Clinging to the “National Pastime” crown in the mid-1950s, Major League Baseball battled the NFL’s ever-increasing popularity as the top U.S. team sport. In 1955, the Topps and Bowman companies matched up for collectors’ pocket change, both producing memorable sets in the baseball and football arenas.
Since Topps bought out Bowman soon after the last 1955 products hit store shelves, some collectors credit the final blow in the cardboard cage match as Topps’ football set that season: the 100-card All American college issue.
One of the big college football stories that season: The University of Oklahoma’s winning streak, which ran from 1953-57, reaching 47 games total, with national championships in 1955 and 1956. But the ’55 Topps set was not about the current collegiate gridders, it revolved mostly around undergraduate greats from decades past.
Mick Cornett earned a PhD of sorts with respect to the ’55 Topps All Americans. “I love history and I love college football and not only are the cards beautiful, but it’s almost like I discovered parts of college football history that I never really knew,” said Cornett, the Mayor of Oklahoma City from 2005-2018. “There were a lot of interesting players and stories that I was unaware of until I started collecting that set.”
Compiling a solid complete version of the issue ranked on the PSA Set Registry,
Cornett said the blend of monochrome pictures and some colorized images greatly enhances the issue, as well. “You’re seeing vintage photography that was probably in black and white, originally, but you’re getting to see them in color, you get to see The Four Horsemen in that Notre Dame green.”
As to a few of the “fascinating people from history” in the set, Cornett highlighted “Whizzer” White (who became a Supreme Court Justice) and Niles Kinnick, a World War II hero. “That’s about the only way to remember Niles Kinnick, who died in his 20s, is to look at that ’55 Topps All American.” The collector added that the ’55 issue also offers a rare opportunity for many players, who starred in college and the pros, to leave a lasting mark for hobbyists due to few football sets in the 1935-48 period.
The ’55 All American offering equally enthuses Todd Tracy, who also ranks on the Set Registry. Years ago, Tracy’s dad took the then young collector to his first sports card show. That day in Allentown, Pa., set the tone for his collection. “I saw The Four Horsemen card in a slab of plastic and my dad bought it for me,” he said. “I was hooked on the set.”
Other Tracy favorites in the classic issue include the multi-sport superstar Jim Thorpe (Carlisle) and Notre Dame quarterback Angelo Bertelli, the 1943 Heisman Trophy winner. Decades ago Tracy met Bertelli at a Friday luncheon before a “Fighting Irish” football game. “I had him sign a ‘55 All American card at the luncheon,” Tracy recalled. “When I got to my seat for the football game he was sitting next to me and remembered me from the day before. We talked a lot before and during the game.”
As a TV sportscaster in 1988, Cornett attended a breakfast for Heisman winner Barry Sanders, who rewrote many entries in the record book while spinning and darting his way to big yardage for Oklahoma State. Sitting at the table with Cornett? Bertelli.
Cornett brought some ’55 All Americans to the event, hoping to get autographs. When Cornett asked Bertelli to sign his card the Heisman winner obliged, but first asked to look at the card for a few minutes. “He borrowed the card and showed it to the guy next to him and he kind of savored it and that memory meant more to me than the autographed card; I’ll never forget it.”
Additional main selections for Cornett in the eye-catching issue: Don Hutson (Alabama) and Thorpe. Cornett noted the lack of basic Oklahoma representation in the set, “but to make up for it, sort of, they included Thorpe,” the legendary Oklahoma native. “And,” Cornett said, “it’s an affordable Thorpe card and it feels nostalgic.”
Other names in the set that might immediately jump out to football history fans: Knute Rockne, Sammy Baugh, Red Grange, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Sid Luckman.
Two set members that suited up for NFL games through the 1955 season: Leo Nomellini (Minnesota), who also did tag-team professional wrestling for many years during the offseason of his NFL career, and Otto Graham (Northwestern), the quarterback who played his last NFL season in 1955 and guided his Cleveland Browns to their second-straight league championship crown.
One player in the set who deserves more attention starts off the adventure: Tennessee lineman Herman Hickman. Sy Berger, the longtime hobby icon, who worked for Topps from the early 1950s through the late 1990s, picked Hickman to not only appear in the issue but to select the other 99 members.
As Berger (d. 2014) told this scribe for SCD in the early 2000s, Hickman was an easy choice for this job and not just because of his star in college days. “He also played pro football, coached at Army and Yale, he was a scholar, an author, a poet, he lived in New York (Topps’ HQ) and was well known and very accessible,” Berger said.
Speaking of accessibility, the All Americans are mostly available in solid numbers, raw or graded, partly due to some unopened pack finds (and subsequent pack breaks) in the last decade or so. One good example of this: of the issue’s first 50 listings on the PSA Set Registry, virtually all of them are complete. Yes, some short prints exist (generally the most desirable is The Four Horsemen [#68], the famed 1920s “Fighting Irish” backfield), but unless one searches for them in Near Mint or better condition, and has to have them professionally graded, the cards are findable, even the errors and variations.
One thing that does not perceptibly vary is the overall interest this ’55 classic sparks. “I think this set will still be popular in 10 years,” Tracy said. “Vintage collectors always vote it as a Top 10 popular set.”
Cornett backed that outlook. “There’s nothing else like it, so I think it will always have a high level of popularity.” The Okie even underscored that sentiment an extra layer. “If you put me on a desert island and you said you could only take one set with you, I think I’d take that one, because I could sit there and read those player ‘bios’ and look at those pictures all day long.”
Doug Koztoski is a longtime SCD contributor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.