It was barely a blip on the sports map 120 years ago, but football was big enough to be part of a card set.
The young man who adorns the first football card ever made came from a family historians would still recognize more than a century later.
Henry W. Beecher was captain of the Yale football team. He was called ‘Harry’ but he shared the name of his grandfather, Henry Ward Beecher, a well-known preacher who unlike many of his spiritual contemporaries, believed it was well and good for young people to be involved in sports. The elder Beecher’s sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
College football was becoming popular on American campuses and in 1887, Goodwin & Co produced its 50-card Champions set, which included baseball players and those from other sports popular at the time. Beecher was the preeminent player on the top team of his day. Thus far, it’s the oldest football card known, pre-dating the popular Mayo’s Cut Plug set by seven years.
Beecher’s prolific scoring captured the attention of media on the east coast, even in an era when football rules were still being absorbed by most people. In three years on the varsity (1885-1887), Beecher scored a phenomenal 66 touchdowns, including 33 in one season (1886) and 11 in one game (vs. Wesleyan on October 30, 1886).
The Goodwin Champions cards were distributed in packages of Old Judge and Gypsy Queen cigarettes. Measuring 1 1/2″ by 2 5/8″, the set is one of the most popular pre-War era card issues. The backs of the cards list the subjects in the set and their respective athletic fields. The Beecher card generally brings $2500-3500 in VG condition. High grade examples are extremely scarce.
There was no NFL yet. Pro football was still over 30 years from its birth so Beecher’s fame as a collegian didn’t translate into a pro career and more cards, but the colorful Goodwin’s card, showing him cradling an oversized football used in the 19th century, holds a special place in hobby history.
See vintage Goodwin Champions cards on eBay here.