My daughter was a cheerleader in high school and the first hint that the squad was "sports-challenged' came at the opening night football game when they were yelling "Hold That Line" when OUR team had the ball. As a public service, I recorded a football game on our very expensive VCR and a few nights later, found myself surrounded by a bevy of pretty 17-year-old girls in our living room (Dads make amazing sacrifices) while I convened the initial class of "Football 101." While the facial expressions didn't convince me it was all sinking in, at least the difference between offense and defense became somewhat more clear.
The VCR of life has fast-forwarded to the point where my daughter now has high school-age children of her own and is the commissioner of a well-established fantasy football league. Oh yes, my bright-eyed little angel can now tell you who is returning kicks for the Jacksonville Jaguars...or any other team for that matter. I'm not sure, however, that she knows the identity of Otto Graham or Sid Luckman.
Over the years, as NFL Football has surpassed Major League Baseball in overall popularity, it has occurred to me that today's football fans are much different than baseball fans. Gambling in general, and fantasy football in particular, has created an entirely new category of sports fan. They have the luxury of games taking place once-a-week and their "teams" only include skill positions such as Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver and the like. In addition, many of them have become fans long after their childhood and consequently, have no real background or interest in the history of the game. Most fantasy baseball players I encounter were baseball fans first and still love to have discussions about obscure players from bygone eras. Did you know that Sibby Sisti played the opposing manager in "The Natural?"
It is against this backdrop that we take a look at the iconic Topps All-American Football Set from 1955. The Bowman Gum Company held the rights to NFL players in the early 50's and produced some beautiful full-color sets from 1950-1955. Topps, which started competing with Bowman in the baseball card market in 1952, was left out in the cold when it came to football. They finally decided to enter the market in '55 with a football card set featuring Heisman Trophy winners and Hall of Famers from the past in their collegiate uniforms. Some had played their last game decades earlier and others were just recently retired, but the cards had one thing in common...none of the players' professional teams were mentioned in the text, illustrations, captions or highlights.
Today, this 100-card set is one of the most revered in the history of sports cards. A complete set in "Near Mint" (NM 7) condition has a book value of $7,500 and some of the cards are very difficult to find in any condition due to the fact that 25 of the cards are shortprints ("SP") and were made in lesser quantity.
Here are some of the key cards in the set along with their current value in "NM" condition:
> #12 Otto Graham, Northwestern Quarterback ($175) - Maybe the biggest star in Pro Football during the late 40's and early 50's, he was the NFL MVP three times playing for the Cleveland Browns.
> #16 Knute Rockne, Notre Dame Coach ($275) - Arguably the most legendary coach in college history, his 13 seasons with the Irish produced a record of 105-12-5...let's win one for the Gipper!
> #20 Sammy Baugh, TCU Quarterback ($175) - The NFL Player of the Year in both 1947 and 1948, he held 13 NFL records when he retired.
> #21 Whizzer White, Colorado Halfback ($90) - Byron White played in the NFL in the late 30's and early 40's (with one season off to study as a Rhodes Scholar) before joining the Navy in World War II...he then decided to pursue a law degree and was eventually appointed by President Kennedy to the Supreme Court in 1962 where he served for over 30 years.
> #27 Red Grange, Illinois Quarterback ($285) - Harold Grange started his pro career with George Halas' Chicago Bears in 1925 and was one of the great stars during the 20's and 30's...known as the "Galloping Ghost", he was a charter inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
> #35 Tom Harmon, Michigan Halfback ($80) - The Heisman Trophy winner in 1940, he played pro football before and after serving in World War II and went on to a long career as a sports broadcaster...his son Mark was the Quarterback at UCLA before starting his career as an actor.
> #37 Jim Thorpe, Carlisle Halfback ($450) - Possibly the greatest all-around athlete ever, he was an All-American in 1911 and 1912 before winning both the Decathlon and Pentathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. He went on to play Major League Baseball with the Giants and pro football from 1915-1928.
#56 Ernie Nevers, Stanford Fullback ($100) - Another multi-sport athlete, he pitched for the St. Louis Browns in the 20's before becoming a star in pro football. With the Chicago Cardinals in 1929, he scored every point in a 40-6 win over the cross-town rival Bears by scoring six touchdowns and four extra points.
# 68 The Four Horsemen, Notre Dame Backfield ($500) - The most elusive card in the set, it pictures the four legendary members of the 1924 Notre Dame backfield given the nickname by famed sportswriter Grantland Rice. The team lost only two games during their three-year run under Knute Rockne.
#85 Sid Luckman, Columbia Quarterback ($150) - Played his entire career with the Chicago Bears from 1939-1950 and led them to four professional championships in the 40's and was a five-time All-Pro selection.
#97 Don Hutson, Alabama End ($325) - Considered to be the first modern-day wide receiver, he played his entire career with the Green Bay Packers from 1935-1945. Led the NFL in receptions and yards per game eight times and won two MVP awards.
In 1956, Topps bought out the Bowman brand and quickly turned their attention to the NFL and current professional players. These "All-Americans" were never to be seen again on the collectibles scene, but this wonderful set will always be loved for showcasing football history.
In a future visit, we'll look at the Bowman set from this same year that features the NFL players of the day. Thanks for reading and keep "cheering" for your team.