Unique is a word that gets spread a lot in our American popular culture. There are unique artists, actors, authors, fashions, movies, books, plays, art—you name it. Unique is everywhere and overused. There are, however, certain rare instances where the term might actually apply, and one of them has recently come to light.
An absolutely fascinating example of a once-forgotten football card set that came bursting into hobby awareness again was the discovery of a particularly unique originally collected set of the 1977 Topps NFL Mexican cards.
Rising from obscurity to the hobby forefront over the past two decades, the Topps NFL Mexican set and its avid devotees have never seen anything like it. This astonishing find occurred when a former young collector of the Topps Mexicans put his full set up for sale in July, 2023.
Longtime Mexican set collector guru Jim Ragsdale said this event is especially notable. “I’ve had perhaps 20,000 of the 30,000 cards existing in this set go through my hands at one time or other. This find is definitely special.”
The set’s collector, Alejandro Medina, was a ten-year-old grade school boy in 1977, living in a suburb of Mexico City. Interested in the American NFL, (the games of which were locally televised,) Alejandro made it his mission to put together a full set of the 528 cards, purchasing wax packs for five pesos, or about twenty cents USA. The packs came with a stick of gum. Some card packs came with four cards but without gum, but these did not sell well. The appetite of Mexican youngsters in the 1970s for chewing gum was by all reports inexhaustible.
Alejandro pulled it off by visiting mom and pop stores, stationary stores, and shrewdly trading cards with friends, accomplishing this remarkable feat inside a year. After that, he stored his accumulation in a shoebox. A plastic bag full of extras he gave to his cousins, and their subsequent fate is unknown.
The box stayed at a rural family property until his sister found it last year and gave it back to him. Through his son Alex, Alejando marketed the set in the USA, where it was promptly purchased by a noted hobbyist, Paul Cintura.
“For me, the real provenance in Alejandro’s collection,” Cintura said, “is that it was collected by a ten-year-old, who got them in Mexico at the time I was collecting the identical 1977 Topps NFL set in the United States.”
In our previous Part One article about this historic NFL set, where we examined it and described how it came to the notice of the hobby, (Gridiron Greats, Spring 2020, vol. 19, number 68) we left out a number of particulars.
In our follow up, we re-review (Volver a Examinar) the 1977 NFL Topps Mexicans in more detail, touching on its oddities, errors, and condition issues, which make collecting it such a challenging and expensive pursuit. But undeniable magic exists in this vintage series for all who hanker after a set that offers some truly singular material.
Hop aboard, hobbyists!
A brief comparison and contrast of the Mexican cards to regular Topps 1977 NFL football is appropriate, because the Mexicans exist as an eerie pioneering parallel set to the Topps regulars.
The Topps 1977 NFL football set came out in the final 12 years of the company’s monopoly.
Offsetting its massive 528-card size, the set featured ho-hum production values, and all the NFL insignias on player helmets and uniforms were airbrushed, apparently to avoid paying a league licensing fee. Many were not well centered, and the cardboard was inexpensive. Little or no thought was given to future collectability. There are probably a hundred times more of the Topps regulars than the Mexicans.
There’s a bunch of memorable rookies—Steve Largent, Danny White, Dave Casper, Harry Carson, Mike Webster and LeeRoy Selmon. The Penn State legend and Heisman winner John Capelletti is another sought-after card in the Topps 1977 NFL regulars, going for about ten bucks.
That sums up the regular set.
The 1977 Topps NFL Mexicans take those dismal card issues down another notch. Unlike the NFL Mexicans, the regular 1977 Topps set came in rack packs as well as wax packs. In the latter case, the 1977 regular NFL packs held eighteen cards each, meaning you could expect only one of the batch to be exposed to a stick of gum.
Not so with the Mexicans.
You don’t have to be a math wizard to figure that every other card in the two card Mexican packs was inserted next to a stick of grape or banana flavored gum. In the case of Alejandro’s set, however, the gum was fresh enough so that it left just a whisper of a mark, or none.
What product didn’t sell sat in a back room of the candy factory until an enterprising New Jersey card dealer named Steve Freedman bought it. The cards had spent years in the Mexican heat, before going into Freedman’s storage, where they spent more years in the Jersey cold.
By the time Freedman began selling his hoard in 1983, many had become stained, because of long contact between cardboard surface and chewable.
Made available in Mexico during the 1977 NFL season, Topps does not appear to have sent its A Team south to get the job done, and it shows. However, by one of those quirks which in the long run create burning passions in collectors, being badly printed, crudely handled, poorly packaged, and distributed on a hit or miss basis has ironically enhanced its value to mesmerized 21st century hobbyists.
This series of cards was rare in being manufactured in a foreign nation. Some Canadian Topps foreign language sets exist—most prominently their hockey cards, issued in the 1950s and 1960s, in English and French.
Topps also made Venezuelan baseball cards, produced from 1959 to 1968. But Topps’ sole 1977 NFL football set to be in Spanish was a true one-off. Besides being printed in Spanish rather than English, the Mexican card set differs in a few minor but key ways.
Five NFL stars appear on the Mexican wrappers—O. J. Simpson, Mike Boryla, Bob Griese, Atlanta Falcons QB Steve Bartkowski, and the Browns’ QB Brian Sipe. This is an actual improvement over Topps regular wrappers, where the packs just show a stylized football.
The packs were labeled Futbol Americano Profesional, and the boxes had slogans such as Estampas De Jugadores, Profesionals, meaning “Professional Player Pictures,” and Sabores Uva Y Platano, which means “Grape and Banana,” referencing the gum flavors.
For decades, the set was mostly unknown to hobbyists. Early hobby price guides all fail to mention the Topps 1977 Mexicans. Beckett’s Sport Americana Number 2 Football, Hockey, Basketball, and Boxing Card Price Guide, issued in 1983, for example, doesn’t list it.
The regular English-language Topps1977 Topps NFL set is in the Sport Americana guide. The Mexicans?
Nary an entry.
When proposing this article, co-author Carl Lamendola pointed to the 1977 Topps NFL Mexican set as an instance where connoisseur hobbyists ought to take note.
“The NFL Mexican set is a sleeper-type card issue that came to life for hobbyists long after its debut,” Lamendola said, “and is especially intriguing. Jim Ragsdale and other veteran NFL Mexican aficionados like Paul Cintura should be commended for bringing it out of the shadows.”
Ragsdale and Cintura claim, not without evidence, the Topps 1977 NFL Mexicans are currently the most desirable set in the hobby. Ragsdale added that new collectors often have to set themselves limited goals.
“They look for complete teams now, rather than trying for a full set, starting with their favorites.”
When a wave of interest in sports collecting and sports cards flowered in the 1980s, the Topps Mexicans remained under the general hobby radar.
Paul Cintura knew about them, however, having been in class with a Mexican kid as a youngster in the International School, while living in the Panama Canal Zone.
“I saw his cards, and found them interesting. I already had my own collection, but his were also cool.”
Many strange stories exist concerning how sloppily the cards were put together in Mexico. Perforated sheets were separated by hand, by workers who sat on stools yanking them apart. It’s fun to imagine how it went:
“Listen! Pull apart this batch of cards here. And you do a batch there. We gotta get this done tonight! Two cards to a pack. One stick of gum. Seal the packs. Got it?”
The workers would package cards with gum by hand. Printing too wasn’t stellar, featuring wrong backs, blanks, creases, off-center, off-color, or none. What distinguishes this set from the Topps regular version, as a result, is the scarcity of high quality cards. It’s amazing too that so many of the defective cards got packaged. But there they are.
Accompanying this article are images of some of the most glaring examples, since a picture is worth a thousand words. The quality of short-printed specimens is the major factor in this set’s value, not rookie card or star status.
The Erik Torkelson card for instance, No. 434 in the set, is among the rarest, a short-printed item that is one of the ultra-tough specimens Jim Ragsdale has dubbed “The Dirty Dozen.” Among these, Torkelson’s card also counts as one of the ultra-scarce “Fab Four.”
Torkelson, a running back for the Green Bay Packers—um—Empacadores appears to have had his card printed hardly at all. A conservative valuation of Torkelson’s 1977 Mexican is at least $500, if you can find one.
A Torkelson card from the regular Topps 1977 set was offered in October, 2023 for a buck. In Alejandro Medina’s collection there is a pretty good-looking Torkelson.
Across the board though, high grade cards of the short-printed Mexicans are in short supply and attract fanatical collectors. The set is so rare, commons in average grades go for no less than five dollars each. If you find one at a show or store for less, buy it.
“I caught a passion for this Topps set as a youth,” Paul Cintura said, “and it’s never left me. Obtaining a complete, quality set of the Mexican version was a real thrill.”
Among the most cherished and valuable of our treasures are Twentieth Century sports cards. Beginning in the 1980s, sports collectibles, most especially trading cards, underwent a transformation from “kid stuff” to historic and respected reflections of our American popular culture.
As the post-World War II “baby boomer” generation (1945-65) ages towards eternity, the things they loved—not just stocks, bonds, and jewelry—are being bequeathed en masse to those left behind—children and grandchildren.
Folks with even a handful of slabbed high grade 1977 NFL Mexican cards in the safety deposit box, intended for a grandchild’s education or wedding, will not disappoint the recipient. Alejandro took his family on a spendy vacation with what he earned by presciently nailing down his 1977 Topps NFL Mexican collection back in the day.
Not wishing to belabor it, but the final item we’ll note is that when this set was available, the Hispanic population of the USA was about seven percent of the total. Now one out of five Americans descend from a Spanish-speaking culture, or about 19 percent, according to the Census Bureau.
As Hispanic Americans prosper further and increase in number, this vintage card set transcends the label “unique” and rises into the realm of “legendary.”
As such, the cards within, and most especially the best specimens, have nowhere to go but, like Alice Kramden, to the moon.