As sports card collectors, we love our sets and singles for the memories they evoke and the unique aesthetic of artwork cramped onto small cardboard rectangles. Still, we all want to feel like we’re getting a good value for the time and money we invest in our collections, so we’re always on the lookout for a bargain.
When it comes to vintage football card sets, you could make an argument that just about every set is undervalued when compared to its contemporary baseball card counterparts. Even so, some older football sets are undervalued even within the context of other gridiron issues, and those are our focus here.
The five sets below were chosen based on a stew of PSA Population Reports, recent sales figures, historical significance, and a dash of personal preference. For the purposes of this list, “vintage” is defined as anything before 1981, when Topps began to lose the hold on its sports card monopoly
After a trying five-year period that saw them leapfrog Leaf and (temporarily) fend off the upstart Topps, Bowman emerged as the lone football card provider in 1953 and served up a tiny 96-card issue. The simple but elegant design is a hobby classic, and the cards are priced accordingly.
In 1954, though still alone in the field, Bowman expanded its football card offering to 128 cards, highlighted by the rookie card of the great George Blanda, and including other big names like Otto Graham, Leo Nomellini, and Y.A. Tittle, all of them Hall of Famers. The design of the 1954 Bowman football cards featured thick white borders with a thin, curved black piping around each full-color picture. Across the bottom of each photo was a white pennant-like space listing the player and team names, accented by a rendering of the team mascot.
The whole set had a “go-team” feel to it, a marked departure from the more artistic bent that Bowman took with earlier sets, and with baseball sets of the era. It’s apparent that Topps drew heavily from the 1954 Bowman design a decade later, as the cards resemble 1960s Topps issues in both baseball and football.
Despite the historical significance and star power of the set, though, 1954 Bowman cards remain moderately priced in comparison to other early football sets. While high-end graded cards of the big names can bring several hundred dollars, clean PSA 7 cards of lesser Hall of Famers like Les Richter and Dante Lavelli can usually be had for under $50, and near-mint raw copies of even the big four often bring less than $100.
For its 1960 football set, Topps took a cue from its popular 1957 baseball issue to create a crisp, clean design that featured a full-color image set off by a cartoon football containing the player’s name, position, and team. Despite the cards’ visual appeal, the 1960 set lags behind other major issues of the era on the secondary market due largely to the lack of Hall-of-Fame rookie cards, and to a general perception that the cards were overproduced.
There is no denying that the 1960 set is light on impact rookie cards, as Forrest Gregg (#56) is the only one of note. However, the numbers from eBay, Beckett, and PSA point to a set that is just as scarce as its more ballyhooed counterparts.
Through mid-February of 2015, PSA had graded 21,348 cards from the 1960 set, with only 18 receiving a grade GEM-MT 10. By comparison, PSA has seen 36,421 cards from the 1959 set, with 206 receiving a perfect 10, while the 1961s check in with 24,158 total graded cards, 24 of them 10s.
Beckett tells much the same story, having graded 1800 cards from the 1959 set and 1301 from 1961, but just 929 from the 1960 issue. None of those three sets have scored a perfect 10 for any of its cards through BGS, though there have been six 1959s good enough to rate a 9.5.
The good news for collectors with an eye for bargains among early Topps fooball cards is that the 1960s are available for very modest prices, with raw single cards regularly bringing about a dollar on eBay. Even PSA 7 examples of luminaries like Jim Brown can be had for less than $100, and nice-looking complete sets come up from time to time for just a few hundred dollars.
No list of vintage football cards is complete without at least one oddball set, and the 1969 Topps 4-in-1 inserts certainly qualify on that front. More importantly for our purposes, they are a relatively scarce issue with untapped potential in terms of graded population and market value.
Issued one per wax pack of 1969 Topps football cards, each intact 4-in-1 insert was the size of a “normal” card (2.5″ x 3.5″) but displayed four mini cards, as the name implies. In all, there were 66 different four-player panels, for a total of 264 subjects, which allowed Topps to include all of the major names, including key rookies Larry Csonka and Brian Piccolo. The original intent was for the four cards to be cut apart from each other and affixed inside special sticker albums that Topps produced for each pro team.
Considering that Topps wax packs in 1969 contained 12 cards, you might expect the 4-in-1 issue to be one-twelfth as plentiful as the base set, and that ratio plays out in the PSA Population Report: roughly 50,000 regular Topps cards have been slabbed through mid-February, while just over 4200 of the 4-in-1 full panels have been graded. In addition, about 1500 single cards, cut away from their original four-card panels, have been graded by PSA, with 250 of those receiving a GEM-MT (10) grade.
One problem with these is that because of the perforations, they are often found with creases leading to the edge of the card, which impacts their value.
It is interesting to note, also, that there have been nearly as many PSA 10s among the 4-in-1 cards (84) as among the base 1969 submissions (98), so condition is a strong point for these inserts.
Despite their relative scarcity, 4-in-1 cards are fairly easy to find on eBay, and complete sets generally trade for $200 or less. Single cards range from around a dollar for raw panels to $50 or more for really strong graded examples.
The combination of low-cost, excellent player selection, and strong grading potential makes the 1969 Topps 4-in-1 inserts, especially high-grade examples, an undervalued bargain.
Most of the sets on this list are marked by a lack of key rookie cards, but the 1973 Topps set shines in that area. While Franco Harris, Ken Stabler, Dan Dierdorf, and Jack Ham may not be household names on a par with Walter Payton or Joe Namath, all of them but Stabler are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and all of them have their first cards in the 1973 set.
If star power is not a problem, then, what is it that makes 1973 Topps undervalued in today’s football card market?
A large part of the answer lies in the relative abundance of these cards when compared to the perception that the previous year’s set is especially scarce. While complete sets of 1972 Topps football are, indeed, very difficult to put together, that is almost entirely a consequence of the third series, rushed to market late in the season. In 1973, Topps scrapped the idea of issuing cards by series and pushed out all 528 cards at once, making it, by far, the largest football card issue ever produced to that point.
With near-mint complete sets selling in the $300 range on eBay, 1973 Topps football cards represent a great value in terms of both star power and untapped graded-card potential.
In the summer of 1980, Fleer won its antitrust lawsuit against Topps, a ruling that would forever change the sports card market and, eventually, Topps’ approach to card production. That fall, though, it was business as usual for the gum giant, and Topps issued one of the final sets of what many consider the vintage card era with its 1980 football offering.
Coming off a string of sets featuring big rookie cards, and just a year before the rookie card boom really got rolling with Joe Montana’s debut issue in 1981, the 1980 set looks anemic by comparison at first blush. After Walter Payton and Jack Lambert in 1976, Steve Largent in 1977, Tony Dorsett in 1978, and Ozzie Newsome/Earl Campbell/James Lofton in 1979, the duo of Phil Simms and Ottis Anderson just doesn’t give much oomph to the 1980 cards.
Even so, the set is chock full of mid-career cards of some of the NFL’s greatest players, from the group listed above to Hall of Famers like Terry Bradshaw and Dan Fouts. Just about any card in the set can be had for less than a dollar, and even Simms and Payton won’t set you back much more than $5 or so for decent looking ungraded cards.
While overproduction is always a concern with Topps cards from the last 40 years, PSA has graded only about 17,000 cards from the 1980 set, roughly half the number they’ve processed from each of the 1979 and 1981 issues. With high-grade complete sets regularly changing hands on eBay for $50 or less, 1980 Topps football seems to hold a good deal of untapped price potential for the coming years.
To be sure, there are other football card sets that represent good value in today’s market, but the sets on this list are some of the most underappreciated, undervalued of all vintage issues. For the collector who enjoys awesome cards and the thrill of a bargain hunt, these are hard to beat.