Which of these doesn't belong?
A. The 1946 All-America Football Conference
B. The 1960 American Football League
C. The 1974 World Football League
D. The 1983 United States Football League
E. The 2001 X Football League.
The answer is B, the American Football League (AFL). Unlike the other four upstart football leagues that challenged the established NFL and were defeated (and sometimes crushed), the AFL competed with the established National Football League until the NFL was forced to recognize it as an equal in 1966 and merge with it as full-fledged partners in 1970.
There was a similar struggle going on in sports cards. Older but smaller Fleer Gum Corporation of Philadelphia was doing battle with mighty Topps and its exclusive agreements with the NFL and MLB. Fleer and the AFL, it seems, were made for each other and they wasted no time reaching an agreement.
The AFL secured an early source of revenue and a means of marketing and advertising to young fans. Fleer, whose main product in late 1959 was its Three Stooges issue, achieved entry into the sports card market during the baseball offseason and would issue pro football cards for the next four years.
Also See: What's a historic Super Bowl ring worth?
Since the league existed only on paper, the AFL’s eight teams had to acquire players, and fast. They did this by having a player draft over three days in late November and early December 1959. The draft went an incredible 53 rounds. The teams selected college players (including underclassmen), as well as former players of the NFL, the Canadian Football League and any player a team felt would be willing to sign with the new league.
Late the following summer, Fleer went to press with its first football issue. History does not record exactly how Fleer selected 132 subjects for its first set from the hundreds of players drafted or signed as free agents. But Fleer ended up with a true cross-section of 1959 gridiron heroes, everything from future Hall-of-Famers to role players and total busts.
Also See: A look at 1960 Topps Football
The 1960 Fleer Football set screams "Low Tech," which for some collectors is part of the appeal of football cards from the era. The players are shown on card fronts in still or action shots (all posed) against a solid color background. Each player is outlined in white, but the lines are thin and nothing like the "force field" that surrounds players in the 1955 Bowman set.
One unusual card is of New York Titans (later Jets) guard Gene Cockrell (card #56), who seems to be charging at the cameraman with a tackling dummy. The bottom of the card displays the player's name and position on a football field with a goalpost as seen from the opposite end zone, with the team name next to it.
Each card's back shows a football going through an upright, viewed at an angle, with the card's number inside the ball. An orange box at the top gives the player's name, team and position. Beneath that in orange and black are his basic physical details, including his hometown, but no prior performance statistics, either college or professional. The remainder of the back contains his biography in much greater detail than provided by rival Topps in their 1960 football issue. (SCD's article “A Set for Its Time” in its March 16, 2018 issue describes the 1960 Topps football set and the meager bios found on its card backs). In the lower right corner is the word “Fleer” inside its trademark crown.
Probably in the interest of demonstrating the AFL's status as a major league, Fleer was not shy in letting card buyers know of players' past careers in the NFL or CFL. Buyers were told Fran Rogel (#43) “played eight years with the Pittsburgh Steelers.” Jerry Cornelison (#87) has “experience he gained professionally in Canada.”
John McMullan (#103) “formerly played for both the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles.” And Jim Swink (#69) was “a top draft choice of the Chicago Bears in 1956,” but he "chose to enter medical school instead.”
On the other hand, Fleer was cautious in avoiding litigation and did not display such players in the uniforms of their former NFL teams. Almost all players are shown in their college uniforms, even if Fleer had to go into the archives to find them. This created the anomalous situation of players from the same colleges appearing as teammates even though playing for different pro teams. Thus, Patriot Harvey White (#1), Bronco Jim Padgett (#40) and Oiler Bill Mathis (#99) are not teammates, although all are in the same uniform from Clemson University. The few exceptions include Hall of Famer George Blanda (#58), who is shown playing for the Chicago Bears, and Frank Tripucka (#26), who seems to be wearing a uniform from his long career in the CFL.
STARS OF THE SET
The set is one of the few that contains cards of coaches. Perhaps Fleer felt that, unlike players, there would be no chance for coaches to be fired before the end of the 1960 season, which would make their cards obsolete. Fleer included cards for seven of the eight AFL coaches. For reasons which have never been determined, Fleer omitted Denver's Frank Filchock, even though he was already on board, having signed on as the Bronco's head coach on January 1, 1960.
The set contains a handful of Hall of Famers, besides Blanda. Two achieved their status as coaches in the AFL. They are Sid Gillman (#7) and Hank Stram (#116). A third AFL coach whose bust resides in Canton is Sammy Baugh (#20), although he was enshrined for his playing exploits. As his card points out, his accomplishments fill “a full page” of the NFL record book. Another Hall-of-Famer is Los Angeles (later San Diego) Chargers tackle Ron Mix, whose rookie card is #118 in the set.
Mix is just one of many rookies in the set, which is to be expected for a new league acquiring new players from many sources, many of them “off the street.” Several of these players, such as Dan McGrew (#3) and Ger Schwedes (#71), went on to short careers in the AFL. (Schwedes is also the only player born in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany to ever play American professional football). Others, such as Joe Amstutz (#28), never played a down in the AFL but appeared briefly in the NFL prior to 1960.
A number of other players in the set enjoyed long distinguished pro careers and have received past consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Their future induction is, at least, a possibility. Some of them are Sherrill Headrick (#59), Abner Haynes (#73), Paul Lowe (#76), Chris Burford (#81), and Larry Grantham (#98). On the other hand, Bob Fee (#29), Sam McCord (#67) and Larry Cundiff (#95), among others, appeared in the set but never played in a single professional game.
And if some online sports fan ever gets around to establishing a hall for great nicknames, my candidate is Elbert "Golden Wheels" Dubenion (#17).
There are several other notables in the 1960 Fleer set. The most expensive card in the set is the rookie card of Jack Kemp (#124). He is shown as the quarterback for the Chargers but later led the Buffalo Bills to two AFL championships. He also served in Congress, was Housing Secretary under President George H. Bush and ran unsuccessfully for Vice President of the United States.
Billy Cannon (#66) won the 1960 Heisman Trophy and his passing up the NFL to sign with the AFL was a major coup for the new league. Longtime NFL announcer Paul Maguire also has his rookie card (#128) in the set. The rookie card of future University of Pittsburgh coach "Foge" Fazio (#15) is found in the set as a center for the Patriots, although under his birth name of "Serafino."
There are also "pseudo notables" who are not who they appear to be at first glance. Charger defensive end Bob Reifsnyder is not major league infielder Rob Refsnyder. Oiler offensive end John Carson (#107) never hosted a TV talk show. Al "Hoagy" Carmichael (#110) never wrote a hit song, although he once held the NFL record for the longest kickoff return in league history. And Billy Kinard (#51) is not Hall of Famer "Bruiser" Kinard, but he is Bruiser's younger brother.
It initially seems strange that a small, non-football power like Hardin-Simmons University provides three of the set's 132 players, but Cockrell, Kenneth Ford (#50) and Teddy Edmonson (#91) are all found in the set as members of the Titans. The reason is found on the back of Sammy Baugh's card. He last coached at Hardin-Simmons and evidently recruited all three when he signed to coach the Titans, although only Cockrell would see action for the team in the 1960 regular season.
By all accounts the set was printed on a single sheet holding all 132 cards. However, there has been speculation over the years that some cards in the set are less plentiful than others, although there is no agreement on exactly which cards. It is possible that some were scrapped due to printing errors, even though Fleer's quality control was evidently less than stringent. Off-center cards are common. See the cards of Bill Krisher (#53), Frank Bernardi (#54) and Ed Denk (#125).
There are a handful of errors in the set, although none were corrected, leaving the set complete at its original 132 cards. The correct last name of Jack Larsheid (#41) is “Larscheid.” Likewise, Jim Yates (#31) should be “Yeats,” although Bob Yates (#36) is spelled correctly. George Blanch (#9) is listed as a guard although he played halfback in college at Texas. His card even shows him wearing a back's number and carrying the football.
A BARGAIN BUY
With each nickel pack of cards the buyer got the expected slab of gum. He also got one of 28 decals. There was one from each of the eight AFL teams, one with the league's logo and 19 bearing the pennants of two colleges.
Despite being 60 years old, the cards are not expensive and the decals even less so. Cards in VG-E condition go for $3-$5 each. The handful of Hall of Famers and stars usually cost twice that.
The Jack Kemp card is still the most expensive card in the set, but can be found in decent condition for only $30-$40. The entire set usually costs $500 in excellent condition.
Young fans today may puzzle over teams like the New York Titans and the Dallas Texans. But anyone with an appreciation of professional football history can take from this set a lesson about the early days of the American Football League and how it partnered with the Fleer gum company to shake up the status quo and create a whole new world of football cards.