The curtain may have dropped on Topps NFL cards—at least for now. Panini’s exclusive license has left the company on the sideline for the production of physical football cards. The story of how they got into the game in the mid-1950s is worth telling.
The story of Topps’ 60-year history of producing football cards began with a meeting between company president Sy Berger and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell. The two men asked each other what they wanted out of the deal should Topps produce a trading card set featuring NFL players.
For Topps, the answer was simple: a profit. The young company needed to churn out fresh bubble gum and new cards to make money. Bell, a former coach, made it easy. He told Berger his league was doing well enough without Topps’ kicking some money into its coffers in return for the rights to produce trading cards.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you give it to the players?’” Berger recalled for Topps Magazine in 1990. “He agreed and that was the start of the Bert Bell Benefit Fund, the players’ pension fund.”
Indeed it was. An historic moment, really, and one launched on little pieces of cardboard. The deal was virtually nothing more than a handshake agreement; a far cry from the multi-million dollar negotiations that come with licensing today.
Bell asked only for the publicity Topps’ involvement and wide-ranging distribution of the cards could bring to his still struggling league. Exactly what Topps immediate impact was isn’t clear, but within three years, thanks in part to TV, the league was enjoying unprecedented national interest.
It turns out Berger had serendipitously met Bell many years earlier. Walking up the stadium steps after a loss, the Eagles’ coach was confronted by a fan who punched him. Berger happened to be nearby and helped the man with whom he’d later become business associates and friends. Sadly, Bell passed away in 1959, while still serving as NFL commissioner.
Topps kept its debut set of 1956 pretty simple: just 120 cards including team photos and no real bells and whistles other than randomly inserted checklists and “contest cards” which allowed youngsters to predict the scores of two NFL games. Correct picks were eligible for prizes. If unmarked, those two inserts are prized by collectors today.
The cards featured posed shots of players against a solid color background. No major rookie cards were in the set and today, even stars like Frank Gifford and Y.A. Tittle remain relatively inexpensive, but there were numerous single printed cards that are hard to find. Cards featuring members of the Chicago Cardinals and Washington Redskins seem to be much tougher to find than others.
Topps brought its cartoons to the card backs along with biographical info, highlights and a statistics box.
Topps manufactured penny and nickel wax packs as well as a limited number of cello packs which sold for a dime.
Today, the few surviving wax packs sell for over $1,000 but they’re not as valuable as what may be the only unopened cello box still in existence. Held for decades by long-time collector Ron Menchine and discovered after his death, the box containing 36 14-card cello packs (504 cards or enough for possibly four complete untouched sets) sold for $29,375 through Robert Edward Auctions in 2011. Today, it would likely bring even more.
Topps would continue producing a pro football trading card set of some kind every year through 2016, an arrangement that started with two men having a chat aimed at helping their respective companies: Berger and Bell launched a legacy that went beyond business.
“It was one of the great friendships of my life,” Berger told Dwight Chapin 23 years ago. “He was such a wonderful person.”