It’s been called the granddaddy of all football card sets. And it contains a football card collector’s Holy Grail.
Certainly, all current football cards can trace their lineage to the 1935 National Chicle set. It was the first set to be circulated nationwide and also was the first to include only football players. And since National Chicle was the name of a gum company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gum was included in the packs, which were sold for a penny.
With the exception of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, all 36 cards depicted a pro football player and as such, all of the cards in the set are rookies except for Rockne, who also has a card in the 1933 Sport Kings set. Both cards were issued in the first five years after his shocking death in a plane crash.
The cards of Rockne and Bronko Nagurski are the key cards in the set, with Nagurski having long been considered sort of the T206 Wagner of football cards. Out of 154 cards submitted to PSA, the highest grade comes in at 9 — and there is only one card with that mint designation. It sold for $350,000 in January 2011 in a private auction brokered by Memory Lane Inc. There are six PSA-8s. Sixty cards have been sent to SGC, with one coming back graded at 96.
However, the discovery of a previously unknown hoard of Nagurski cards put ten fresh examples into the hobby. Nine of the 10 cards were sold individually in an October 2013 auction and collectively fetched $34,160 (including an 18 percent buyer’s premium). Those ranged in grades from PSA-1 to PSA-5, with the 5 selling for slightly more than $7,000.
In 2011, a PSA 9 Nagurski card sold for $350,000 in a private transaction conducted by Memory Lane.
Of the 36 cards in the National Chicle set, the first 24 are considered easier to find. Measuring 3/8 by 2 7/8 inches, they have a colorful, artistic-looking front with the player in action. The designs on the fronts were both vertical and horizontal.
At the top of the card reverse reads the legend “Football Stars” in block capital letters, followed by the card number. The backs feature playing tips given by Eddie Casey, who had coached the Boston Redskins (now in Washington) in 1934, with his facsimile autograph beneath the football wisdom. The sentences tend to run long, but the advice is sound. Casey had guided Boston to a 2-8-1 record in 1934, making him a former coach by the time 1935 rolled around.
The Rockne card (No. 9) is the second most valuable in the set. SGC has examined 84 of them, but the highest grade was a 92 (there are four of those). The highest attained PSA grade is 9, and only three of 326 submissions have been rated that high.
This set is also notable for several Hall of Famers, like Lions quarterback Earl “Dutch” Clark, who was inducted in 1963’s inaugural class. Giants fullback Ken Strong, Redskins tailback Cliff Battles, Redskins left tackle Turk Edwards and Packers fullback Clarke Hinkle also would be enshrined in Canton. Clark is card No. 1, which makes his card prone to wear and tear. Out of 233 cards sent to PSA, the highest grade is an 8 — and 18 cards fit that description. There are 45 cards certified by SGC, and the three top cards reached 88.
If your aim is to build a nice-looking, crease free set in the 5-6 grade range, the National Chicle issue isn’t really cost prohibitive for serious collectors. The only cards that will cost more than $1,000 are the Nagurski, Rockne, #27 Bull Tosi, and possibly the final card in the set, Bernie Masterson. If you’re OK with even lesser condition, many common cards–even graded examples–can be purchased on eBay for under $50 (see here).
Complete sets are offered occasionally. In 2013, the ninth best set on the PSA Registry sold through Huggins and Scott for $13,035.