In the beginning, there were 1956 Topps Football cards, with classic flexichrome images of player portraits or often comically exaggerated “posed action” portrayals, all loudly presented against brightly colored backgrounds of red, yellow, blue, lime green and orange. And 1956 Topps begat 1957 Topps, with classic flexichrome portraits and often comically exaggerated “posed action” images against those same colorful backdrops. You get the idea.
So while there are considerable similarities between the first two Topps entries in the nascent arena of professional football trading cards, there were also two major differences.
While 1956 gave young collectors either a portrait or one of those campy action shots, the following year provided both. And the Topps designers, now into only their second year of producing a NFL card set, managed to do this with a card that had shrunk down in size just a bit to the now-conventional 21/2-by-31/2-inch format.
It is also worthy of note that the 1957 issue represented the continuing and highly developed Topps pioneering work in the area of recycling. A goodly number of the portrait and “posed action” images used in 1957 were recycled from the previous year, a practice that got its start with the Topps classic 1954-56 baseball sets.
What probably seemed like an annoyance to eager young collectors in 1957 would prove to be solid gold many decades later, as vintage collectors reveled in the familiarity and subconscious elements that would link together popular vintage offerings. But we ought not put too fine a point on it; it was probably little more than an effort to save a few bucks at a time when the cost of a full printed sheet of baseball or football cards was fairly nominal even in modest 1957 times when a quarter could either get you five packs of football cards or a gallon of gas for your Buick.
The horizontal format is one that seemingly wouldn’t lend itself to football, but breaking the card equally into two panels neatly addressed that dilemma. “The horizontal orientation of the 1957 Topps Football cards provides an attractive alternative to most of the other Topps football sets, but few collectors would pick the set as their favorite based upon the design of the cards,” said Dean Hanley, owner of Dean’s Cards, an impressive online and mail-order vintage card outlet based in Cincinnati (www.deanscards.com).
For the veteran dealer, the issue provides something else that is probably terribly important to collectors and fans: nostalgia and a unique glimpse into pro football history. “The 1957 Topps set has a vintage look and feel to it with the images of the players in their old uniforms and helmets without face masks,” Hanley continued.
Along with picturing many of the greatest stars of the 1950s era NFL, the issue also lays claim to perhaps the greatest rookie card triumvirate ever in one issue: Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr and Paul Hornung. That’s two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and a pretty fair halfback and kicker, but you wouldn’t quite get that by looking at the fronts of their cards.
“The thing that always struck me as fascinating about the set is the position and team listed on the front of the cards,” Hanley noted with amusement. “Most of the players have their position listed as Back, Tackle or End. There are no Fullbacks, Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers, Safeties, Punt Returners or Long Snappers,” said Hanley. “Baseball has certainly changed in 50 years, but it is basically still the same game. Football is not the same game. The cards really show us how far the game has come in 50 years. The 1957 set definitely takes us back in time to that era.”
The three coveted rookies are also nicely illustrative of the prevailing design philosophy of the set: all three rookies are shown ostensibly leaping into the air to throw a pass, with their right arm cocked and ready to fling, and their left arm outstretched to fend off a pesky onrushing lineman.
Speaking of lineman, they are about the only guys in the set with their feet planted firmly on the terra firma. The poses are quite thoroughly outlandish in almost every instance, the kind of exaggerated gesticulations that seemingly look better atop cheezy plastic trophies for high school gridiron heroics, but in truth help to make the issue as charming as it is hotly pursued.
Of course, much of that ardor from collectors still centers around those rookie cards. “That is probably the most impressive rookie class ever contained within a set of cards – of any sport,” Hanley continued. “If it were not for these three cards, I doubt that the 1957 set would enjoy near the following that it has today. With all the attention to the “Big Three” rookie cards, it is very easy to overlook the rookie cards of three other Hall of Famers in the set: Ray Berry, Night Train Lane and Tommy McDonald.
The First Series cards Nos. 1-88 are thought to be a tad easier to find than Series Two (Nos. 89-154), and a number of cards from the high series are thought to be short printed, an informal roster that includes all three monster rookie cards.
There is only one significant variation known, the No. 58 Willard Sherman card where initially there was no team name shown on the front panel. That can send the cost of that particular pasteboard up nearly to the range of Unitas, Starr, Hornung, et. al, for those collectors assiduous enough to chase such oddities. Add “Rams” to that very same front panel and Mr. Sherman becomes just another one of the boys.
And while it’s more than a little extraordinary that an issue might have a precocious rookie card of a young crew-cutted Johnny Unitas and also the inaugural Topps pasteboard of his eventual Hall of Fame wide receiver, Raymond Berry, my favorite card in the set was from another member of that famous Colt squad.
Art Donovan, the famous tackle from that legendary team that was just one year away from winning “The Greatest Football Game Ever Played,” somehow or other showed up in my hometown of Johnstown, N.Y., in the early 1960s, presumably as part of something on the rubber-chicken circuit. This was a time when it was pretty rare for a 12-year-old kid to meet a professional football player, even one who looked and sounded a lot more like the guys who used to hang out with my father at the local Eagles Club than he did appear to be an NFL Hall of Fame lineman.
I’m pretty sure nobody ever accused him of using steroids.
T.S. O’Connell is the editor of Sports Collectors Digest. Reach him by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; (715) 445-2214, ext. 13243.