You won’t find legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne on many vintage trading cards. Cards of coaches were not common in the pre-war era when Rockne was active. But even beyond that, football cards from that time period in general were not all that common. The sport was still relatively new (particularly in the case of professional football) and distributors of card inserts focused on other sports and subjects. Many of the game’s earliest stars simply do not grace any cardboard at all.
Thus, Rockne’s lack of cards wasn’t necessarily about card manufacturers not deeming him worthy of inclusion into card sets. That Rockne is pictured on two popular cards, in fact, actually speaks to his level of importance in the game. Save for the 1894 Mayo set of collegiate players, there weren’t many other mainstream football series’ created. Other than a handful of issues, the next widespread football cards depicting real subjects didn’t come about until the 1930s.
And while Rockne does appear on a few other pre-war cards, coincidentally, that’s where we’ll find both of his most famous cards.
1934 Goudey Sport Kings
Both of Rockne’s cards were not even issued until after his 1931 death in a plane crash. The coach was on his way to participate in the filming of a movie, “The Spirit of Notre Dame” at the time of the accident and both serve as tribute cards, of a sort. Given the small amount of football cards in both sets, one wonders if Rockne would have even been included at all if not for his unfortunate death.
Rockne’s most widely recognized ‘rookie’ card is a posthumous card in the popular 1933-34 Goudey Sport Kings set. While the card is commonly cited as a 1933 issue, it was actually printed in the 1934 second series of the set, meaning it was distributed about three years after his death. Rockne is actually seen on at least one earlier postcard as a player at Notre Dame, but this is the traditional card that most collectors consider his first.
Rockne is one of only three football subjects in the multi-sport set (the others were legendary players Red Grange and Jim Thorpe). He was the only coach in the set and, while the back certainly focuses on his coaching career, it also mentions that Rockne was an All-American football player himself at Notre Dame and a member of the school’s track team. Rockne, too, coached Notre Dame track early in his career.
The front of the card pictures Rockne with the ‘Sport Kings Gum’ banner. The back offers the biography, which actually included a typo. The bio mentions Rockne coached through 1932 before the crash. The error was never corrected, thus, it does not include any sort of a premium.
1935 National Chicle
Rockne’s other card is found in the 1935 National Chicle set. The series features only 36 cards (even though the backs advertise a 240-card series) and is generally considered to be the first set of cards featuring professional football players. That, of course, makes Rockne a standout since, while he did play professionally many years prior to the release of this set, he is clearly included as a college coaching subject. Rockne’s card is also possibly unique since it may be the only issue in the set that is not a rookie card.
The collegiate focus is on the back of his card, which talks exclusively about his career as a legendary coach. The back also includes an incredible stat that nearly 100 former Notre Dame players under Rockne had gone on to coaching careers. Biographies were also to include playing tips and the ‘tip’ on Rockne’s discusses his team’s unique style of line play. The front of this card pictures a closeup image of Rockne’s head from the side along with his name.
Rockne’s card in this series matches the style of the others in the set. But it is worth noting that his card is a bit ‘toned down’ in terms of color usage. His card features the navy and gold of Notre Dame in a diagonal, somewhat plain style of background, while most others in the series tout brighter, more colorful backgrounds. Most picture players on the field and in stadiums. While I don’t want to speculate too much here, I think the idea to make Rockne’s card a bit more stoic due to his death was an intentional one.
Comparing the Two
Both cards are highly sought after by collectors and there are quite a few similarities between the two. Both are 1930s gum card issues from popular sets and measure roughly the same, at approximately 2 3/8″ by 2 7/8″. They each have a nearly square look and are printed on the typical thicker style of 1930s gum card stock. Still, there are some differences, too.
As mentioned, Rockne’s rookie is in the earlier 1933-34 Goudey Sport Kings set. That said, because both cards are posthumous and printed fairly close to each other in terms of dates, there isn’t much capitalization on that. Often, the ‘rookie’ card claim is not even always used by sellers when offering his card. The Goudey Sport Kings card also comes in a multi-sport series while the National Chicle is football only.
It’s also notable to mention the importance of each card in their respective sets, too. While Rockne’s card is arguably the second most important card in the 1935 National Chicle set (behind the iconic Bronko Nagurski rookie card), it is less of a headliner in the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings set, which included the likes of Grange, Thorpe, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Babe Didrikson-Zaharias, among others.
While not overly plentiful, neither card is too difficult to find. eBay typically has a few examples of each card available for sale. That said, the Goudey Sport Kings card appears to be slightly tougher to find. The second series cards issued in 1934 were seemingly printed in fewer quantities and, to date, PSA has graded about 300 of those cards compared to roughly 400 of his 1935 National Chicle cards.
Regarding pricing, examples from both sets fluctuate heavily in value. The rarer, earlier Goudey Sport Kings card might be the obvious pick for more value. But that isn’t always the case as it is difficult to get a handle on pricing. A PSA 4 National Chicle, for example, was just sold on eBay last month for $1,525 while a PSA 4 Goudey topped $2,000 last fall. However, a PSA 1 National Chicle example sold for $390 in a 2022 REA auction, not far off from the $460 a PSA 2 Goudey card did around the same time on eBay. The Goudey card seems to slightly outpace the National Chicle in terms of dollar amounts, but they are somewhat similar in terms of past sales.