While those with the rookie cards of big name Hall of Famers may sell for prices rivaling their baseball counterparts, there are plenty of older football card sets that provide a great bang for your buck. We’ve picked out ten sets from the 1950s through the 80s for which the adjective ‘cheap’ can be used. By that, we mean sets that don’t have any extremely expensive rookies but still have desirable cards, are small enough to complete without spending a fortune and are readily available.
Click the title of each to see them on eBay.
1954 Bowman: This 128 card set has 26 Hall of Fame players. Twenty-six. You’d think that would make it far more expensive that it really is. Complete sets in reasonably nice shape, regularly sell for under $800. The poses in this set are tremendous. In fact, Bowman’s football card sets from 1950-54 are generally quite attractive but the ‘54 is the least expensive. George Blanda’s rookie card is here but beyond that, you can tackle it with even a little bit of patience and a fairly painless outlay of disposable income. Johnny Lattner’s rookie card is #128 and yet it’s less than $100 in near mint condition.
1959 Topps: This 176-card set was Topps’ largest to that time and although you’ll need to snare the Johnny Unitas (card #1), Jim Brown, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung and an Alex Karras rookie card, ‘59s are plentiful, especially certain numbers. Topps apparently produced a lot of these and many higher grade examples are in the marketplace, which helps keep prices down. You can own a pretty decent set for $500-700—less, of course, if you’re not very fussy.
1960 Topps: Topps went back down to 132 cards in 1960, which means this one is pretty easy to piece together. Again, Johnny Unitas is card number one and again you’ll need Jim Brown and guys like Bart Starr and Y.A. Tittle but you can own pretty solid examples of the latter two for under $50, which gives you an idea of how little attention this set gets. It’s not the prettiest but it’s 55 years old and not getting any younger. A set described as EX to EX/MT+ sold for just over $268 this spring. Seriously?
1962 Fleer: Fleer had a deal to produce cards of the upstart league from 1960-63 and its last two sets contained a very manageable 88 cards. The ’62 set has rookies of two very memorable names from the AFL: Ernie Ladd and Fred ‘The Hammer’Williamson. Jack Kemp is the most expensive card, partly for his fame in politics. A fairly good-looking set won’t likely cost you more than $500 with many commons available for a buck or two.
1967 Philadelphia Gum: Philly Gum saved its best for last. The cool yellow borders and crisp, clear photographs really put the ’67 issue on a pedestal. At 198 cards, it’s not a behemoth and the rookie roster is small. It’s the first year of NFL cards since 1958 where Jim Brown wasn’t part of the checklist. You’ll pay mostly for the second year cards of Gayle Sayers and Dick Butkus along with Unitas, Starr and the rest of Lombardi’s Packers, who were in their final year of greatness. Most of the cards feature relatively close-up shots and many classic, helmet-less posed angles. Just a terrific set from a great era of pro football. Deeply dependent on condition, these sets vary quite a bit, but $500-700 will buy you a very respectable set. Considering the roster of 25 Hall of Famers, that’s not bad at all.
1974 Topps: This set is known more for ‘last cards’ than rookie cards. Farewell, Johnny U. So long and thanks for the memories, Mr. Butkus. Dan Fouts and Joe Theismann were still a year away and Walter Payton was still at Jackson State. Beyond Ray Guy and John Hannah, there are few rookies but plenty of star quality in ‘74. A challenge because of the unique design that accentuates centering flaws, the set is also worth chasing thanks to the presence of 23 Hall of Famers. For $200-$300 and often less, you can’t go wrong.
1978 Topps: Back in the early 1980s, these were everywhere, or so it seemed. Packs, singles and sets were dirt cheap. Even after football caught fire several years later, the ’78 set just never really captured anyone’s fancy. It has Tony Dorsett’s rookie card and also one for John Stallworth. Walter Payton’s third card heads up the stars list and Payton appears on FOUR other cards as well. That alone makes it worth owning. Toss in Staubach, Bradshaw, Griese, Greene and other greats and you’ve got a cheap deal. A few months ago, Huggins and Scott sold a lot of ten vending-quality sets for under $1,200. Regular old EX/NM versions are well under $100.
1983 Topps: Presumably due to declining sales, Topps went with a 396-card set in 1983 and there are double prints. Yuck. However, this set is now more than three decades old and includes early cards of Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Lawrence Taylor, several Hall of Famers and rookie cards of a trio of important Bears: Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson and Jim McMahon. Very nice NM/MT sets are under $50, which almost makes the double prints forgiveable. Even unopened packs are still within reach, despite the surge in interest for vintage material.
1985 Topps: After a huge rookie card class in the 1984 set, ’85 brought us the tough black borders and a horizontal design. The set is unique, the player selection is great (second year cards of Elway and Marino), Warren Moon’s NFL rookie card, Montana and Marino on one Leaders card…you could go on and on about this set. Not universally loved, but certainly respected and at no more than $50 for a nice one, it’s hard to say no.
1987 Topps: Second year cards of Jerry Rice and Steve Young (if you don’t count the USFL sets), rookie cards of Jim Kelly, Randall Cunningham and Doug Flutie (if you still don’t count the USFL), plus all of the greats of the era: Montana, Elway, Marino, Payton. All for around $20 a set.