Like paging through a family photo album, a rush of memories came quickly. There were cards of my favorite players: Bart Starr, Bobby Bell and Bubba Smith. I came across the best football card pose ever – the 1967 Lance Alworth card. I checked out the backs of the cards where player trivia quizzes and rub-with-coin-to-reveal-copy reigned.
It’s true that of the five senses, our sense of smell has the best memories. The gummy-cardboard smell took me back to tearing open card packs after paying the grand sum of 10 cents for a pack of five and a gum stick. We hadn’t even left our local TG&Y drugstore before we had reviewed every card from our multi-pack purchases. More than anything, I thought of the hours spent trading cards and organizing them in my younger days.
About a week ago while preparing for a garage sale, I removed a Christmas decorations box marked “FRAGILE” from the pile and found underneath something that caught my eye immediately. It was an old produce box with a faded oranges graphic that could only contain one thing: my football card collection!
Having saved my collection from the dreaded “I was just cleaning up” toss years ago, I placed my cards in my own basement corner where they sat unopened. Now, after removing the box cover, I undid the rubber bands, blew off some collected dust and flipped through the cards for the first time in decades.
It’s not a valuable collection, as keeping cards in great condition doesn’t mix well with lots of handling and rubber bands. However, amongst all the common cards, I had some stars. I looked closely at a Roger Staubach rookie card, a young Joe Namath with only two years of wear and tear on his knees, a Mean Joe Green without a Coke in his hand and a clean-shaven Merlin Olsen before “Little House on the Prairie” fame.
Wanting to find out more about football card collecting. I contacted sports card expert Dean Hanley, who lives in Cincinnati. His online store, Dean’s Cards, specializes in vintage sports cards – cards published in 1969 or earlier. A fountain of knowledge sprang from Dean, a man who has made sports card collecting a career. As he tells his friends, “It beats working for a living.”
Here are 13 things I learned about football card collecting:
Baseball card collecting is still more popular than football card collecting.
Dean estimates that for every football card collector, there are about 50 baseball collectors (at least focused on vintage cards). The basic reason is baseball is an older sport, and collecting baseball cards started earlier. The length of the season adds to the interest as well. Given football’s huge following today, football card collecting might have a bigger upside.
There’s no Honus Wagner card amongst football cards.
In baseball card collecting, the Holy Grail is a Honus Wagner card, part of a tobacco company’s series of baseball cards. Ultimately, Wagner didn’t want to be part of the series. With limited supply, the card’s value shot up with one selling in 2007for more than $2 million dollars. The highest valued football card we could find is a 1935 Bronco Nagurski valued around $250,000.
Condition is king.
To sell your football cards, collectors favor pristine cards. Sharp corners, centered images, lack of bubble gum residue and true colors all factor in rating a card. You can pay to have your cards rated by independent services that use a 1-10 scale, with 10 being mint condition. The smallest of imperfections can take a card’s score down.
The closest thing to Mickey Mantle in football cards might be Namath.
In baseball card collecting, Mickey Mantles are valuable commodities. The Mick’s popularity, success on the field, off-field charisma and New York stage all play a role in his cards earning top dollar. While Namath’s career achievements might not match up to Mantle’s, Hanley has a hard time keeping Namath’s rookie card in inventory.
“They sell very quickly,” Hanley said. “In fact, his card makes up about two-thirds of the value of the complete 1965 set.”
Supply and demand rule the day.
Stars are way easier to sell than common cards. And, as in other markets, when a card is in low supply and high demand, the price shoots up.
Topps created a set of 100 cards featuring Heisman Trophy winners and Hall of Famers, many of whom weren’t event playing. A competing company, Bowman, had the pro football contract, and this was Topps’ way of having a football offering. The set includes: Jim Thorpe, Knute Rockne, recently retired stars Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham and Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen. Very popular with collectors, if you find any of these cards, take measures to protect them.
Football cards didn’t come in as many print series as baseball cards.
With baseball’s longer season, card companies offered cards to retailers in series. There might be seven series in a season. Errors made on cards in the first series released might be corrected in a subsequent series. The error cards might become more valuable because of limited supply. In the ’50s and ’60s, the professional football season was 13 weeks long – 12 regular season games and a championship. So for football cards, frequently there was only one printed series.
Look for cards that increase in value for other reasons.
Jack Kemp’s political success drove the value of his card up. Gayle Sayers’ book and the “Brian’s Song” movie drove up the value of the Brian Piccolo card. It didn’t hurt that Piccolo was featured on only one football card. Ernie Davis never played a down of professional football because of leukemia, but his card is valued highly. Checklist cards designed to enable collectors to track which cards they’ve acquired were frequently marked on or tossed out. It can be a challenge to find a checklist card in good condition that hasn’t been marked on. For that reason, they’re worth more.
The O.J. Simpson card dropped in value like no other sports card.
This week is the 20th anniversary of Simpson’s Bronco Chase. Although acquitted of charges, collectors did an about face and no longer sought his cards. Hanley never saw anything like it in the sports cards collecting realm. Simpson card values crashed.
No team logos means no licensing deal has been struck.
Some card manufacturers choose not to go the NFL licensing route. As a result, they’re unable to use team logos on helmets or uniforms. On some older cards, you’ll see the logos brushed out.
Not all football players were featured on cards.
Unlike baseball cards, where the entire roster was typically featured on cards, football cards focused more on the specialty positions and fan favorites. With bigger rosters, it’s an expensive proposition to showcase all of the players.
Don’t base purchases on what you hope happens.
Some football card investment advice from Hanley: “Buy what you like. If it goes up in value – great! If it doesn’t, you can still have fun with it.”
Football cards show the evolution of the game.
A 230-pound offensive tackle? Kickers who also played other positions? That was commonplace in the ’50s and ’60s. Players are bigger now. There’s more specialization. Changes to the game during the past 50 years seem more pronounced than in any other sport. When did racial integration happen on a large scale in professional football? Like many other of the game’s questions, the answer is in the cards. They tell the story.
Michael O’Halloran is founder and editor of Sports Feel Good Stories.com.Do you want to contact Dean Hanley about buying or selling vintage sports cards? Go to Dean’s Cards. Got a great inspirational sports story your want to share? Enter the TeamSnap and SportsFeelGoodStories.com “The Sports Feel Good Story of the Year Contest” herefor an opportunity to win $500.
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