Early football cards can be a tricky pursuit. That’s made even more difficult if you are looking for cards that are more of a reflection of football as the game we know it today.
The earliest American football was a combination of sorts of soccer and rugby. The first game was cited as Princeton vs. Rugby in 1869, but that contest hardly resembled the kind of sport that we watch today. In 1882, Walter Camp installed the three-downs rule and the forward pass came in 1906 making the sport a little closer to how it is played today.
Here’s a brief timeline of the evolution of the earliest football cards.
1800s Trade Cards
As is the case in baseball, the earliest known football cards are probably trade card issues. Trade cards were dominant in the 1870s and 1880s. Like baseball, there are probably cabinet issues featuring early football players. But the majority of the earliest collectible football cards were trade cards.
Trade cards most often featured color lithographic or cartoon pictures of players in addition to advertisements for businesses or products. These were almost certainly all depictions of generic players.
One snag that can be encountered is trying to determine if a card features legitimate American football or rugby and that comes down to the interpretation of the collector. If a trade card is an American-made card, the inference that could be made is that it features American football. If it was a card produced overseas, though, considering it as an American football issue would be much harder to do.
It is important to note that, just because an American card looks like rugby, it can still be considered to depict American football. As stated earlier, the game had very different rules. For example, the typical rugby scrum was utilized in early American football until it was ultimately removed. Thus, a card with a scrum, such as the American trade card here, could still be technically considered by collectors as an American football card.
There are fewer football trade cards than baseball trade cards. As a result, the asking prices for certain ones can be a little higher as they are desirable to football collectors that are in pursuit of the earliest issues. But some trade cards can be found in the $10-$20 range.
Early Tobacco Cards
While earlier cards of generic players existed, the 1888 N162 Goodwin Champions card of Harry Beecher is mostly recognized as the earliest card of an actual player.
Beecher is featured in the set as the captain of the Yale football team. He would go on to become a sportswriter after his playing days. The card is highly desirable and, even in low-grade condition, sells for a lot of money. An Authentic-grade card recently on eBay sold for more than $1,300.
Football fans would have to wait a few years for the first football set featuring real players. That set finally rolled around in 1894 with the Mayo Cut Plug issue. Listed as N302 and titled as ‘College Football Stars’ by Jefferson Burdick in the American Card Catalog, it features collegiate players from Yale, Princeton, and Harvard. Notably in the set is a player named Neilson Poe, a relative of the famous writer Edgar Allan Poe.
As you can see, these cards had distinctly different looks. One has a colorful image while the other has sepia pictures with a dark black border. As was the case in early baseball cards, the 19th Century cards were sort of all over the map.
Early 1900s Football Cards and a Hodgepodge of Collectibles
Football cards were issued in the early 1900s, but they were mostly generic issues. The sport, though, was starting to gain more notoriety and you could see it featured in all sorts of issues. These cards evolved with the times and included all sorts of formats, including color lithographs and sometimes cartoon sketches.
One of the popular ones was the T51 Murad set (and the T6 Murad set, a shorter but larger-sized premium set), believed to be printed sometime around 1909-11. This multi-sport set featured generic collegiate athletes and football was a focal point for many schools. Despite baseball being included in the release, the most expensive card is usually the Michigan football card. In decent mid-grade condition, it usually starts around $75 – $100.
In this time period, traditional cards were mostly outnumbered by other collectibles, though. Murad, for example, also produced several other tobacco collectibles, including felts and silks. And then there were the numerous postcard issues.
Early 1900s football is perhaps mostly seen on the latter. A few postcards, such as the 1907 Dietsche Michigan Wolverines Postcards set, featured real players. That set was a bit different than most as they had real black and white pictures. Almost all others, however, depicted generic subjects, including players, cheerleaders, and female fans. Females were even pictured as players in uniform at times. Despite their age, it isn’t too difficult to find football-themed postcards for as little as $5.
When looking for inexpensive pre-war football cards, it’s hard to beat the 1900s stuff if you can live with generic subjects.
Professional Football Cards Enter the Market
While professional football was being played as early as the 1890s, it didn’t really take off until the National Football League (then, the American Professional Football Association) came around in 1920. Soon after that, we started to see cards of real professional players.
Arguably, no player was featured as much earlier on as Red Grange. Grange, as I wrote here, was featured in several sets in the 1920s. Grange cards range in price but are highly desirable and generally difficult to find for under $100. Similar to what was going on with baseball sets at the time, these cards were often black and white and featured real images as opposed to earlier color lithographs.
But cards continued to evolve in the 1930s and, again, these modeled baseball issues that were printed. Gum cards moved into a square, color format and we soon saw another important landmark for early football cards with the printing of the 1935 National Chicle set. The National Chicle issue is seen as the first true set with professional players. The prize in that set is one of the holy grails of football card collecting in the Bronko Nagurski rookie card. A PSA 3.5 recently sold for nearly $6,000. One or two can usually be found on eBay.
Other notable 1930s football cards include those found in the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings set. A few football greats appear in that issue, including Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, and Knute Rockne, all of whom have precious few pre-War cards. Lower grade examples can often be found for a few hundred dollars.