Topps is celebrating its 60th season of issuing officially licensed pro football cards this year. While its products today have a more slick look with inserts, autographs and relic cards — its 2015 football set has a 500-card base set — Topps ventured gingerly into the NFL ranks with a 120-card set in 1956.
Actually, there also was a checklist, and Topps included an additional five contest cards that asked fans to guess the scores of upcoming games. Three of those cards invited fans to pick games from October 14; the other two asked fans to guess the results from selected games on November 25.
The 1956 Topps Football set marked the beginning of one long run and the end of an old standby. Bowman had led the way, with its 1948 set considered the first true football set of the modern era. But the 1955 set would be the final Bowman offering for 36 years, as Topps bought out its competitor in early 1956. Topps would bring back the Bowman brand name for football with a 561-card set in 1991.
Topps had released some football sets before, with a Felt Backs set in 1950, the Magic set in 1951 and the All-American product in 1955. But all three sets featured college football players.
But by 1956, Topps held the NFL monopoly. The company had two kinds of packs that year — one card for a penny, or five cards for a nickel. Both types of packs contained gum.
The cards measured 2 5/8 by 3 5/8 inches and had white borders. Not deviating far from the ’55 Bowman design, Topps used a player photo set against a solid color background; the color was the same for every member of a particular team. For example, players on the Browns had blue backgrounds (why they didn’t use brown is a good question …), while Detroit Lions players had red backgrounds. The solid colors were bold and really stood out.
There was a white line that traced the player’s image, and the team name and logo was situated in an upper corner of the card front. In an era where player safety and the long term effects of competition have come to the forefront, it’s remarkable to see many players shown wearing helmets with a thin shell and no face mask.
The card back had a football outlined against a gray background in the upper left-hand corner, with the card number in black contained within the pigskin. The player’s name was positioned to the right of the football in black block letters, and a cartoon trivia question was placed in the right-middle part of the card (turn the card upside down for the answer). To the cartoon’s left was a short paragraph either giving a player’s history or some interesting facts about him.
One interesting quirk about this set is that the team cards and players of the Washington Redskins and Chicago Cardinals were short printed. There is one gem mint (PSA-10) version of each team card. There are 44 PSA-9s of the Cardinals team card registered. After the gem mint, the highest grades of Redskins cards are PSA-8s (there are 37 examples)
Card No. 1 in the set depicts Redskins end Jack Carson. His card can be compared to its 1952 Topps baseball counterpart (Andy Pafko), as it is very tough to find in a higher grade. Of 231 submissions to PSA, only two cards grade at PSA-9 and 19 are at PSA-8.
The final card in the set, Billy Vessels (card No. 120) is relatively tough to find in mint condition, as only seven PSA-9s have been registered out of 307 submissions.
There are some notable names that are key cards in the 1956 set. There were rookie cards of Alex Webster, Roosevelt Brown, Joe Schmidt, Lenny Moore and Rosey Grier. Hall of Famers included Frank Gifford, Lou Groza, George Blanda, Norm Van Brocklin and Y.A. Tittle. Moore is the toughest rookie to get in a high grade, with only one gem mint (PSA-10) and five mint (PSA-9) cards out of 444 submitted.
The toughest card to get in a high grade is the unnumbered checklist. Of the 205 cards that have been submitted to PSA, the highest grade has been a PSA-8 — and only 22 submissions got that grade. There is currently one unmarked PSA-8 checklist on eBay, and the seller is seeking $950.
The 1956 Topps football set is attractive and still holds up well. As with most cards of the mid-1950s, these cards were plagued by poor centering, ink bubbles and other printing imperfections. Imagine today’s technology with some of those blazing background colors.
Still, this set was a good start for Topps, and nearly 60 years later it has kept its appeal.