Even though the American Football League lasted a mere 10 seasons, it was a decade rich with important players, game-changing coaches and innovative team personnel. And while Fleer and Topps sets were relatively small during the 1960s, there are still plenty of fantastic cards with which we can celebrate “The Other League.”
To my way of thinking, the first step in making a Top 10 list is to define the criteria used for selection. What does that mean in this case? Are the 10 Most Important AFL Cards the 10 most expensive cards in the genre? Some folks might think so, but I am not one of them. Nor do I necessarily think that they are the rookie cards of the 10 greatest AFL players. I see the 10 Most Important AFL Cards as the issues that correspond directly to the most important people and events in league history. As such, my list of the top 10 AFL cards of all-time is as follows.
Tie – 10. 1960 Fleer Billy Cannon (RC) – The first great commotion between the AFL & NFL involved Billy Cannon. Highly prized as the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner, the Los Angeles Rams tried to get the upper hand on Cannon and illegally signed him to a contract prior to the end of his senior season at LSU. When he was drafted and signed by the Houston Oilers in the AFL, a battle ensued for the rights to the talented back. The case went to court, and the judge rules in favor of the Oilers, bringing much-needed credibility and publicity.
Tie – 10. 1965 Topps Pete Gogolak (RC) – Despite the animosity between the leagues, there had always been an unwritten agreement that teams in one league would not sign players off the roster of a team in the opposing league. That rule was broken when the New York Giants signed Pete Gogolak away from the Buffalo Bills in the post-1965 off-season. Commissioner Al Davis struck back fiercely, ordering AFL owners to immediately sign NFL stars to AFL contracts. This (along with Joe Namath’s rookie contract) brought Tex Schramm and Pete Rozelle to the bargaining table where they worked out a merger agreement for the two leagues with AFL founder, Lamar Hunt.
9. 1964 Topps Cookie Gilchrist – Many who saw Cookie Gilchrist play say that there has never been a better pure football player. But Gilchrist was a multi-faceted man. In the months following the release of his 1964 Topps card, Gilchrist helped lead the Buffalo Bills to their first of two consecutive league championships. He then led one of the most important, yet least-known movements in professional sports when the AFL players boycotted the 1965 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans due to racial injustices that the African-American players faced in the days leading up to the game.
8. 1968 Topps Gino Cappelletti – A career Patriot and one of just 19 men to play in all 10 seasons of the AFL, Gino Cappelletti was a poster boy for AFL success. Undrafted out of college, Cappelletti was a Minnesota bartender when the AFL was formed. He gave pro football one last attempt, and became the face of the Patriots for more than 40 years, first as a player, and then as a radio broadcaster. On November 11, 1968, Gino Cappelletti became the first (and only) AFL player ever, and only the second player in professional football history (Lou Groza was the other)to score more than 1,000 career points.
7. 1969 Topps Len Dawson – Len Dawson had already led his teams to AFL titles in 1962, 1966 and 1969, before lining up under center in Super Bowl IV. But the victory that he delivered in this fourth AFL-NFL world championship game brought ultimate parity to the AFL as the leagues closed out the decade with two Super Bowl victories apiece. The former NFL castoff was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
6. 1964 Raiders Team (Al Davis) – Al Davis had a monumental impact on professional football in his roles as head coach, American Football League Commissioner, and Managing General Partner of the Raiders. Most people consider Al Davis’s rookie card to be the 1992 Pro Set issue, and perhaps rightly so. However, the 1964 Topps Raiders team card represents Davis’s first season with the Oakland Raiders.
5. 1968 Joe Namath – Joe Namath makes his first appearance on this list with his 1968 Topps issue. Namath and the Jets stunned the football world by first guaranteeing victory over the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, and then delivering on the promise. The Jets’ victory forced the nation to take the AFL seriously.
4. 1960 Fleer Hank Stram (RC) – Only one man coached his team through the entire 10 seasons of the AFL. During that time, Henry Louis Stram put together an 87-48-5 record, was the winningest head coach in league history, won three AFL championships and Super Bowl IV. Stram was recognized with induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame 2003.
3. 1960 Fleer Sid Gillman (RC) – Take a look at modern NFL offenses and you will be able to track many of its elements directly back to the Chargers first head coach. Gillman brought instant credibility to the AFL, and forced his opponents to match his work ethic and professionalism. Gillman was one of the first coaches to use film study as an effective coaching tool, to hire a professional strength coach, to spread and balance the field, to put a man in motion, and to take full advantage of the forward pass.
2. 1963 Fleer Lance Alworth (RC) – The 1963 Fleer Lance Alworth card is arguably the premier rookie card in one of the two most iconic AFL sets. Additionally the Chargers won their lone championship in 1963, and Alworth was named AFL most valuable player, the first of many accolades for the AFL’s first inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
1. 1965 Topps Joe Namath (RC) – This card is a slam-dunk as the most important AFL card ever made. No rookie brought about more immediate excitement and media coverage to the AFL than Namath. His $427,000 rookie contract made headlines world-wide. AFL owners were wealthier than NFL owners, on average, and Namath’s deal gave NFL owners reason for concern about the future of their finances. The 1965 Topps Joe Namath card is undoubtedly the most popular AFL card issued.
Click here to check out 1960’s football cards including some of those above on eBay.
Todd Tobias is an American Football League author, historian and collector. You can read more about this historic league, and view Todd’s collection of autographed cards on his blog and website, Tales from the American Football League.