They’re riding high these days, but the early days weren’t easy for the Cincinnati Bengals. Born as an AFL expansion franchise that debuted in 1968, the team finished 3-11 and 4-9-1 in its first two seasons, but with a new stadium on the horizon, there was still some excitement in the Queen City for pro football. Just as their second campaign was getting underway, a southern Ohio gas station chain produced a 20-card set of Bengals players that stands as one of the tougher regional football card sets of the era.
The 1969 Tresler Comet Bengals set includes some notable names from the team’s early history but also one pretty glaring omission.
The set arrived during the Bengals’ 1969 training camp, held at Wilmington College. Large ads for the card promotion appeared in newspapers like the Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati Post during August and September. One of them featured defensive tackle Andy Rice while the other showed a card of quarterback Sam Wyche, who later coached the team from 1984-1991.
The cards weren’t flashy, but still fairly attractive. Created on a thin, semi-glossy stock in a two-color fashion, they had a sepia look with plenty of orange and brown that aligned with the team’s colors at the time. The 20 cards that made up the set measured about the same size as standard trading cards.
The set includes coach Paul Brown, an NFL legend who helped bring the team to town after a bitter fallout with the in-state Browns and owner Art Modell a few years earlier. It also features players who would help the Bengals eventually climb out of the AFL cellar including Bill Bergey, who was a rookie that season, Bob Trumpy and Ernie Wright. Another rookie featured in the set was quarterback Greg Cook, whose team record of over 9.4 yards gained per passing attempt still stands.
Patrons of Tresler Comet stations could stop in and pick up a card at any time, but somewhere along the line, a few became harder to find than others. Bob Johnson’s card is the toughest in the set with Howard Fest, Harry Gunner and Warren McVea trending toward single print status as well.
One player who, for some reason, didn’t make the set was running back Paul Robinson, who was named the 1968 AFL Rookie of the Year. Ken Riley isn’t in the set either, although as a sixth round pick that isn’t surprising. Riley went on to a Hall of Fame career in Cincinnati.
The backs of the cards include a biography, stats, an ad for the team’s flagship radio station, WLW, and the Tresler Comet logo. There’s also a note telling fans they could “get the complete set” of Bengals cards free.
Apparently, not a lot of collectors and fans took them up on the offer. The Tresler Comet Bengals are one of the more challenging vintage regionals for football card collectors to track down, especially in higher grades. As for graded examples, PSA has examined only 347 of them while SGC has graded just 86. One collector used SGC to build a higher grade set that sold at auction for just over $500 several years ago.
As with most regional sets, your best chance to find them is at a larger show, especially one in the area where they were originally distributed. You can usually find a small number of them on eBay, with prices for nicer copies starting at around $15 per card for the 16 cards that are generally considered easier to find.