Fifty years ago, the American Football League was four years old, and while still struggling financially, had begun to build a following among professional football fans. Their game was exciting, and attractive to fans. The AFL had early success in signing new players to their league, and many recent college superstars were sporting the Chargers powder blue, the Bills red and blue, or the new silver and black of the Oakland Raiders. The combination of new rookie talent, and familiar former NFL players, helped boost the quality of play from their opening season of 1960.
In 1963, the last of the team shifting occurred and stability began to set in with the league. The former New York Titans had new ownership, which injected money into the formerly penniless organization. A major overhaul took place, and the drab blue and gold Titans became the new green and white Jets. The Texans said goodbye to Dallas, and reinvented themselves as the Kansas City Chiefs. Lastly, a young man named Al Davis took over in Oakland, changed the team’s colors to silver and black, and began to win football games.
The season of ’63 was exciting for the San Diego Chargers as well, as they came down from their training camp in the Southern California hills, and wreaked havoc on the league, which concluded with their 51-10 drubbing of the Boston Patriots in the AFL championship game.
The 1963 season was important in terms of the AFL’s bubble gum cards as well. The Frank H. Fleer Corp’s final AFL issue was a small, 89-card set. Perhaps not overly important at the time, 1963 Fleer is now considered one of the premier AFL sets of the era.
All 88 player cards feature a simple design with clean, red borders and team logos at the bottom-right corner. The photography is a mixture of mug shots and classic football poses of the day. And with just 88 cards, many of the AFL’s greatest names are represented.
When reviewing a card set, quality of rookie cards is an important factor. This set boasts the cardboard debuts of three Hall of Fame players – Nick Buoniconti, Len Dawson and Lance Alworth. Other notable rookie cards are Tom Sestak, Cookie Gilchrist (his first American issue; he had several previous Canadian cards), Fred Arbanas, Clem Daniels, and Keith Lincoln. Jack Kemp is shown on his first card as a member of the Buffalo Bills, and Don Maynard, Billy Shaw, George Blanda and Ron Mix also appear in the set.
There are a small handful of oddities in the set also, which can provide a bit of a collecting challenge. There are two documented, short-printed player cards, #6 Charles Long and #64 Bob Dougherty, though both typically have multiple listings on eBay. Also, there is an unnumbered checklist, which it typically the most difficult card to find in nice condition. Last of the oddities is a horizontal red stripe that can be found at the bottom of the backs of cards with numbers divisible by four. These cards can also be found without the red stripe. There is no difference in value between the variations.
For the autographed set collector, the 1963 set provides a very difficult challenge. At the time of this writing, 34 of the 88 players featured in the set are deceased. While a handful of them were very willing signers and their signed cards can be somewhat easily found, that is not the case with all. The signed cards of Dick Christy, Hubert Bobo, Cookie Gilchrist, Doug Cline, Don Floyd, Mel Branch, Jerry Mays, Bo Roberson, Bob Coolbaugh, Chuck McMurtry, Charlie McNeil, Emil Karas, and the short prints, Charles Long and Bob Dougherty, will be exceptionally difficult to find. Additionally, Donnie Stone and Alex Kroll, while still alive, are two of the more difficult AFL signatures to obtain through the mail.
Whether you plan to collect the 1963 Fleer set in high-grade, autographed, or simply in a raw collector’s grade, you will have, in the end, a beautiful lot of cards which represent one of the greatest seasons in the long history of the wholly American game of football. That, in itself, is worth the challenge.
Below is a checklist for the set including the dates of death for players in the set.
You can see 1963 Fleer Football cards for sale and auction on eBay here.