They were printed just months after Joe Namath proved the AFL was worthy of a merger with the 50 year-old NFL.
The 1969 Topps football set was the company’s largest to date, accommodating a league that was welcoming new teams and already starting to give baseball a run for its money in popularity.
You didn’t need to tell Topps about the AFL. The company was on board from the time the league was born. When Fleer and then Philadelphia gum jumped into the football card game in later years, Topps took over production of AFL cards. By 1968, however, the leagues were already talking merger. Topps had complete control that year and then came back in ’69 with a 263-card, two-series set that still confounds collectors today.
Topps printed the cards with black backs making them vulnerable to showing any kind of wear. Kids may not have cared much in 1969, but those putting together high-grade sets today struggle with the design. The first series was borderless, a clean-looking card with sharp colors and team logos. The second series unveiled a white border around the front, making it easy to determine at a glance the series in which a certain card belongs.
There was no Monday Night Football in 1969. Don Meredith was still playing. His card is one of a number of NFL icons included in the set. We get stars in their twilight seasons like Bart Starr. A rookie named Larry Csonka.
The one and only card of the late Brian Piccolo, whose career seemed so full of promise when he showed up on card #26. Collectors and Bears fans revere the Piccolo card. It’s one of the most sought-after and expensive in the entire set. Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus complete a trio of high-profile Bears cards in this set, making it very popular in Chicago.
Namath is here, too. Four years after his debut in the ‘tall boy’ 1965 Topps set, Joe Willie commands a high price from collectors looking to complete their set or remember the Jets’ Super Bowl III victory in January of 1969.
Leroy Kelly, the great Browns running back, was awarded card #1. Kids were still putting rubber bands around their cards then and Kelly’s card is sometimes hard to find in high-grade, making it among the pricier cards in the first series.
The set has several players that have proven to be elusive for collectors who prefer their football card collections to be mint. Among the toughest: #3 Jim Cadile (another Bear), #55 Ray Nitschke, #68 Billy Cannon, #95 Ed O’Bradovich, #1118 Walt Suggs, #262 Gerry Philbin and #263, the last card in the set, Daryle Lamonica.
It’s the last year you see team logos on both the cards themselves and the helmets in the photos of the players. Starting in 1970 and for the next 11 years, Topps chose not to pay the licensing fee required to use those symbols.
The insert set that came in wax packs is the “Four-in-One” cardboard stamps; designed to be torn apart at perforations and glued into mini-albums that also came in packs. Most kids did just that, making the intact Four-in-One cards somewhat scarce, but not overly popular. Nineteen players who appear in the insert set don’t have regular issue cards in ’69, including Jack Kemp.