While football cards are included in the pre-war era, they aren’t nearly as abundant as baseball issues. That’s mostly because the professional version of the sport was really just beginning while baseball had been well established by that point. But by the 1920s and 1930s, card companies began catching on and football cards became more popular in those decades.
One of the most recognizable stars of that time was Red Grange and he’s found in several sets. Two of the most prominent were the 1926 Shotwell Manufacturing sets (pictured right). One set featured 12 cards of Grange with advertisements for Shotwell on the backs. A second similar issue from Shotwell was also printed in the same year but was larger with 24 cards. That set focused on Grange’s participation in a movie called, “One Minute to Play.” While several cards in that set feature Grange as a football player, many do not and merely show him in street clothes with other actors and actresses.
Both sets are somewhat rare and desirable. However, the cards showing Grange as a football player are more sought after by collectors. Prices for these cards varies greatly by condition and depending if Grange is featured as a football player. But generally, the non-football movie cards start around $100 in decent condition while football cards from the ad-backed set are about twice that amount.
A set that is very popular with early football collectors is the 1926 Pottsville Maroons postcard set. The Pottsville Maroons were one of the first professional football teams in the NFL and this is sometimes cited as the first professional set of cards. These black and white postcards are not easy to find and, as a result, usually sell for big money. Lelands auctioned off a near set of 15 of them for more than $10,000.
Finally, another popular 1920s issue is the Star Player Candy set. Baseball collectors will be familiar with that name as two sets for that sport were produced in the 1920s. But Star Player Candy also produced a lesser-known football issue as well. That sepia-toned set features Grange and a host of other players. Cards are significantly rare (SGC has only graded a few of each, for the most part) and prices for them are high. A low-grade Eddie Tryon card, for example, sold for morethan $500.
But while there are some 1920s issues that helped get pro football cards on the map, they didn’t really start to take off until the 1930s.
One of the most comprehensive sets of pro football players came in the form of matchbooks. Diamond Match Company put all kinds of subjects on the backs of its product during the era. There are baseball sets that offer pre-War players at a modest cost and from 1933-38, they also offered football “cards.” The 1933 issue is the most expensive and includes Grange, Bronko Nagurski, Cal Hubbard, Clarke Hinkle and nearly 100 others. There were other NFL sets in 1934 and ’35 along with smaller sets in ’36, ’37 and’38. Common players from these sets can often be found for under $10.
Popular gum company Goudey threw its hand in the ring, including several football players in its 1933 Sport Kings set. Grange, Jim Thorpe, and Knute Rockne are among the big names found in the issue. The company also created a football card game around the same time that centered around collegiate teams.
National Chicle also got into the act in the 1930s as well. While the company produced two sets of premium pictures for baseball, a football set was also produced. All three sets are cataloged as R311. The football issue features a mix of collegiate and professional teams and players.
And like the Goudey Sport Kings issue, football found itself being a part of more multi-sport releases. One of those was the rare 1937 Donut Corporation Thrilling Moments set. While that issue is headlined by Babe Ruth, Grange and Rockne are two of the more valuable cards. Several multi-sport food issues also included the game as football cards of players such as Grange, Thorpe, Bronko Nagurski, and Sammy Baugh, are found in the 1938 Dixie Lids and the 1937 Kellogg’s Pep Stamps issues. Wheaties tossed in a few NFL players on the backs of its boxes including Grange and Don Hutson.
But while those football cards were popular, none surpassed the 1935 National Chicle set. That set is generally considered to be the grandfather of all football issues and remains the most popular pre-war football release of all time. At only 36 cards, the set is small. But it’s extremely valuable led by an early Rockne card and the rookie issue of Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski.
The Nagurski card is one of the most valuable football cards in the hobby. A PSA 8 sold nearly $60,000 earlier this year. While scarce, you can usually find at least a couple on eBay.
It would take a little while longer for football card sets to become more of a mainstream thing. But the pre-war era included many desirable issues featuring the professional game’s earliest stars.