The general public didn’t need to see the 2003 Harris Poll indicating that there are two football fans for every baseball fan to tell them which sport is now America’s national pastime.
But if pro football’s popularity is unrivaled, why does a Johnny Unitas rookie sell for approximately 1/15 the price of a Mickey Mantle rookie? Why does a 1955 Bowman Football set (in near mint condition) sell for $1,500, while a baseball set from the same year commands $4,600? Why is it that every hobby dealer consulted for this article sells far more baseball collectibles than football?
“There’s a big difference between fan interest and collector interest,” noted Clay Hill, director of acquisitions at SCP Auctions, Inc. in Mission Viejo, California. “And that’s the thing with football. It hasn’t always translated into collector interest.”
Opinions vary on why it hasn’t translated. Historical, social and even psychological factors have all been cited. Historically, baseball’s first professional league began in 1871 and the inaugural World Series was played in 1903.
The NFL wasn’t formed until 1920 and the first Super Bowl wasn’t contested until 1967. “Football wasn’t even a pro sport until the 1920s,” said Brian Marren, vice-president of acquisitions at Mastro Auctions in Burr Ridge, Ill. “And really to call it a professional sport is a stretch at that point. It was really a barnstorming type of sport.”
Starting almost 50 years after baseball, pro football didn’t have a major card set until the National Chicle issue in 1935. By that time, baseball had already inspired dozens of sets and spawned legends like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Honus Wagner.
“There’s just much more of a storied history with baseball cards. They’ve got the tradition,” explained George Kruk, owner of Kruk Cards in Rochester Hills, Mich., who says that 50 percent of his sales are baseball products. “There’s multiple icons in baseball vs. football in the ’50s and ’60s, even in the ’30s and the ’40s … There’s just a lot more people that were inspired by baseball players than football players in the old days.”
One explanation for baseball’s hobby reign is that are simply more baseball collectibles available. Nostalgia is another factor. Amassing baseball cards offers collectors a chance to go further back in American history than football cards. Baseball gives collectors the opportunity to celebrate allegiances with a player or team that often date back a number of generations in their family.
“If you take the big cities where sports really started – New York, Chicago, Cleveland – look at how long the baseball team was there before the football team showed up,” said Marren. “You’re going to find a good 40- to 50-year headstart for baseball, which means generations of grandfathers and great-grandfathers attended games and brought grandkids and so that’s also an influence.”
James Spence, owner of James Spence Authentication, agrees. “I just know my father and his father didn’t follow football and that was true with a lot of families in America,” Spence said. “If you go back through the generations past the baby boomers, they didn’t really have that connection. How many people can actually say ‘I’m a third-generation football fan’? I don’t see that within the country.”
Another factor is that playing baseball is still a rite of passage for many American children. Not a lot of kids play football with their father, but they do play catch with their dads. Not many kids hit the gridiron at age 5, but they do participate in T-ball. Adult hobbyists often claim the reason they collect is to rekindle memories from their youth – and these recollections usually include baseball and baseball cards.
“It’s (baseball) always been a part of America’s fabric. There was no boy growing up in America at one time that didn’t want to be a baseball player. It was just so big. It was like a religion,” said Spence. Spence also points out that baseball players generally have longer careers than football players do.
According to a recent study by a University of Colorado research team, the average baseball position player’s career lasts 5.6 years, while according to the NFL Players Association’s website, a football player averages approximately 3.5 seasons. What this could mean is that hobbyists develop longer “relationships” with baseball players, making them more likely to buy their cards. Some also suggest that facemasks make football players tougher to relate to. Baseball players’ faces are in full view, affording fans a glimpse into their personality. Baseball buffs feel like they know their favorite player, and this bond can help spark an interest in collecting.
“In baseball (on TV) they’ve got close-ups of the pitcher’s face. They’ve got close-ups of the batter’s face,” said Spence. “I’m sure if you were to watch your favorite football team and if you saw a guy (from that football team) on the street, unless you’re an avid fan, you probably wouldn’t recognize him. But if you watch a baseball game, you’re going to recognize what Derek Jeter looks like.”
Another theory is that baseball fans are more analytical, reflective and focussed on statistics than football supporters, who, in contrast, crave instant gratification, fast-paced action and bone-crunching hits. Like baseball, collecting, in its purest form, is strategic and leisurely, a hobby where collectors can pause and admire a player’s card and digest the statistics on the back.
“I believe that the same odd brain that is drawn to collecting is also drawn to other obsessive-compulsive interests, including statistics. Football statistics do not have the history (that baseball statistics have), and do not lend themselves to easy understanding by anyone other than football experts,” theorized John Woody, a longtime collector based in California.
With all of this said, football collectibles have made some inroads in the hobby. “Some things are starting to change as far as game-used uniforms. Football, in some ways, has surpassed baseball for 1960s uniforms, because collectors have caught on that they’re really rare and tough to find. Some segments of the market are catching up with baseball, at least price-wise,” said Marren.
Football autographs are also becoming increasingly popular. Bobby Mintz, vice-president of sales and celebrity relations at Tristar Productions, Inc., says that when his company started 20 years ago, he focussed on booking baseball players as show guests. Today, he books an equal number of players from both sports.
“Football has certainly caught up with baseball from an autograph standpoint,” he said. Signatures of football Hall of Famers are also now more coveted more than ever. “There’s growing demand for autographs from a football Hall of Fame standpoint,” noted Mintz. “There’s more people collecting them than there was, say, 10 years ago.”
Bradley Lohr, the sports singles manager at Dave & Adam’s Card World in Amherst, N.Y., has also witnessed a moderate rise in interest in vintage football cards throughout the past decade. Modern football pasteboards are also popular.
“Football is starting to gain momentum as far as the collectors, but baseball will always be king,” said Lohr. Don Williams, the public relations manager at Upper Deck, agrees. His company still sells more baseball cards than any other sport. “Upper Deck was founded on the rich content and vivid photography of its baseball cards, and it is no surprise that baseball continues to be the cornerstone of the company’s business,” said Williams. “All of our sports lines are strong performers, but baseball cards touch everyone.”
So as the 50th anniversary of “The Greatest Game Ever Played” approaches, pro football still hasn’t matched baseball’s popularity in the hobby. And while Johnny Unitas captured the imagination of thousands of Americans in that game, it’s still Mickey Mantle who owns the hearts of thousands of collectors.
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