They didn’t know it at the time, but the 1963 Topps football set would be the company’s last depicting NFL players until 1968. The Philadelphia Gum company would swoop in for the 1964 season and grab exclusive licensing through 1967.
Like the 1962 Topps set, the ’63 version included only NFL players while Fleer enjoyed an AFL exclusive. At 170 cards, the 1963 set was six fewer than the ’62s, and the set is grouped alphabetically by city name. Each team’s quarterback is the first card, followed by the running backs and receivers and then the other players. The last card for each franchise is the team photo.
The cards adhered to Topps’ standard size of 2½ inches by 3½ inches, and it was the first time the company used a two-toned border.
What makes this set very collectible is the number of Hall of Fame players — more than 30. That includes John Unitas (No. 1), Jim Brown (No. 14), Deacon Jones (No. 44), Ray Nitschke (No. 96) and Fran Tarkenton (No. 98).
The cards of Jones and Nitschke were first-year issues; other rookies included Bob Lilly (No. 82), Willie Wood (No 95), Jim Marshall (No. 107), Charley Johnson (No. 146 and listed on the card front and in the checklist as “Charlie”) and Larry Wilson (No. 155).
Second-year cards featured Tarkenton, Mike Ditka (No. 62), Roman Gabriel (No. 37) and Bill Kilmer (No. 136). The set also included the final cards for Y.A. Tittle (No. 49), Roosevelt Grier (No. 56) and Eddie LeBaron (No. 73).
There are two checklists in the set — card Nos. 85 and 170.
Because there were only 170 cards in the set, the printing setup meant there would be plenty of short prints —76 in all. The cards of five entire teams were short-printed — the Browns, Cowboys, Giants, Steelers and Redskins. Lilly’s rookie card is among the most expensive in higher grade because of scarcity. Guys like Ed Brown (#122), Don Fleming (#22) and Claud Crabb (#168) also drive graded set collectors batty.
The design of the card consisted of a standard posed shot (there are exceptions, as some players are depicted wearing their helmets). A rectangular box at the bottom of the card includes the player’s name, team and position. The card backs have a vertical design, similar to the 1959 and ’60 sets. A circle with the card number is in the upper left-hand corner of the card.
The top half of the card includes the player’s name, some biographical information on some cards, and career statistics on the others. The bottom half of the card had a trivia question, which could be answered by covering it with red cellophane that was included in wax packs.
Like many Topps cards of the early 1960s, there was a tendency for them to be off-center or miscut. Wear along the corners also was an issue, although it wasn’t as pronounced as the 1962 set and its black borders. Of the 22,624 cards submitted to PSA, only 19 were graded at gem mint (there are none for Unitas or Brown, for example). A total of 828 cards graded out at PSA 9.
The 1963 football set was an unexpected swan song for the Topps-NFL partnership — at least for a few years. However, it’s a very collectible set and chock full of some of the NFL’s biggest names of the 1960s.
You can see 1963 Topps football cards on eBay here.