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Big Men on Campus: Collecting College Yearbooks

Before they were big on the professional stage, they were the big men on campus.  Here are soem of the top college yearbooks to grab and who is inside them.

In the Jan. 4, 2008, issue of SCD, I wrote an article that examined the high school yearbook field as it related to our future sports heroes. In this feature, we journey further up the educational food chain, taking a look at the plethora of college yearbooks that feature many of the top sports figures of the 20th century and beyond.

College yearbooks, like their high school brethren, have been around for a very long time. As early as 1799, some American colleges were producing literary magazines, newspapers and scrapbooks – all of which naturally led to the yearbook. According to the Quill and Scroll Society, the oldest surviving college yearbook is Signia, first published by the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in 1823. In time, just about every university, junior college, specialty college, etc., joined the yearbook publishing game, producing an annual that documented the past year’s activities.

The college yearbook has proven to be a virtual collector’s archive for sports personalities. This is especially true for certain athletic endeavors, most notably football and basketball, where colleges have basically acted like farm systems, providing the top talent for the professional ranks.

Diamond kings
Although one might be inclined to believe that the college man is a rather new phenomenon in professional baseball, history tells us that it ain’t so. In an Oct. 8, 1905, article in The New York Times titled “College Men Rank High in Professional Baseball,” a number of university graduates currently toiling in the big leagues were showcased. Among the college grads featured in the piece were Edward Plank (Gettysburg College), William Lauder (Brown University), Frank Sparks (University of Georgia), Walter Clarkson (Harvard) and Michael Powers (Holy Cross).

Also prominently mentioned in the article is the great Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson, “the crack pitcher of the New York Nationals,” who graduated from Bucknell University in 1902. Mathewson’s 1901 college yearbook, L’Agenda, features “Big Six” five times, most notably as a fraternity man (Phi Gamma Delta) and as a member of the baseball, football and basketball teams. An example of this yearbook in Excellent condition was offered on eBay for $999.

In the same Eastern college tradition of Mathewson and other early players comes Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane, a 1924 graduate of Boston University. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947 (and the Boston University Hall of Fame in 1959), Cochrane was a five-sport man for the Terriers, participating in baseball, football, basketball, hockey and boxing (whew!). His 1922 BU yearbook, The Syllabus, sold for $125 in Very Good condition.

From the same era comes another Hall of Famer, Henry Louis Gehrig, an engineering major who attended Columbia University on a football scholarship. Gehrig’s 1923 sophomore yearbook, The Columbian, features the future Yankees great on the Lions football team, but not on the baseball team, as he was ineligible that year because he had played in a summer professional league.

An example in Excellent condition sold in 2006 at American Memorabilia for a reasonable $287, while another edition in Good condition was recently offered on eBay for $699. Gehrig’s 1924 junior yearbook (his last, as he left Columbia early to sign with the Yankees) does picture him on the baseball squad. One edition in Excellent condition brought $1,100 at Geppi’s 2005 Icons auction.

From a later era comes the ground-breaking Jackie Robinson, whose junior college and college exploits provide collectors with multiple possibilities. Campus, the yearbook for Pasadena (California) Junior College, spanning the years 1937-39, prominently features Robinson as a star athlete on the Bulldogs baseball, football, basketball and track teams. Offered as a set in Near-Mint-plus condition, these three volumes sold for $215 in a 2006 American Memorabilia auction. A 1937 Campus in Excellent-Mint condition, signed by the teenage Robinson just above his photo as a shortstop, sold for $2,028 in a 2004 auction.

Robinson later attended UCLA, where he continued his winning ways for the Bruins. Before withdrawing from UCLA in 1941 due to financial reasons, Robinson can be seen in the 1940 edition of Southern Campus (whose title was later changed to the current Bruin Life), where he is literally celebrated as “the big man on campus” as a result of his heroics on the baseball field, gridiron, basketball court and track. Robinson’s UCLA yearbook in top condition can often bring more than $500, or much more if signed by the Bruins’ first four-sport letterman.

Unknown to many, baseball Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax was recruited by basketball coach Ed Jucker to play basketball at the University of Cincinnati, where in his first year he scored 136 points for an average of 9.7 points per game. Young Sandy also went out for the freshman baseball team, where he posted a 2.81 ERA and garnered the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who signed him to a professional contract. Koufax’s 1954 freshman college yearbook, The Cincinnatian, was sold in Excellent-Mint condition for $1,092 at a 2003 Lelands auction.

Like Koufax, fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson had garnered a college scholarship for a sport other than baseball. In Jackson’s case, it was football, with Arizona State as the chosen university. Jackson, who began his collegiate career in 1964, later switched his sports allegiance to the Sun Devils baseball team. Jackson’s 1965 ASU yearbook, Sahuaro, pictures “the straw that stirs the drink” as a member of the gridiron squad. The more than 400-page yearbook also features two of Jackson’s future Oakland A’s teammates, Sal Bando and Rick Monday, who as members of the baseball team that year, “were out to defend [their] national ranking.” One example in Excellent condition sold for $45.

Thurman Munson, whose life and baseball career were tragically cut short at age 32 in a 1979 private plane crash, attended Kent State University, where he worked as a catcher for the Golden Flashes. His 1967 yearbook, The Chestnut Burr (named for a common tree found on campus), pictures him in a team photo on page 152. An edition in Excellent condition sold for $179 in a 2007 Heritage Auction Galleries offering.

A great number of other ballplayers can be found in college yearbooks, including Mark McGwire (University of Southern California, El Rodeo); Lou Brock (Southern University at Baton Rouge, The Jaguar); Walter Alston (Miami University of Ohio, Recensio); Buzz Capra (Illinois State, Index); Eddie Collins (Columbia, The Columbian); Wally Pipp (Catholic University, The Cardinal); Luke Sewell (Alabama, Corolla); and the list goes on.

Gridiron greats
Colleges and universities have long served as the unofficial farm system for professional football. Thus, old college yearbooks are teeming with past and present professional football greats.

When talking old-time, in-your-face (without a face guard, no less) football, perhaps no name shines brighter than Harold “Red” Grange. The fabled “Galloping Ghost” starred for the University of Illinois, where he can be found inhabiting ancient, massive editions of The Illio. A set of four leatherbound volumes of The Illio, spanning Red’s glory years for the orange and blue – 1924 through 1927 – sold at Heritage Auction Galleries for a reasonable $203.

Another old-time Pro Football Hall of Famer, “Slingin” Sammy Baugh, can be found in editions of The Horned Frog, the yearbook for Texas Christian University. One Internet seller offered a 1935 edition in Very Good condition for $50.

Hall-of-Fame quarterback Bobby Layne, who starred at the University of Texas, inhabits old editions of Cactus. The 1946 edition, which also features Tom Landry as a member of the boxing squad, was offered on eBay in Good condition for $39.

A successor of Layne and a fellow Hall of Famer, Bart Starr, can be found in editions of Carolla, the yearbook for the University of Alabama. His 1956 senior yearbook sold for $149 at a Heritage auction.

Another big-name quarterback is Johnny Unitas, who can be found gracing vintage editions of Thoroughbred, the yearbook for the University of Louisville. A 1952 edition, in which Unitas is referred to as “Mr. Sparkplug” by his Cardinals teammates, was offered on eBay for $125.

Running back Jim Taylor, later the “thunder” for the Green Bay Packers, can be found in old editions of Gumbo, the yearbook for Louisiana State University. A 1957 edition, later inscribed by Taylor on the front page, sold for $50 at an American Memorabilia auction.

Frank Gifford, enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, played his college ball at the University of Southern California. His 1950 yearbook, El Rodeo, sold for $60.

A big collector favorite among college yearbook aficionados is Dome, the official yearbook for Notre Dame University. Old editions of Dome house a plethora of gridiron greats spanning the decades, including legendary coaches Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian. Among the big-name players for the Fighting Irish are seven Heisman Trophy winners: Angelo Bertelli (1943), Johnny Lujack (1947), Leon Hart (1949), Johnny Lattner (1953), Paul Hornung 1956), John Huarte (1964) and Tim Brown (1987).

Recent selling prices for Dome yearbooks include: 1925 (led by The Four Horsemen, Rockne’s Fighting Irish go 10-0) $322; 1978 (Joe Montana, Luther Bradley, et al.) $55; 1955 (Paul Hornung, who is also pictured as a member of the basketball team) $119; and 1977 (Ross Browner) $45.

One of the hottest sets of college yearbooks comes from the University of Southern Mississippi, alma mater of Green Bay Packers (and now Jets) superstar Brett Favre. A set of four editions of Southerner – 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991 – covering Favre’s playing days for the Golden Eagles, sold for $650.

Hardwood heroes
Like football, college basketball also acts as an unofficial farm system for the professional ranks. With some notable exceptions – Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Darryl Dawkins, et al., all of whom made the leap from high school to the NBA – the vast majority of hardwood pros can be found inhabiting an array of college yearbooks.

The Big O – Oscar Robertson – is always a collector favorite. Look for this popular Basketball Hall of Famer in editions of The Cincinnatian, the official yearbook for the University of Cincinnati. Robertson’s 1960 senior yearbook, one in which he is pictured 12 times (along with future Hollywood actor David Canary, who was class president), is a dandy. It was recently offered for $125.

Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, who put up big numbers both on and apparently off the court, always attracts interest. Look for Wilt in the pages of The Jayhawker, the yearbook for the University of Kansas. A 1957 edition featuring Chamberlain sold for $100.

When it comes to college hoops, none came flashier than Pete Maravich. Look for “Pistol Pete” in the 1968, ’69 and ’70 editions of Gumbo, the yearbook for Louisiana State University. One Maravich website offers these yearbooks at prices ranging from $100-$150 each.

In the same tradition of Maravich is another Hall of Famer, Larry Bird, who led the Indiana State Sycamores to a second-place finish in the 1979 NCAA Tournament. Bird appears in editions of Sycamore, with the 1978 ISU yearbook featuring young No. 33 on the cover. It’s valued at around $100-$200.

Other basketball greats and their respective yearbooks include: Isiah Thomas (Indiana, Arbutus); George Mikan (DePaul, DePaulian); Michael Jordan (North Carolina, Yackety Yack); Jerry Lucas (Ohio State, Makio); Elvin Hayes (Houston, Houstonian); Dominique Wilkins (Georgia, Pandora); Dave Bing (Syracuse, The Onondagan); Walt Frazier (Southern Illinois-Carbondale, Obelisk) and Willis Reed (Grambling, Tiger).

Generally speaking, college yearbooks are more common than their high school brethren, simply because they were published in far greater numbers. Nonetheless, it’s both fun and informative to look back at the college years of past and present sports heroes, and share their dreams as they eye the big prize in the professional ranks.

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