It’s an old expression: some NFL running backs carried the football as if it were a loaf of bread. Holding the ball gingerly could lead to fumbles, and in the 1970s that was problematic since ball-carriers took some hard hits.
But no matter how you sliced it, football fans had a chance to collect cards through a notable baking company.
From 1974 to 1976, Topps collaborated with Wonder Bread to produce cards of NFL stars. The cards were inserted into packages of the bread–one per loaf although it wasn’t uncommon to see the packaging machine mistakenly slip in a few extras. Collectors in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania were able to find cards in bags of Town Talk bread.
Today, they’re among few “food issue” football card sets of the era and popular with collectors today, especially those who remember pulling them from the package.
In 1974 there were 30 cards in the set, with players from 18 different teams represented. The cards had either red or yellow borders, with color photographs of the players either in posed “action” shots or large mugshots. There are no team logos appearing in any of the photographs. Topps used its 1971 design on the Wonder Bread cards that first year, but gave the bread company an exclusive look in each of the final two years of the promotion.
The card backs are in black and white, with the card number placed in the left-hand corner. In a nice twist, the card number is enclosed inside a drawing of a piece of bread in front of other slices — a loaf, if you will.
Skill position players on offense and defensive stars have statistics from their previous four years, and beneath that is a black-and-white photograph. The photo is not necessarily of the player featured on the card, but is used as a prop demonstrating a particular football skill. Some of those skills include how to set up a pass, how to tackle the passer, how to block and how to field a bad snap.
The big names in the inaugural Wonder Bread set come from the Miami Dolphins, who were coming off back-to-back Super Bowl titles and three straight appearances in the NFL’s title game. The trio of quarterback Bob Griese, fullback Larry Csonka and wide receiver Paul Warfield are featured and are the most coveted cards in the set.
There were other big names too, such as Willie Lanier, Alan Page, Willie Brown, Gene Upshaw, Jim Plunkett, Chris Hanburger, Paul Krause, Jim Otto, Tom Mack and Ron Yary.
Mack had the distinction of appearing in all three Wonder Bread sets.
A total of 1,676 cards from the 1974 Wonder Bread set were submitted to PSA for grading. High grades in this set are difficult because of the packaging of the cards next to the bread, and also because the cards tend to have chipping on the corners. It is not unlike the issues collectors found with the Topps 1971 football and baseball sets (baseball in particular).
Still, 110 cards have been rated Gem Mint 10 with Lanier leading the way with 29 examples. There are 23 PSA 10 submissions of Hanburger, 10 of Bill Bradley, seven of Griese and six of Csonka. Warfield has no 10s, but there are eight PSA 9s.
Topps and Wonder returned with a smaller, 24-card set in 1975, but some new names were added. The emergence of the Pittsburgh Steelers was apparent, with Franco Harris, Jack Ham and L.C. Greenwood included in the set. Other emerging stars included Chuck Foreman, Drew Pearson, Isaac Curtis, Ted Hendricks, Ken Houston, Ken Houston, Larry Little, Emmitt Thomas and Ray Guy.
The card fronts featured borders of blue or red, with a large closeup color shot of the player. Again, there are no visible team logos on the cards. The card backs are again in black and white and contain player statistics and a short biography.
The back also features several quiz questions, with some of them general and others specific to the player featured on the card — “what is a ‘bread-and-butter’ play,” or “How many straight seasons has Franco (Harris) led the Steelers in rushing?”
The answers are printed upside down beneath the questions.
Harris and Griese are the key cards in the set.
There was an option to acquire “Playbook” that included black and white images of each card, a “creed” for young players to follow and some games.
Not as many 1975 cards have been submitted to PSA for grading, as opposed to the inaugural set. Of the 610 graded, two came back as Gem Mint 10 — both were of Bill Bergey. Like the 1974 set, chipping on the corners and the card’s proximity to the bread make grading tough.
Only 18 cards have graded out as PSA 9s, with Bergey leading the way with three (plus an additional Town Talk that was a PSA 9). Griese had two PSA 9 examples and is the only other player in the set with multiples. Cards graded PSA 7 and PSA are more common in this set.
For 1976, Topps and Wonder Bread stayed with 24 cards. Cards from this set are easier to find than the previous two years, and the power shift in the NFL is evident with new names such as Craig Morton, Charley Taylor, Jack Youngblood, Rayfield Wright, Jack Tatum, Ken Riley and Cliff Harris. Steeler repeaters include Harris and Ham.
The card fronts again employ blue and red frames. The blue-bordered cards feature players on offense, while red borders are used for defensive stars. Like the 1975 set, player photos are large closeup shots in color. The difference from the previous two sets is that that player’s name appears beneath his photo in a slanted, ribbon-type design. The players’ names were above their photos in the 1974 and ’75 sets.
The card backs include biographical information, but the backs are dominated by “Hank Stram’s Favorite Plays.” The plays are diagrammed, and numbers are assigned to players to show what they are supposed to do on the play to make it successful. That is the perfect avenue for Stram, whose “65 Toss Power Trap” play in Super Bowl is legendary and remains a YouTube favorite.
The ’76 set was available in large uncirculated quantities in the years following the promotion and PSA has seen 2,870 of them. Of that figure, 836 of those cards have been rated 10, and nearly 1,200 have been graded 9. Interestingly, Upshaw, making his second appearance in the Wonder Bread series, leads the way with 64 PSA 10s. Tatum, his Oakland Raiders teammate, has 60, followed by Wright (49), Cedrick Hardman (47), Youngblood (46) and Franco Harris (45). Cliff Harris has 41 gem-mint submissions.
Town Talk Branded Football Cards
Town Talk Bread cards are harder to find than Wonder Bread cards due to their regional status, and it is difficult in the 1974 set to distinguish between Wonder and Town Talk cards. Town Talk cards in 1974 are blank at the top of the card above the card number — the Wonder Bread cards feature a line that reads “Wonder Bread All-Star Series,” bracketed by three stars on each side. For the last two years of the set, “Town Talk All-Star Series” appears on the card back, also bracketed by three stars.
Even without some notable stars of the era like Roger Staubach, Joe Namath or Joe Greene, the Wonder Bread sets are a cool accompaniment to the regular issue Topps sets. There are some great names from the 1970s NFL and the sets are relatively easy to put together. After all, nearly everyone ate bread, and as Wonder noted in its advertising campaign during the 1970s, the bread helped “build strong bodies 12 ways.” There were plenty of strong bodies in the Wonder Bread sets.