More than a few historians believe the 1960s to be the greatest decade in professional football history. Those 10 years saw the rise and success of the AFL, a merger with the NFL and the first Super Bowl, known then as the AFL vs. NFL World Championship Game.
It was a busy time in the football card world as well. The game was getting more popular and football cards were more than just an afterthought.
Fleer covered the AFL from 1960-1963, while Topps primarily focused on the NFL. But things changed in 1964. Fleer began a football dormancy that lasted, with the exception of their action sets, until 1990. The Philadelphia Gum Co., won the NFL’s heart and earned the contract to produce cards for the more established league. Topps then took over the trading card business of The Other League with their 1964 issue, a 176-card set featuring the AFL.
At first glance, the 1964 Topps football set might appear rather pedestrian, but a more in-depth look reveals unique characteristics that offer collecting challenges and enjoyment. In terms of condition, locating well-centered cards is extremely difficult. In fact, the centering issues for this set are likely the most extreme of any of the 1960s issues. Focus and registration are often subpar as well, so top grade cards are highly-sought and fetch a premium. In fact, the #1-ranked set in the PSA registry sold in the Summer 2013 Love of the Game auction for $12,980 (including buyer’s premium).
Because Topps did not print this set on standard 132-card sheets, roughly half of the cards are printed in lesser quantities than the rest, and thus are designated as short prints. Sports Market Report lists the Len Dawson and Jack Kemp single prints at $135 in PSA 8 grades and both are considered the most valuable cards in the set next to the #176 checklist, a short print that’s very difficult to find in high grade and unmarked. It lists at $285 in NM/MT condition.
While the set is packed with the top players in the AFL – Alworth, Gilchrist, Blanda, Dawson, Maynard, etc. – there is not an abundance of top rookies in ’64 Topps. Kansas City Chiefs defenders Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan and Dave Grayson make their cardboard debuts, as do quarterbacks John Hadl and Daryle Lamonica and Jets running back Matt Snell. But the star power in this set is mostly accounted for by older players.
There are two errors in this set. Boston Patriots’ wide receiver and 1964 AFL Most Valuable Player, Gino Cappelletti (card #5) had his name misspelled (Cappalletti). Buffalo Bills defensive back Ray Abruzzese (card #22), was slighted when Ed Rutkowski’s photo was used for his card. Rutkowski is also featured on his own card, #35.
Sadly, there are very few subsets within any of the AFL sets of the 1960s. However, the ’64 Topps set does contain one. This is the lone set in which Topps produced team cards for each of the AFL teams. The front shows a team photo, while the backs list the head coach and information about the team’s top players in 1963. These team cards are popular with autograph collectors for obtaining signatures of players and team personnel who are not featured on cards of their own.
In terms of autograph collecting, the bulk of this set can still be obtained relatively easily. Yet there are several cards of players who died early or were particularly challenging autographs that make this set difficult to complete. Bob Dee (died 1979), Ross O’Hanley (1972), Jesse Richardson (1975), Cookie Gilchrist (2011), John Tracey (1978), John Nocera (1981), Don Floyd (1980), Jim Tyrer (1980), Dick Christy (1966), Clyde Washington (1974), Dan Birdwell (1978), Emil Karas (1974) and Jacque MacKinnon (1975) are all rarely found in autographed form.
Having been in the card game for over 12 years, Topps had the distribution network in place and stayed committed to working with the new league until Philly Gum cards went away following the 1967 season. Topps had the good fortune of seeing Joe Namath spurn the NFL and sign with the New York Jets, which certainly didn’t hurt its sales starting in 1965.
You can see singles, lots and more from the 1964 Topps football card set on eBay here.