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Examining the short prints of 1955 Topps All American football cards

It has been called the most attractive, most distinctive, and most popular set of football cards ever issued. It is probably the most discussed football issue of all time. It has even been called "iconic." In the fall of 1955, seeking to make a dent in the sports card market between baseball seasons but reluctant to take on rival Bowman and its exclusive agreement with the National Football League, Topps marketed its now famous "All American" set of football cards. It was in the then-popular size of 2 5/8" by 3 3/4", although some later accounts describe it incorrectly as 2 5/8" x 3 5/8". The set was less than half the size of Topps' baseball set of the same year, with only 100 cards and 103 subjects, and featured only college players, not professionals. Nevertheless, it has captured and retained the interest of card collectors up to the present time.

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Collecting and studying the set leads to some fascinating questions. Were all cards in the set printed in an equal amount? Were there any short-printed or double-printed cards? If so, which ones?

Inquiry into the matter begins with the two most extensive discussions of the set. The first comprehensive article about the set appeared in Baseball Cards magazine in October 1984. That article was entitled "1955 Topps Football: An All American Set" and was written by the late Bob Lemke. It examines the set in incredible depth, even down to which stadium backgrounds appear most frequently and which players in the set (there were three of them) also had brief careers in Major League Baseball. Regarding distribution of the individual cards in the set, the author states only, "Most are believed to be about equal in original distribution. The final eight cards of the issue, #93-100, are generally considered to be somewhat tougher than the first 92 cards, but they are by no means scarce or rare, just a little harder to find."

Eight cards being "a little harder to find" but not "scarce or rare" was the prevailing mentality for half a century after the set's initial issuance in 1955. For example, Beckett and Eckes price guides of the same vintage concur with Bob Lemke, calling cards #93-100 "more difficult to obtain" and pricing common players numbered 93-100 slightly higher than those numbered 1-92 ($2 versus $1 for mint commons).

But sometime in the early years of the 21st Century the waters got muddied. Another extensive review of the set by author David Lee in 2015 described in different terms the current thinking regarding the set's distribution. In his lengthy article "Everybody's All American" in the 2015 issue of Vintage Collector magazine, he had a different take. He writes, "The set was printed on 110-card sheets, which creating [sic] several short prints." Later in the same article he states, "Even with about a fourth of the product being short-printed, it's not too difficult to amass a complete set." He does not specify exactly how many cards, or which ones, constitute "several" or "about a fourth."

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More importantly, he does not complete his calculation. He does not explain how printing 100 cards on a sheet containing 110 spaces results in ANY short prints, whether several (5-10) or about a quarter of a 100-card set (20-30). Specifically, he does not explain why the set does not contain 10 double-printed cards, 90 standard prints, and NO short prints.

As recently as the Jan. 3, 2020 issue of Sports Collectors Digest, collector and author Doug Koztoski reviewed the set, although in considerably less detail than did Lemke and Lee. His take was merely that "some short prints exist."

There are numerous discussions of the set on the internet but none resolve this mathematical dilemma. The present majority opinion seems to be that the cards were, in fact, printed on a 110-card sheet but that the number of short prints is somewhere in the low 30s, usually 32 or 33 (although some say as low as 25). None of the accounts seems to provide an answer of how a sheet can contain 32 short prints and 68 double prints and still end up with 110 cards. And there is some disagreement about exactly which cards can be correctly labeled as short prints, although there is a general consensus that card #68 of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame (incidentally, the set's only multi-player card) is one of them.

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A lesser number of accounts theorize that the cards were printed on TWO sheets of 110 cards each but still ended up with 30 to 35 short prints. Again, the numbers do not support this. Theoretically, each sheet would contain half the set, or 50 cards. This would (or at least should) result in 40 cards being double printed and 10 being triple printed but, likewise, no short prints. Under this analysis, there are now 20, not 10, more plentiful cards, each being found 1½ times as often as the other 80.

There are two additional problems with this scenario. First, since all the cards were, unquestionably, issued at the same time, is there any reason why Topps would not elect the simplest method possible and merely print and issue all its cards on a single sheet? Second, consider the final product that ended up in the consumer's hands. The All Americans could be purchased retail with a slab of gum in a penny pack with one card, a nickel pack with nine cards, or a dime cello pack with 22 cards. Thus, Topps was grossing (after the cost of the gum and the wrapper) less than one cent per card, a pittance even in 1955. It would seem impractical (of which Topps has never been accused) to choose anything but the most economical method of printing and distributing its product.

Looking at other Topps sets of the same vintage gives no answer. Its NFL set of the following year contains 120 cards in the same 2 5/8" by 3 3/4" size but with 20 undisputed short prints (all cards of the Chicago Cardinals and Washington Redskins). With 20 more cards, a different calculation is needed, but here the numbers do work out, with two 110-card sheets, each of which contains the 100 commons and 10 of the short prints. So, each Cardinal and Redskin in the 1956 set can be found half as often as players on all other teams.

In contrast to this, none of the 1955 cards have ever been thought of as half as plentiful as others. Bob Lemke's description of "a little harder to find" seems to be the generally accepted description.

Topps' baseball sets of the time give a little help. Its sets of 1954, 1955, and 1956 were, likewise, printed in the 2 5/8" by 3 3/4" size but none in a series of 110. One uncut sheet of 1955 baseball cards is known and it does contain 110 cards, although the entire 1955 baseball set consists of 206, and not 220 cards. This provides considerable support for the idea of the football cards of the same year being printed on a sheet of 110 spaces. The only clue the 1954 and 1956 sets and their several series provide is that Topps may have used, at least partially, series of 50 cards each in 1954 and 80 cards each in 1956. And, of course, 1957 marked the beginning of the slightly smaller but now standard 2 1/2" by 3 1/2" card size and the ubiquitous 132-card sheet.

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Topps also issued a number of non-sports sets in 1955 and 1956 but those sets also shed no light on Topps' printing methods for its 1955 football cards. Those sets (such as Davy Crockett, Rails and Sails, U.S. Presidents, Round Up, Jets, and Flags of the World) were either printed in a size different than 2 5/8" x 3 3/4" or issued in a number other than 100 or 110. For some of the non-sports sets, both those things were true. The Davy Crockett set, certainly the most popular of those non-sports issues, was in the same size as the baseball and football cards of 1955 and 1956 but issued in two sets of only 80 cards each. And the U.S. President set contained only 36 cards of a slightly smaller size, with a width of only 2 and 1/2 inches.

Only one partial uncut sheet of 1955 Topps football cards has been known to exist. Some years ago, a dealer auctioned off a sheet of 50 All Americans. It showed several things. None of the 50 was repeated, thus providing no evidence of the double printing required by the appearance of 100 cards on a 110-card sheet. That partial sheet also confirmed that the 1955 All Americans were printed in a random sequence as opposed to appearing in any kind of numerical pattern. It also revealed that the supposed short prints appeared interspersed with and adjacent to the standard prints, making it even more problematic to identify a reason why any cards in the set would be less numerous than others.

To take one example, the top row of that uncut sheet consisted of Herman Hickman (#1), Red Grange (#27), Albie Booth (#86), Otto Graham (#12), and Joe Donchess (#65). Most of those later accounts that speculate about 30 to 35 short prints include both Booth and Donchess among them but not Graham, although he appears between them.

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The opposite scenario also can be found. Bowden Wyatt (#77) is generally held by later writers to be a short print. However, it is difficult to imagine how this could be true as he appears on the sheet surrounded on all four sides by commons. An explanation of how Wyatt can be a short print but Graham cannot seems elusive.

In researching this article, I discovered another example. My set of 1955 All Americans contains numerous miscut cards. (Topps quality control function in 1955 must have been minimal). I found that Benny Friedman (#64) was printed next to Joe Alexander (#41). Yet Alexander is a supposed short print while Friedman is not.

In addition, with a set size of only 100 cards, collating problems would seem inevitable. The odds of buying two 22-card cello packs and getting 44 different cards seems remote. I recall that, as a fourth-grader buying packs in the fall of 1955, I could never get a nine-card nickel pack without finding Cotton Warburton in it. When discussing the set years later with a dealer, I told him that. He laughed and said, "I could never buy a pack without getting Angelo Bertelli."

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Besides less than optimal collating, popularity of individual cards must be considered. The Four Horsemen of card #68 are a few of the set's subjects that are known to casual football fans and even non-fans. That they possessed a colorful nickname and played for a traditional football power (Notre Dame) in the heyday of the 1920s makes them even more popular. The multi-player nature of their card is unique in the set. It is also one of the set's most attractive cards. All this combines to create an extraordinary demand for the card, which in turn makes it seem scarcer than that of, say, Wes Fesler (#30), the common who appears beneath it on the uncut sheet.

Having said all this, I am left with a theory. It is only a theory and it is my own and not necessarily shared by anyone at SCD. I believe Topps printed the 1955 football set on one sheet holding 110 spaces. Ninety of the 1955 All Americans appeared once on that sheet and another 10 appeared twice. Today's perceived scarcities result from some (small) percentage of them being scrapped due to printing errors and the uneven demand for them, with the Four Horsemen being the prime example of greater demand creating the appearance of lesser supply. Based solely on my impression of how frequently they appear for sale in SCD and elsewhere, some of my candidates for the 10 double prints are George Cafego (#8), Ed Garbisch (#44), Elmer Oliphant (#45), Benny Friedman (#64), Frankie Albert (#67), and Hugh Gallarneau (#75).