A scarce regional card set featuring the 1950 Minneapolis Lakers will be part of Heritage Auctions’ Summer Platinum Night Sports Auction in August. It will showcase the artwork of a longtime Minneapolis newspaper artist and cartoonist, Al Papas, whose intricate drawings are featured in the 13-card set.
Four of Papas’ grandchildren — Jeff, Jennifer, Susan and Amy — are putting their inherited set of the 1950 Scott’s Potato Chips on the block in the Heritage sale, which will come to a close weekend of Aug. 19-20. The set was produced in Minnesota as a tribute to the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers, and the brand was a regional favorite in the Upper Midwest. The one Heritage is offering is the No. 1 graded set on PSA’s registry and includes 12 of the 13 players in the set. The only card missing is forward Arnie Ferrin.
“When Grandpa got paid for the artwork, he also got enough sets to go to the game,” said Jennifer Papas, 47, a manager for a medical device company in the Twin Cities area.
According to the card backs, children under 15 who presented photos of two of the Lakers’ forwards, two guards and a center — along with a 25-cent “tax service charge” — could see the team for free on four selected dates at the Minneapolis Auditorium.
Children who collected four sets got the chance to see all four of them, and a complete set brought an autographed team photo through the mail from the Potato Products Corporation of East Grand Forks, Minnesota.
The in-store ad refers to the cards as “figurines,” likely because of their unique size and Papas’ caricatures of the players.
Bob Papas, the second of Al and Beatrice Papas’ three sons, “elected to keep his,” Jennifer said.
The lowest-graded card in the set is a PSA 5 and it has a set rating of 7.228.
The big draw in the lot is NBA superstar George Mikan, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959. At PSA 7, it is the highest-graded version of the center. A lower grade (PSA 5.5) sold for $6,226 during an SCP Auctions sale in 2017.
In the Papas family set, cards of Herm Schaeffer (PSA 7), Bob Harrison (PSA 8) and Tony Jaros (PSA 8) also have the highest PSA grades.
Other Hall of Famers in the set include Jim Pollard (1978), Slater Martin (1982), Vern Mikkelsen (1995) and the Lakers’ coach, John Kundla (1995). Another athlete on the team would become a Pro Football Hall of Famer — Bud Grant, who would coach the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings to four Super Bowls and be enshrined in Canton in 1994.
The cards feature Al Papas’ artwork on the front and biographical sketches and contest information on the back.
The Lakers were NBA champions in 1949-50, rolling to a 51-17 regular-season record, but John Kundla’s team needed a Central Division tiebreaker game to reach the playoffs. They beat the Rochester Royals 78-76, then swept the Chicago Stags, Fort Wayne Pistons and Anderson Packers in best two-of-three series before stopping the Syracuse Nationals 4-2 in a best-of-seven final.
When the Lakers won the title, the marketing team for Potato Products Corporation wanted to cash in on the squad’s success. The company commissioned Al Papas to draw players’ likenesses on the 2-inch-by-4 1/8-inch cards, which were produced on thick stock and had a facsimile autograph. The cards were distributed in the company’s boxes of potato chips and cheese potatoes, with the Scott’s logo on the card front.
Alfred “Al” Papas was a natural for the job, having worked as a staff artist for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. Papas had worked as a cartoonist and artist at Minneapolis newspapers since 1933 and his work had also been featured nationally in The Sporting News.
Even when he was attending the University of Minnesota, where he excelled in football as a freshman until a broken leg ended his career, Papas was turning heads with his artwork.
“The youngster has a world of natural talent with a crayon,” Minneapolis Sunday Tribune staffer George A. Barton noted in a Nov. 22, 1931, column. A different article that same day highlighted Papas’ talent for drawing members of the Gophers football team.
Al Papas was born in Winnipeg on April 8, 1911. His family moved to International Falls, Minnesota, when he was 4. He was a star football player in high school and as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. His broken leg against Iowa prevented him from playing on the Gophers’ national championship team in 1934, but it opened up a career that lasted more than three decades.
“He was a marvelous athlete. He was known as ‘Axe’ in high school,” said Jeff Papas, 58, the radio voice of the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s football team on KDAL-AM since 2010 and the communications director at Hamline University. “My two favorite stories about him are that he’d go swimming and his whole body would bob above water.
“And that he was ambidextrous. He’d be at parties and write forward with one hand and backward with the other.”
Al Papas was also known as a prankster who was a better-than-average bowler and softball player who also enjoyed mystery novels and the works of William Shakespeare.
Beginning as a newspaper artist and cartoonist in 1933, Papas spent 14 years in journalism and was a member of the Twin Cities Newspaper Guild. In 1947 he joined the advertising department of S&M Co. and later opened his own art studio. In his later years, Papas was a partner at Allied Advertising Artists.
In April 1954, Papas and Allied colleague Norman Hamilton helped create a series of glossy Bible comic books produced by the Rev. Billy Graham and his associates.
He married Beatrice Anderson in Sisseton, South Dakota, on Sept. 4, 1933. They had three sons — Jon, born in 1935; Bob, in 1939; and Al Jr., in 1944.
Al Papas died on June 13, 1955, after a long battle with sinus cancer. He was 44.
“He missed lettering at Minnesota,” Jennifer said. “The family petitioned the university and he was granted one.
“He would hold it on his chest in his bed during his final days.”
“It was an Old English ‘M,’” Jeff added. “He was very much Minnesota-minded.”
Bob Papas kept his Scott’s Potato Chip cards in a safety deposit box “for 30 years in a No. 10 envelope,” Jennifer said. Two years after her father’s death in 2012, Jennifer and her mother, Donita, traveled to a card show with the set and talked with dealers, one of which was skeptical.
“I said, ‘Have you ever heard of the Scott’s Chips Lakers set,’ and he said yes,” Jennifer recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I have them,’ and he said, ‘No way.’
“So I showed him the set and he said they were not real. Then I showed him my driver’s license with the name ‘Papas’ on it, and then he believed it, he was like, ‘Oh, wow.’”
Now that the cards are headed to auction, Jeff noted there was some sadness.
“It was not easy for all of us,” he said. “There’s a little bit of remorse.
“It almost feels like selling a part of the family.”
It was not made easier by the death of the siblings’ mother, as Donita Papas died on Jan. 2, 2023.
Their surviving uncle, Al Papas Jr., turns 79 in September. A chip off the old block, one might say, Al Jr. is also an artist.
“If the work didn’t say ‘Jr.’ after his name, then you couldn’t tell their artwork apart,” Jeff said.
The Papas siblings will probably realize a nice sum from the auction, but they said it was not about the money.
“The cards should be with someone who will take them out of a box and show to their friends, and who will appreciate the family heritage,” Jeff said. “There’s a certain amount of excitement in showing these to people.”
“It’s a piece of history we’re incredibly proud of.”
“We’re so proud of his body of work,” Jennifer said.