By Doug Koztoski
Shifting from being the New York Giants offensive coordinator during the 1958 season to head coach of the 1959 Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi was an unknown to the average football fan. But the stocky, gap-toothed Lombardi, green to the top leadership ranks of the NFL, soon showed Packer backers and many others that the franchise had struck gold.
As the 1959 football season began, Lombardi took a team without a winning year in more than a decade, a squad notching only one victory in 1958, and directed them to a 7-5 record, two games from the conference title mark of the Baltimore Colts.
In 1960, Green Bay lost a close game to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL Championship matchup. After that defeat, Lombardi said that while he was head coach his teams would never lose another title game. He was right. In 1961, The Pack took the NFL crown, stomping the New York Giants 37-0, their first of five titles over the next seven years under “St. Vincent” – including the initial two Super Bowls.
With an excellent mix of AFL and NFL players in the Fleer and Topps sets, 1961 football card collectors had several Packers to choose from. But a regional set that year was exclusively “bayside,” as the Wisconsin-based Lake to Lake Dairy came out with a 36-card Green Bay gridiron offering.
“The cards were stapled to milk cartons,” said veteran collector George Husby. That’s why many of the cards have staple holes or torn corners “as kids ripped them from cartons,” recalled Husby, who collected the ’61 issue when they debuted.
The Wisconsin resident added that a complete set of the cards (without staple holes) could be obtained from the dairy, “But I can’t recall if you paid $5 for the set or they sent them to you free if you wrote to the dairy” (requesting a set).
Coming in a slightly smaller size than the average trading card, the relatively scarce regional issue packs a punch like the Green Bay offensive linemen of the day leading interference on the famed Packer Sweep running plays.
Guard Jerry Kramer often spearheaded the “Sweep,” and he leads off the Lake to Lake collection, which contains short prints for the first eight cards in the issue. Another Packer of note in those initial eight? Hall of Famer Willie Davis.
Ball carriers Paul Hornung (No. 10) and Jim Taylor (No. 13) drive the next little burst of Lake to Lake pasteboards before another wave of short prints come into play. That eight-card SP spurt begins with receiver Max McGee (No. 17) and is immediately followed by a pair of Hall of Famers, the set’s keys: quarterback Bart Starr and linebacker Ray Nitschke.
A trio of Canton enshrinees highlights the final dozen cards: Forrest Gregg (No. 27), Herb Adderley (No. 30) and set-ender Willie Wood. Some price guides list cards No. 33-36 as short prints (SPs), others don’t, but it seems generally accepted that the quartet is hard to find.
A dynasty of sorts
“All of the short prints are very short,” said Michael Thomas, who has owned the issue’s top spot on the PSA Set Registry for a decade. Now a Denver-area resident, Thomas grew up in Wisconsin and likes the fact the issue not only came from his roots but also that is “an oddball, regional set, and those sets tend to have players other sets don’t have.”
Thomas knows the ’61 Packers Lake set from collecting it for himself and selling the cards on www.nearmintcards.com, his football card online venue.
“I have sold quite a few through my website, mostly to Packer fans,” Thomas said. He added that he would like to see an uncut sheet of the cards “to see where the short prints came from.”
According to Mike Worachek, owner of Packer City Antiques, only one short print from the issue has come through the doors of his store in the past decade. And that card (No. 23 Lew Carpenter) showed up at his shop in recent months.
“There are so few around,” Worachek noted, about the set’s SPs. The dealer said a high-grade set (PSA 7 to 9) could easily bring $5,000, especially if the rarest of the cards are in particularly sharp condition.
Husby added that in the late 1970s/early 1980s timeframe, he bought a substantial accumulation of the ’61 Packer dairy-related cards, and that batch came with a surprise. “There were 100 to 200 cards of 16 different players,” about 3,000 pasteboards overall, and none were SPs.
Looking at the PSA Set Registry, around 1,850 1961 Packer Lake to Lake cards have been encapsulated. The SPs generally have PSA Population numbers of 11-24, at most. The non-short print cards, meanwhile, show up in numbers of 80 to about 100 cards apiece. Not one of the 17 PSA 10s from the set are SPs.
Using words like “reliably popular,” “steady” and “only gets stronger,” Husby, Thomas and Worachek all see a good future for the three dozen cards that the Lake to Lake Dairy used to milk a few more sales back in Green Bay’s first championship year under Lombardi.
The ’61 Lake to Lake set exudes a certain timeless charm: the basic look, the regional element, the short prints and the team history for that season. For some, maybe the only things that could have made it a better issue would have been cards showing the entire team and one of Lombardi.
Perhaps a Lombardi quote best sums up assembling a top-end version of the set, especially if you allow his words to be framed, in part, through the lens of the upper ranks of the often highly competitive graded card set registries: “Success is like anything worthwhile. It has a price. You have to pay that price to win and you have to pay the price to get to the point where success is possible. Most important, you must pay the price to stay there.”
The back of the Pack cards
Like the Packer teams of the era, the ’61 Lake cards sport a straightforward look that gets the job done in a no-nonsense manner. Card fronts come with a player photo, a splash of gridder information and a card number. The backs, meantime, provide the following card redemption choices and little else: sending in five cards and 75 cents for either a “Jr. Packer Backer shoulder patch,” a “glazed ceramic Packer Player figure” or a “Packer yearbook (while they last).” For 20 cards and $5, one could get an “official, regulation football.”
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to SCD. He welcomes comments and questions related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.