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An ‘iconic’ vintage football set

Short on numbers but long on appeal, 1935 National Chicle set scores big

If nothing else, Earl “Dutch” Clark got the last laugh.

Clark starts off the highly popular 1935 National Chicle football set, the first nationally distributed issue featuring NFL players, but the card maker fumbled the initial snap. Clark’s card back lists him with the Philadelphia Eagles, one of nine NFL teams from 1935. The future College and Pro Football Hall of Famer, however, never donned Eagles’ colors, but in the 1935 NFL Championship game Clark scored what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown on a long first-quarter run to lead his Detroit Lions team to the league crown over the New York Giants.

While the fanfare from the Lions’ ‘35 season mostly faded many decades ago, the National Chicle football issue gained almost immortal status for many football card collectors. The 36-card issue can boast of many things, among them: being vintage, offering some solid stars, virtually every card is a rookie and, of course, a striking look.

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“The art deco design on these cards is so beautiful,” said Bob Davis, who owns the third-ranked Current Finest slot for the offering on PSA’s Set Registry. “It’s the ultimate set.”

Like the familiar football phrase, “three yards and a cloud of dust,” Davis worked hard to build and improve his set. “It took me 10 years to finish.”

As expected, one of his favorites in the issue is Bronko Nagurski (No. 34). That card of the Hall of Fame ball carrier has experienced explosive growth in recent years, partly because of the legend it pictures and for being one of the 12 short prints to round out the offering. Expect to pay a few thousand dollars for even a lower-graded version of Nagurski; beyond that it jumps bags of bucks as one climbs toward the top half of the graded market. The only 1935 PSA 9 Nagurski sold in 2011 for $350,000.

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Another of Davis’ favorites also lurks among the SPs. “The hardest is the (Flavio) “Bull” Tosi (No. 27); it is really difficult to find in PSA 7 (or better). It’s rarer than the Nagurski.” A recent look at some PSA Population numbers shows the Nagurski with 189 samples and 25 of those are PSA 7 or better; Tosi stats register at 127/14.

Knute Rockne (No. 9) rounds out Davis’ top three. Rockne, the Notre Dame coach who perished in a plane crash in 1931, the only non-NFL type in the issue, normally ranks a distant second most valuable to the Nagurski.

Collector Doug Spannring, meanwhile, calls the Nagurski card “one of the cornerstones of vintage football cards,” and places it in his top picks, too. Other Spannring favorites from “one of the most iconic sets in vintage football”: “Shipwreck” Kelley (No. 22) and Phil Sorboe (No. 14), although both are uncorrected errors (a few others also pepper the issue) and should be spelled Kelly and Sarboe.

Spannring, No. 4 Current Finest for the Depression-era entry on the Set Registry, said the issue’s overall popularity has catapulted a great deal in the past decade or two partly “because of Hall of Fame rookie card collecting” connected to the Registry. But it’s also popular “with team collectors, especially Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers collectors, then set collectors.”

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Green Bay’s Clarke Hinkle (No. 24), one of the footballers in the set wearing an era appropriate leather helmet, falls into a few of those categories. Other NFL Hall of Famers from the set include: the Giants’ Ken Strong (No. 7), and Redskins’ Cliff Battles (No. 10) and Turk Edwards (No. 11).

It was mainly about the gum

Penny packs from the collection came with one card and a slab of gum. The set’s pack wrappers do tell a bit more of the collection’s story. On the bottom wrapper section it notes these instructions: “The retail store where you bought this gum will give you one of these FAMOUS ALL-AMERICAN GRIDIRON PHOTOS Absolutely Free for only 20 FOOTBALL STARS WRAPPERS.” The wrapper goes on to state: “NEW ALL-AMERICAN PHOTOS ISSUED EVERY FEW DAYS.”

Spannring said the 17 premium wrapper redemption football photos “are difficult to complete.” That’s a true understatement. The 17 pictures, known as R311-2s, include a few team images, plus Hall of Famer Red Grange and the much less known Eddie Casey.

Casey penned, or at least gets credit, for the football tips generally dominating the regular 1935 card backs. Casey likely seemed a solid choice for this endeavor from the Cambridge, Mass., card producer since he was the head coach for the Harvard football team from 1931-34 and the NFL’s Boston Redskins in 1935.

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Spannring said card backs normally contain Casey’s signature along with a mention of his Harvard and Redskins coaching background. Spannring noted, however, “the first series (numbers 1-24) was released twice, the first time with a smaller Casey signature and the second time along with the short prints (numbers 25-36), where we see a larger, centered version of the coach’s signature.”

The veteran collector emphasized some differences also exist where Casey’s signature is placed in the second issue of the first series. “On (some) Homer Griffiths(sic) (No. 13) and Cliff Montgomery (No. 21) cards the larger version of Casey’s signature is right justified, instead of centered. In addition, on these two cards, mention of his coaching background is omitted.”

Most ’35 National Chicle card backs also state: “One of 240 football players with playing tips.” Maybe at the time a lack of budget on the card maker’s part and/or limited collector interest/slow sales kept the pasteboard offering to a crisp three dozen.

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Spannring is one of a few collectors owning a piece related to the set’s then-planned ongoing development. “I have a letter (August 1935) from National Chicle to the Philadelphia Eagles, requesting photos and data on current players so they could make more cards.”

Who’s to say how much the Eagles might have responded to the card maker after a certain point, but you can bet a roll of wheat back pennies that none of the team’s possible letters said something like: “We will get back with you soon with more data, but one thing is certain: ‘Dutch’ Clark, your set’s first card, plays for Detroit, not us.”

Doug Koztoski is a frequent SCD contributor. He can be reached at dkoz3000@gmail.com.

Viewing early footage:

Ultra-early NFL footage remains relatively rare. But luckily, on YouTube, one can get a glimpse of the 1935 title game.

As even more good fortune would have it, in a set of highlights named “1935 NFL Championship,” at around the 1:50 mark (of footage that runs about 2:15), one can see Clark’s long run to give the Lions all the remaining points needed to cinch the crown.

That was the only NFL title game Clark ever won and he played all of his NFL career with either Detroit or the team that the Lions franchise stemmed from: the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans.

Down, set, spend….

Here are some recent auction prices realized of some 1935 National Chicle football cards, rounded to the nearest dollar but excluding sales tax:

Raw

Knute Rockne (P), $304

Ken Strong (VG-EX), $279

Ben Smith (G-VG), $68

Tom Hupke (VG), $50

Mike Mikulak (G), $42

--Wrapper redemption Premium (R311-2) Eddie Casey (EX) $47

Graded

Bronko Nagurski (PSA 6), $28,825

Knute Rockne (PSA 3), $607

Bernie Masterson (PSA 4), $427

“Dutch” Clark (PSA 3), $335

“Shipwreck” Kelley (PSA 6), $184

“Bo” Molenda (PSA 4), $99