For many fans of the baby boomer generation and younger, the NFL starts in the 1960s. The first Super Bowl. The Packers. The Giants. The birth of the Cowboys.
But pro football–and football cards–were coming of age a little earlier. Some of the most legendary names in the sport are found on 1950s football cards issued by Bowman and Topps, including many iconic rookie cards like Unitas, Starr, Hornung, Jim Brown and Otto Graham but if you’re a little leery about building a collection from this era because of cost, we’ve got ten cards featuring names you know–or should know–that won’t crush your cash flow.
They represent some historic NFL figures and it’s a group you ought to be able to buy in ungraded, very respectable condition for a total investment of less than $1,000 if you’re willing to shop around.
Click the link on the player’s name to see them available in a variety of price ranges/conditions on eBay.
Bednarik was Butkus before Butkus. A no-nonsense tough guy who manned a linebacker spot in Philadelphia from 1948 until 1962, Bednarik first appeared on the 1948 Leaf cards but the card from the 1950 Bowman set is Bednarik in green and white living color.
Look this second year card up and you’ll see it increasing in value as collectors finally realize the scarcity and value of a Hall of Fame quarterback for one of the NFL’s storied franchises. It’s also #2 in the set, making it a condition-sensitive card. Graham was a legend in the 1950s NFL, adored in Cleveland and by collectors of the classic 1951 Bowman set. A bargain.
Vintage football card collectors know Bowman produced two sets in 1952–a large and small version. The larger cards are almost out of reach of most average collectors these days, but the smaller versions aren’t. Paul Brown’s influence on the NFL can’t be overstated. He took football coaching to a new level, with innovation at every turn and earned his own card in the process–one in great demand, especially by Browns and Bengals fans.
The year before this card was made, Walker scored the winning touchdown for the Detroit Lions in the NFL title game. Walker was the 1948 Heisman Trophy winner at SMU, a legendary and revered figure in Texas to this day for his skill and class. He went on to a Hall of Fame NFL career as Mr. Versatility: rushing, passing, receiving, punt and kickoff return man, punter, place-kicker and defensive back. Whew. A real football player.
This is supposedly Blanda’s rookie card, although he played so long we’re not totally sure he wasn’t in the 1894 Mayo’s Cut Plug set. Blanda experienced just about everything in his career. The rise of the NFL’s popularity in the late ’50s, the birth of the AFL in the 60s and a career that had him on the field in the Super Bowl as late as the mid-1970s. Quarterback, kicker, Hall of Famer. Raider great. He’s a Bear here, though, and if you can find his rookie card buy it– or you’re not really an NFL fan.
6) 1955 Topps All American Ernie Nevers
His career had long been over when Nevers appeared in this set, but it’s the only Nevers card you’ll be able to find. Like Jim Thorpe, Nevers had success as a baseball player too. He gave up two homers to Babe Ruth in 1927, which makes this card worth owning all by itself. He was one of the NFL’s first superstars playing for the Chicago Cardinals in the ’30s. An almost mythological NFL figure.
Summerall was a good player for the New York Giants in the 1950s and early 60s, but fans who grew up in later years remember him as the golden voice behind CBS and Fox football coverage until the late 1990s. In fact, it’s easy to forget his NFL and college football careers. He scored 90 points kicking for the Giants in 1959. Those who only remember him as an announcer will be impressed when you pull his rookie card out of storage.
8) 1957 Topps Frank Gifford
Speaking of announcers…
Gifford’s post-NFL fame came on Monday Night Football, steering the ship between Don Meredith and Howard Cosell during the 70s. The 1957 Topps set includes a lot of high-priced rookie cards, but even though Giff’s first card came earlier, this is an affordable option that shows him in his prime. One of New York’s first major pro football stars, Gifford’s appearance on the ’57 Topps card came just after his MVP season of 1956.
9) 1958 Topps Alan Ameche
Ameche scored the winning touchdown in The Greatest Game Ever Played, famed in the recent ESPN documentary. That contest was Ameche’s crowning moment and made him a Baltimore sports legend. A college star at Wisconsin, “The Horse” had carved a place in NFL history and you’ll get oohs and ahhs from your football fan friends by bringing this incredibly cheap card out of storage when the 1958 NFL Championship game comes up in conversation–or on TV.
10) 1959 Topps Johnny Unitas
1959 Topps football cards aren’t hard to find. That’s one reason why the set is the cheapest of all ’50s football sets. The Unitas card, however, is #1 in the set and not always easy to find in high-grade. Johnny is #1, literally and figuratively after the historic ’58 season and this card is a beauty. A star was born and in ’59, Unitas was as big in Baltimore as Mickey Mantle was in New York.