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The 1969 Topps Football inserts rise to the challenge

The Four-in-One insert that was included in the 1969 Football card release provided collectors with stamps of four different players on one card.

By Doug Koztoski

The player’s game jerseys normally sported a patch highlighted by the numbers 5 and 0 on the NFL shield/logo, marking 1969 as the league’s 50th season. Football collectors that year, however, were most likely focused a little more often on the numbers 1 and 0, as in ten cents, the retail price of a fresh wax pack of gridiron types, double the previous year’s cost.

At least the wax packs held a dozen cards, plus an insert known as a Four-in-One, since a quartet of players showed up on each cardboard “stamp collection.” “The Four-in-Ones were part of the first set I collected as a kid,” said Kevin Pulaski, who eventually built a high ranking grouping of the “framed” inserts on the PSA Set Registry, one that he still chips away at on occasion.

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“I liked the idea of trying to put together a high-grade set of Four-in-Ones that had well-centered individual player panels, which is not always easy to find,” Pulaski said. The Texan added that centering likely did not concern Topps all that much on insert cards. Lou Mercuri, another PSA procurer of these sometimes-pesky pasteboards, aligns with that idea. “It was probably more of an afterthought for Topps and their insert sets,” Mercuri said.

Another bonus with these pack promotions is their set size is relatively small (66) compared to the 263-card regular 1969 Topps football offering. “This insert set is a nice alternative (and complement) to a nice regular issue 1969 Football set,” Pulaski said.

Of some of the issue’s more difficult-to-locate solid-centered examples, Pulaski quickly mentioned a pair: “I can’t seem to find high-grade panels featuring (Redskins’ QB) Sonny Jurgensen and (Packers’ linebacker) Ray Nitschke.” Mercuri’s menaces included Colts signal-caller Johnny Unitas and Chicago Bear and linebacker legend Dick Butkus. “The Butkus seems to be consistently off-center.”

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Those often-found off-center Hall of Famers are just a handful from the issue that also contains such eventual Canton enshrinees as: Gale Sayers, Lance Alworth, Fran Tarkenton, Leroy Kelley, Bart Starr, George Blanda, Bob Hayes, Len Dawson, Gale Sayers, Larry Csonka and Joe Namath, who in early 1969 helped lead the American Football League’s New York Jets to an upset victory over the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, one of pro football’s most famous games.

In addition to the Csonka rookie Four-In-One, another first year card/stamp of note pictures Chicago Bear running back Brian Piccolo, who makes his only regular issue appearances in the 1969 Topps regular and insert sets.The running back began his NFL career in 1966 and it halted during the 1969 season with a cancer diagnosis. He died in 1970. Hollywood initially highlighted Piccolo’s football life in the early 1970s with the hit movie “Brian’s Song.”

Although listed as a 66-card issue, in one sense this unnumbered and blank-backed creation is really a 65-piece production with one variation. Numbers 27 and 28 have quarterback Charley Johnson in that northwest “corner office,” but there are two color variations, so that insert is listed twice. Some speculate that the second Johnson card was printed to round out the row on the production sheet.

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The cards are listed in most price guides alphabetically, based on the player in the upper lefthand corner, so the Vikings’ Gary Alderman is #1 and the Eagles’ Tom Woodeschick rounds things out at #66.

As both Pulaski and Mercuri noted, the insert set has about the same amount of players as the regular set. As Pulaski put it, “but a number of guys (19) in the Four-in-Ones are not in the regular set.” Bills’ quarterback (and later politician) Jack Kemp leads the insert outliers.

A few of the ’69 inserts have a couple of Hall of Famers on them, but #53 has the most with Jackie Smith, Jim Johnson and Charley Taylor on that foursome. The Packers’ Jim Grabowski is the odd man out in this group.

Another bonus!

Rounding out the insert concept in ’69, Topps also included eight-page albums of each of the NFL and AFL teams (26 total), ten Four-In-Ones to a franchise, to place the stamps in.

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Unused and otherwise strong condition stamp albums for the biggest teams of the time normally sell for $5-$8. Albums filled with the appropriate inserts, especially if the stamps were carefully (read “cleanly”) placed in the mini-book can bring around double those figures.

Many albums stuffed with stamps were done so by their original young owners and consequently are commonly found with Scotch tape on the front and/or back of the punched out inserts. Other popular methods for the securing of the stamps in the albums: staples or glue. And diamond cut albums are common, so a collector might have to take some time to find one in top shape.

Singled out

While most collectors of this insert issue seem to look for the full panels, others go for graded individual stamps. About 5,300 complete panels have landed in PSA holders, while only about one-third that amount have been slabbed as a single. Oftentimes the full encapsulated panels show up five to ten times as frequently as a single stamp of the same player, or at least the key player on an intact Four-in-One.

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For instance, Namath’s panel has a PSA population of 233; his single has 28 examples. Piccolo’s numbers: 210/15; the Csonka rookie stamp: 150/19. When you factor in that some 66,000 1969 Topps regular issue football cards live in PSA holders, one can see how graded Four-in-Ones only show up, for now, about 12 times less frequently than their base set brothers.

Postmark: The Future

Mercuri called the interest in the set “stable” and he saw a good chance that it will increase a little in value the next few years. “It’s easy, affordable and doable.” He noted that many of the set’s basic commons in PSA 8 sell for $10-$15 each.

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Pulaski sees a similar picture and added that seemingly ever-escalating prices for high-grade star cards in a base offering makes the inserts, which often feature many of the same stars, even more attractive since they can be obtained for “a fraction of the cost of the regular issue set.” It’s not an exact apple to apples comparison, of course, but at least they are coming from the same set.

The 1969 season marked the last before the NFL and AFL merger. After the regular schedule the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs soundly beat the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl IV, giving each league two Super Bowl wins apiece, in a way, kind of like a 1969 Topps Four-in-One, weaving players, team and league histories together in fun and unexpected ways.

Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at dkoz3000@gmail.com.