An era comes to an end this week as Topps wraps up its uninterrupted run of producing football cards. They produced a set of Felt Backs in 1950, but Topps didn’t go head first into football until the 1955 season when they issued the All-American set, which pictured former college greats. Their NFL contract started the following season when commissioner Bert Bell got together with Topps’ Sy Berger and hammered out a simple arrangement that launched 60 straight years of pro football sets.
Topps has created some of the hobby’s most iconic football cards, including almost all of those that would be on the list of the most valuable and popular ever issued.
From 1956-63 Topps enjoyed a virtual football card monopoly (with the exception of 1961). Philadelphia Gum had the contract from ’64-67 but Topps picked up the exclusive again in 1968 and held it until the late 1980s. Topps held the AFL license in 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1967 and produced the rookie card of Joe Namath during that time frame. For most of the 80’s, Topps was the sole provider of rookie cards for players like Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, John Elway, Dan Marino, Jerry Rice and Bo Jackson.
There are a lot of candidates for the top ten Topps football cards ever printed and any list is subjective but we don’t think there will be a lot of debate on most of these. We’re limiting our list to cards produced before 1990 and presenting them in chronological order.
1955 Topps All-American Don Hutson: The 1955 Topps All-Americans set got the ball rolling for Topps. With Bowman trotting out one final NFL set, their competitor focused on a relatively small set of college football’s all-time greats.
While few of the cards were really contemporary, the set does provide some of the only vintage football cards ever issued for some well-known players. The one that stands out more than any other is Don Hutson.
A groundbreaking wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers, Hutson’s career was over by ’55 but his youth is recaptured on this card that features him as a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide. It’s a short print in the set, which makes it doubly tough to find, especially in high grade. The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and Jim Thorpe are also in the set.
1957 Topps Johnny Unitas: If you could earn a dollar for every scuffed 1957 Topps card on the market, you’d be filthy rich. It’s a tough set to find in high-grade, but in any condition, the ’57 Unitas is one of the greatest football cards of all-time. Unitas had a terrific impact on football in the late 50s when he led the Colts to victory in one of the greatest championship games ever.
He had barely made a mark on the game when Topps put him in their unique ’57 set but by the end of the decade, every sports fan knew his name.
1957 Topps Bart Starr: Like Unitas, Starr was an afterthought–drafted in the 17th round and struggling until Vince Lombardi arrived and changed the course of his career–and his life.
Starr is wearing number 42 in the photo used by Topps. He later made the #15 famous. From 1961-67, Starr led the Packers to five NFL titles with his steady quarterback play. The card is in the high-number series and can be a challenge to find in high-grade.
1958 Topps Jim Brown: Print defects, poor centering and scuffing make this card another toughie, but it’s also incredibly popular among football card collectors because of Brown’s status as perhaps the greatest running back of all-time. He certainly was the best of his era. A three-time MVP, he averaged over five yards per carry.
The card captures Brown as his star was ascending; he’d win the second of those three MVP awards that season. Safe to say looking for Jim Brown’s card probably pushed a lot of sales for Topps in 1958 in a space that didn’t generate nearly the amount of buying baseball cards did.
Simply an NFL–and collecting– legend.
1965 Topps Joe Namath: The ’65 Topps set was a departure for Topps, which used the “tall boy” size design. Maybe it was because Namath was already becoming larger than life.
He signed with the Jets out of Alabama and became one of the most noteworthy figures of his generation. Topps may have lost its NFL contract in ’64, but getting Namath kept those old AFL sets relevant–and fairly valuable.
Joe Willie’s rookie card is hard to find centered and because of the myriad of condition sensibilities, it’s one of the most expensive football cards ever to come out of the Topps roster. Whether you think his play was worthy of those big price tags or not, this one is definitely worth having if you’re any kind of football historian.
1972 Topps Roger Staubach: 1972 Topps cards aren’t hard to find, but Staubach’s clear, simple head shot defined the image of the early 1970s Cowboys. The clean-cut “America’s Team”, Tom Landry, Super Bowl champs, etc., etc.
Staubach made it hard to hate the Cowboys. A Navy man who delayed his entry into the NFL and then led his team to greatness. If you grew up in the early 70s, Roger the Dodger was the man. Those who like their cards centered and mint will have a tough time with the ’72 Staubach. High-grade examples sell for big money.
1976 Topps Walter Payton: It took a decade of pounding for Walter Payton to finally get a chance to win a Super Bowl. It was a fitting reward for a player who stood so far above the rest.
Payton rushed for over 16,000 yards, much of it on the hard artificial surface that once sat on Soldier Field.
Even top grade Payton rookies are fairly available but the demand remains extremely strong nearly 30 years after he called it quits. He’s the guy everyone watched and his rookie is certainly THE card of the 1970s decade. A sweet smile on the face of Sweetness makes anyone who remembers #34 miss him all the more.
1981 Topps Joe Montana: It’s not very artistic, and it took awhile for collectors to appreciate it, but the ’81 Topps Montana is now considered one of the ‘must-have’ cards for any football card collector.
Montana and the 49ers were the NFL’s gold standard during the 1980s and early 90s. Four Super Bowl victories? It doesn’t seem that long ago.
There are plenty of them out there and there’s nothing rare about a Montana rookie card but it’s one that helped keep football cards relevant during the big boom of the 980s and early 90s when Joe Cool was gathering all of those rings.
1984 Topps Dan Marino and John Elway: OK, we’re cheating a little here. But it’s hard to separate the two. Both had rookie cards in this set. Both are Hall of Famers. Neither 1984 Topps card is appreciably more difficult to find than the other if you’re just wanting to own one, but the Elway card is prone to print defects and PSA 10 copies of his rookie card usually sell for about three times the price of the Marino roookie card.
A pair of Super Bowl victories vaults Elway into the same discussion with Marino when the topic of best quarterbacks of the era is broached. What a league it was when Montana, Marino and Elway were all playing.
1986 Topps Jerry Rice: Topps was cruel in 1986. Creating a set with dark green borders made mint freaks go screaming into the night when searching for the perfect Rice rookie card.
Rice retired with almost 23,000 receiving yards. Playing with Montana and Steve Young didn’t hurt, but you won’t find many people willing to argue that Rice isn’t the greatest receiver of all-time and maybe one of the game’s ten best at any position.
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