It took several years before the National Football League would acknowledge the upstart American Football League, but Topps saw an immediate chance to cash in. Fleer produced an AFL set in 1960, but in ’61 Topps marketed a 198-card set with players from both leagues. Fleer followed suit, and 1961 was the only season where two companies produced cards from both leagues.
In the 1961 Topps football set, the first 132 cards focused on NFL players. Card Nos. 133-197 were AFL players, with the final card in the set a checklist. Cards measured 2½ inches by 3½ inches and about one of every ten cards features a player who has been elected to the Hall of Fame.
Roll these NFL legends off your tongue: Johnny Unitas , Jim Brown, Paul Hornung, Bart Starr and Y.A. Tittle. And in the AFL, there were quarterbacks Jack Kemp and George Blanda. There are some key rookies, particularly from the AFL, with first-year cards of Jim Otto, Tom Flores and Don Maynard. First-season issues from the NFL include John Brodie, Boyd Dowler and Henry Jordan.
There are some collectors who believe that Jim Taylor’s card (No. 41) is his true rookie card. That’s because the cards Topps printed in 1959 and ’60 were actually of Cardinals linebacker Jim Taylor.
Hornung, Unitas, Brown and Bobby Layne all have In Action cards in the set in addition to their regular issues.
The design for the 1961 Topps set is rather simple. The fronts feature a player’s photo, either in a large head shot or a posed “action” shot that was so prevalent on football cards during the 1950s and ’60s. The player’s image is placed against a solid, color background and there is a black box at the bottom of the card that lists the player’s name, position and team. Maynard’s card is interesting, as the New York Titans (or Topps) could not decide his position. Or, perhaps, Maynard was versatile. So, he is listed as a flanker-back or end.
Framing the photo is a white border.
The card backs consist of two parts. The upper part contains the vital information. The card number is displayed at the top left-hand corner, and the rest of the top has the player’s name, position and team. The bottom of the card either has statistics (year and lifetime) or a short, descriptive biography in paragraph form. The remainder of the card has a cartoon and a scratch-off panel.
The card numbering system shows players arranged by team. Quarterbacks are listed first, followed by running backs and then other team members. Each NFL team has a team card and is listed numerically after the last team member. The exception is card No. 132, which feature Cleveland’s Milt Plum’s accolade of winning the NFL passing title. Plum’s card is listed after the Redskins players. The design of that card is in a television screen format, not unlike the 1955 Bowman baseball card fronts (although the wood grain for the 1961 set is lighter). In the lower left-hand corner is the phrase “1960 Football Highlights.”
Errors and Farewells
There are some uncorrected errors in the set. Card No. 94, for example, misspells Charley Conerly’s first name as “Charlie.” Card No. 27 lists Dallas defensive back Tom Franckhauser as “Frankhauser,” and Card No. 95 spells Sonny Jurgensen’s last name as “Jurgenson.”
There were several players whose final card was included in the 1961 set, among them Conerly, Tom Brookshier, Alan Ameche, Chuck Bednarik and Kyle Rote.
There are three checklists — Nos. 67, 122 and 198. All three are among the more valuable cards in the set. One might think that the final card in the set would be the toughest to find in a high grade, but among checklists card No. 22 is actually tougher. Out of 170 cards submitted to PSA, there are no gem mints and only seven PSA 9s. There are 48 graded at PSA 8. For card No. 198 there is one PSA 10 and 23 PSA 9s out of 357 submissions.
There are only 29 cards that have been submitted that have graded out at PSA 10. Unitas is card No. 1, and the highest graded card has been a PSA 9; there are 15 of them. SGC has graded just two at the 98 (mint) level out of 93 total.
Brown (card No. 71) also is a key card in the 1961 Topps football set. There is only one PSA 10 out of 852 submitted for grading; 25 have graded out at PSA 9. SGC has rated only two of 128 cards above an 88 (NM/MT).
Of the 616 cards submitted for another key card (Kemp, No. 166), there are no gem mint specimens and 39 that have graded as high as PSA 9. SGC has graded only four of 71 as better than 86 (NM+). Kemp is probably the most sought-after cards in the second series.
It can be difficult to find cards from this set in very high grade. Many cards have chipping issues from the blue borders on the card backs, and flaws on the fronts (those blotchy print dots) can knock the grade down, too
The 1961 Topps football set also included an insert. A team sticker was included in every wax pack, with 15 from the NFL, nine from the AFL and 24 college teams. The stickers were issued with tabs, which could be peeled off. In terms of conditions, stickers with tabs are obviously more valuable.
While the set might be tough to find in very high grade, it’s still a relatively easy set to put together for anyone not committed to NM/MT only. Singles and lots are plentiful. Click here to see them for sale and auction on eBay.