A good list of the best football cards of the 60s isn’t necessarily all about the rookie cards. Pro football cards created in that era gave us some all-time greats, a rivalry between two leagues and two card manufacturers, rookie cards enveloped in tragedy and a single card that represents the league’s prevailing dynasty.
The 1960s was a time for explosive growth in the football world. Riding the momentum from the famed 1958 New York Giants versus Baltimore Colts championship game which went into overtime and introduced a whole new audience to professional football, the NFL began to boom. After that game, the sport began to take hold. Television, which was transitioning to color, loved it. A young, skilled commissioner named Pete Rozelle shepherded the league through its rivalry and eventual merger with the American Football League, while growing it on countless levels.
There were rivalries, too, among the trading card companies. Fleer, which fought for nickels and dimes against Topps, despite licensing challenges, went head long into the football card game after aligning itself with the AFL. Click on the title of each card to see them on eBay.
The decade started off very traditionally with a card that would have been at home ten years earlier, the 1960 Topps #1 Johnny Unitas. Cards from that set may be among the easiest to find from the 60s but there is something great about Unitas, his famed crew cut and the odd angle at which he posed for the photo. Typically found off-center, it’s position as the first card in the set creates enormous condition challenges but it’s worth seeking out. Johnny U played a huge role in the development of football in the public’s consciousness.
Meanwhile, Fleer was creating a set for the fledgling AFL, which was just beginning its first year. Since they had to produce the set before the season began, Fleer had to guess at final rosters and many players who had a card never played in a regular season professional game. One player who did was Jack Kemp, who spent the decade with the Buffalo Bills but is even better known for his post-playing career. Kemp got so far in politics he even was the Republican party vice-presidential nominee in 1996. He is impossibly youthful on his 1960 Fleer rookie card, which is considered a key to that inaugural AFL set.
A scant couple of years later, Topps made a black-bordered set to usher in the 1962 season. Three key cards are in the condition-sensitive, horizontally designed set.
The first is of legendary running back Ernie Davis, the great Syracuse running back who was the first person of color to win the Heisman Trophy and tragically passed from leukemia before he could ever play a game. He was the subject of a motion picture a few years ago and that 1962 Topps rookie card preserves a legacy some might not otherwise remember.
The other two key rookies in the ’62 set are Mike Ditka and Fran Tarkenton, both of whom are still involved with football as analysts to this very day.
The ’63 Topps set went in a completely opposite direction with bright colors on the front and orange and white color backs. A great shot of Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke highlights the set, which is much easier to put together in near mint condition than the first three sets of the decade.
Fleer produced AFL sets from 1960 to ’63, but another change arrived in ’64.
Philadelphia Gum landed the NFL license with Fleer dropping out and Topps taking over the AFL trading cards. That alignment did produce the most expensive 1960’s card. The 1965 Topps Joe Namath features him in a Jets jersey in a picture taken when he was in the hospital recovering from the first of his myriad knee surgeries. In addition, these cards are larger sized and thus did not remain in great condition. There is also a “butterfly” printing variation which is even tougher to obtain. And after the New York Jets won Super Bowl III, everyone wanted something more from Broadway Joe. Thus his rookie card is one of the more tangible and attainable items from his playing days. It’s among the top ten Topps football cards ever created. Making his cards even scarcer is the fact he did not appear on cards for the last few years of his career with no Topps cards at all after 1973.
The very next year two of the greatest Chicago Bears had their rookie cards in the 1966 Philadelphia Gum set, Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. Both had short but productive careers and both helped change the game of football: Sayers by how he could move on the football field and Butkus by his sheer ferocity. Bears fans can only wish the pieces around them were as good in the 1960’s as these two players never were able to even play in the post-season. But their 1966 rookie cards may always be the two most popular cards of that four-year era.
A list of the best football cards from the 60s isn’t complete, however, without one that represents the team that simply dominated the era. Vince Lombardi’s Packers would win NFL titles in 1961, ’62, ’65, ’66 and ’67, plus the first two Super Bowls. The 1967 Philadelphia Bart Starr is the perfect 60s football card. A classic posed passing shot of Lombardi’s trusted leader, a quarterback who rarely made a mistake, set against a deep blue sky with the green and gold Packers colors dominating the design makes this one a classic. ’67 represented the Packers’ final great season before Lombardi’s departure, the final Philly Gum set and the final year of greatness for Starr, one of the finest players and finest gentlemen to ever wear an NFL uniform.
Our grand tour of the best football cards of the 60s concludes with yet another Chicago Bear and one that, like Davis, had a tragic end. His fame came much earlier as the great Brian’s Song made for TV movie was released in the fall of 1971 and actually ended up in several movie theatres. The friendship between Brian Piccolo and Sayers was well documented even before the movie was made and then Piccolo was always the key card in the 1969 set even over such rookies as Larry Csonka. Even though Topps butchered his first name, the 1969 Topps Brian Piccolo is one worth having.