Be honest. If you were a kid growing up in the 1960s or ’70s, saving those wax wrappers for football cards were an afterthought.
Packs of cards were usually stacked on shelves at small candy stores and five-and-dime counters. The wrappers were colorful, but unappreciated. Occasionally, an astute youth would notice an advertisement for a sports product on the side panel and save the wrapper, hoping to accumulate enough to send in for whatever was being offered. Most, though, wound up in the trash.
A Football Card Collector from Way Back
Bob Swick was one of those kids who appreciated wrappers. When he began collecting football cards in 1965 in North Branford, Connecticut, he kept one of the wrappers from the Topps AFL “tall boys” set.
“I saved some (wrappers) as a kid. As I got older and had more disposable income, I started buying them.”
Swick, 56, now has a large football wrapper collection dating to the 1951 Topps Magic set. There are very few wrappers he is lacking — the 1955 Topps All-American and 1950 Bowman (six cards and two pieces of gum for a nickel) come to mind.
“I am still hunting for an affordable ’55 All-American,” the Wallingford, Connecticut, resident said. “They are tough to come by. I’ve seen them as low as $450 and as high as a thousand.”
Swick, the editor and publisher of the quarterly Gridiron Greats magazine who has written about football cards and memorabilia since 1990, began collecting football cards in 1965. He views the 1960s as “the glory years for sports cards.”
While many kids collected baseball cards, Swick preferred football.
“I took a liking to football because the scoring system was so amazing to me,” he said.
Even though he lived in New England, Swick was a Green Bay Packers fan growing up.
“Back in the days when we had black-and-white TV sets, I was fascinated with the Packers’ green and yellow on the cards,” he said. It didn’t hurt that the afternoon paper, The New Haven Register, “pounded out story after story” about the Packers’ left tackle, Bob Skoronski, who was born and grew up in the area.
Swick and his father were “rope guards” at the Yale Bowl in the 1960s, charged with making sure fans didn’t try to get onto the field. In 1973-74, Swick and his brother-in-law were ushers at the Yale Bowl and even took in a Packers-Giants game on October 7, 1973 (the Packers won 16-14 on a 32-yard field goal by Chester Marcol).
He began collecting football card wrappers in earnest during the mid-1970s. Starting with the 1976 Topps set, he began saving a few wrappers each year. Going to shows — and later, through online auction sites like eBay — Swick began assembling an impressive collection.
Collectors seeking football cards as the 1980s dawned were looked upon as a curiosity.
“I’d go to shows and ask for football cards, and the dealers would look at me funny,” Swick said. “Then they’d go to the back of their booth and pull out a box and say ‘here, take this for $5.’”
A Brief History of Football Cards and Wrappers
Football cards first made a mainstream appearance in the 1933 Sports Kings series. The 1935 National Chicle set was the first to feature all football players. The first “modern” releases, however, came in 1948, when Bowman and Leaf issued sets. Topps would follow suit in 1950 with its Felt Backs product — “The one-cent wrapper and the little felt cards were secondary to the gum” — and introduce Magic football (Swick’s favorite set) the following year.
Fleer entered the fray from 1960 through 1963, and the Philadelphia brand cornered the NFL market from 1964 to 1967. After costing a nickel for more than a decade, card prices doubled in 1969 when Topps sold packs for 10 cents apiece.
From the 1948 Leaf set to the 1980 Topps product, Swick said there were 105 different wrappers if variations are factored into the mix. He is content not to collect variations.
“I was never that deep,” he said.
However, he did point out that in that first Topps set he collected in 1965, there were three different ads on the pack’s side panels. For sale were cowboy boots, sunglasses or a toy battleship.
The wrapper for the 1970 Topps Super football had a whale tooth variation in the advertising panel.
The 1965 and ’66 Philadelphia football card wrappers offered variations with helmet or school book covers on the advertising panels.
In 1959, Topps used a “repeating wrapper,” which is much more difficult to find. The design is small and compact and is stacked and repeated on the front of the pack.
The design of the packs was created to entice collectors. Vivid colors, big block lettering and generic drawings of football players were used. The card companies also marketed stickers, tattoos, cloth emblems, pennants, decals and oddball cards on the front of the wrappers.
Not surprisingly, the most difficult wrappers to obtain are the early Bowman sets. A 1952 Bowman wrapper is currently selling for $129 on eBay.
The Holy Grail of wrappers would be from the 1948 and ’49 Leaf sets, Swick said, because they are “very tough to find and are very expensive.”
The good news for collectors is that many of the wrappers from the late 1960s through the 70s and 80s are generally inexpensive (you can see them on eBay here).
Swick, who owns a degree in journalism and a master’s in economics, teaches business and economics “at a few schools” and also teaches online courses at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.
That is, when he’s not working on Gridiron Greats magazine, which will publish its 50th edition this fall. In the past, he stayed busy by contributing to the Beckett Annual Football Price Guide. And by collecting programs, media guides, yearbooks, pocket schedules, ticket stubs and team photos of the Packers.
Swick concedes that he doesn’t know many other collectors who specialize in football wrappers, and does not believe in grading. All of his wrappers are raw. Condition also is not an issue for him.
“I am a dinosaur in the hobby,” he chuckles, “and continue to be one.”