By Doug Koztoski
The American Football League played its first games in 1960, but it wasn’t until about 1964 that the league was really able to take flight.
Not only did the league sign a large television contract with NBC that year, but later in 1964 the AFL’s New York Jets drafted University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath. In early 1965 the Jets signed Namath to a then-record sum.
These events immediately sparked greater excitement for the AFL and gave the well-established NFL reasons to take the upstarts even more seriously.
Also in 1964, the NFL cut Topps from its list of lincensees and gave the pasteboard-making rights to the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Company. So, after eight years of primarily NFL sets, Topps went on a four-year ride with AFL-only issues.
The Fleer Company, meanwhile, which produced mostly AFL cards from 1960-63, got completely elbowed out of the mainstream pigskin card game for 1964 and for many years afterward.
Back By Popular Demand
As the stars aligned for the AFL in 1964, Topps virtually surrounded player photos with stars on its 176-card set. The stars and other elements from the “pure AFL” set have appealed to many collectors.
“We like the full-team cards for every team,” said collector Angelo Coniglio. “We like the fact that the set for 1964, when the AFL was supposedly inferior and would supposedly not get good players until after the post-merger common draft, had 10 players who made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
The “we” in this case is Coniglio, his wife Angela and many other AFL fans that have liked the league for decades. A few years ago the collector/historian turned that intense enthusiasm into a website, www.remembertheAFL.com, for fans of the defunct league.
Coniglio’s site features press clippings, game programs, player bios and a growing number of scans of the league’s trading cards. The couple owns all four Topps AFL-only sets from the period, but for how much longer is a question. “Angie would like to sell and I want to keep them until they’re all scanned,” said the webmaster. “This leads to some good-natured ‘discussions,'” he joked.
Canton inductees George Blanda, Len Dawson, Don Maynard, Jim Otto, Lance Alworth and Ron Mix are the biggest names in the set, but Jack Kemp ($200) and the last card in the issue, a checklist ($150), pace the collection price-wise.
Although the set ($1,500) is about half short-prints, none of them are the top rookies in the Class of ’64 made up of Daryle Lamonica ($60) and Hall of Famers Bobby Bell and Buck Buchanan ($35 apiece).
Hobbyist Paul Lemm, among the high-ranking members on the PSA Set Registry for this collection, said the issue has “lots of miscuts, some are wider than others and there is a lot of border chipping.” Lemm added that some of the average players in the set are harder than you think to find in nice shape. “Most people saved the stars and not the commons,” he said.
The Big Kids
Namath got his fair share of bumps, bruises and worse on the pro level starting with the 1965 campaign – and not just on the playing field.
Collector Chuck Nader, #6 on the Current Finest list on the PSA Set Registry, first collected the 1965 issue fresh out of the packs but he and his brothers used some of the cards, including the Namath, for “rug-top” football. “Every ding, bend and crease was inflicted by me and my brothers. It will always be the cornerstone of my 1965 Topps Tall Boy Set,” Nader proudly said of his PSA 2 Namath.
The short-printed Namath card is the top rookie of the era and books at $1,800 in raw near-mint condition.
The biggest rookie next to “Broadway Joe” in the ’65 issue is Raiders receiver Fred Biletnikoff, another of the many “SPs” in the issue, ($200). Other “shorts” from the $3,800 set are Kemp ($200) and both checklists, including the set-ender. They list for $150 and $225, respectively.
The 1965 176-piece Topps football offering is nearly 1 1/2 inches taller than the standard size trading card and, overall, Nader described it as, “the finest card concept of the last 50 years. I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of the painted photos or ‘monster’ head shots, but the layout, information and statistics are all well done.”
1966: A Colorful Year
In the fall of 1966 NBC became the first TV network to show all of its prime time programs in color. That relates back to 1966 Topps football since the card maker went with a color-TV themed design, reminiscent of the 1955 Bowman baseball set.
Mark Irodenko, who has two full sets of the wood-grain bordered ’66s, is tuned in to the gridiron issue for a variety of reasons.
“It’s difficult, the layout is horizontal and it’s not the usual white border card,” said the Michigan-based collector and owner of Outfield Sports Cards.
“It’s a tough set to find in nice grade because the cards chip a lot and there are centering problems.”
Irodenko cited the last card in the set, a checklist, as a prime example. “It’s unbelievably hard to find centered,” he said. “If you find one with 70/30 centering pay what it takes to get it. If a PSA 8 appears you would get about $10,000 for it, no doubt about it.”
And then there’s the non-football related checklist that pertains to the odd cardboard punch-out inserts that appeared in the 1966 set. “The Funny Ring checklist is a very tough card to find in general,” noted Irodenko, “although you’re starting to find some centered.” The checklist books for $275.
Other 1966 cards are more challenging to find than the insert checklist. “I feel there are six commons tougher than the Funny Ring card, like #39 and #80, you can’t find them in PSA 8,” Irodenko said.
The keys to the uniformed types in the set are Namath (#340), Kemp ($170) and Biletnikoff ($50).
Whether you like the design of the “TV” ’66s or not, one “show” from that season receiving modest ratings is “The Rookie Parade” starring Otis Taylor ($17), and George Sauer Jr. ($12).
After the 1966 season the rival leagues played their first World Championship game against each other – an early version of the Super Bowl, won by the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. It was the same basic scenario after the 1967 season, except this time the team playing Vince Lombardi’s Packers was Oakland not Kansas City.
In between this pair of games was the last Topps AFL-only set, a second straight 132-card gridiron issue.
Collector Ryan Williamson has built three raw 1967 Topps sets in the last few years and he is working on a graded one of the issue as well.
What draws him to the set? “I love the psychedelic design,” said the Canadian-based hobbyist.
Namath leads the collection at $185, but Williamson has another “Joe” as his top pick from the set. “My favorite card is #79 Joe Auer, the first Miami Dolphin to score a touchdown in team history,” he said. “Not only is this his rookie card, it’s his only mainstream card.”
The most expensive rookie in the issue is one of Auer’s teammates that year: Ed “Wahoo” McDaniel (#82). The Dolphins linebacker made a bigger name for himself as a pro wrestler than a pro football player and his debut pasteboard easily pins down many collectors at $30.
Another rookie from the 1967 Topps set that Williamson and several other collectors mentioned as the toughest of the issue to locate is the second-to-last card. “The Leslie Duncan is virtually impossible to find centered,” he said.
Assorted other cards from the offering that year worth noting include Kemp ($100), Alworth (in a great old-style pose), Dawson, Biletnikoff, the two checklists (and yes, one is the set-ender) and the second card of the issue, Patriots QB Babe Parilli who is posing with his eyes closed.
Topps sets usually solidly beat the Philly Gum issues from the period price-wise. That is until you come to 1967, where they both book at $650.
In 1968 Topps became the only regular-issue football card maker and that meant the NFL and AFL players would be in the same set once again for good.
In January of 1969 Namath led the Jets in a stunning Super Bowl III victory and the Chiefs won it again for the AFL the next year. So, before the merger really started in the fall of 1970, the leagues reached a definite level of on-the-field parity.
“The 1960s were a time of turmoil, vision, and change,” Coniglio emphasized. “It was the Cold War, the Kennedys, the Beatles, the race for the moon, ‘Aquarius’…and it was the AFL.”
And remembering the AFL through some distinctive and highly collectible Topps cards, at a time the renegade league’s “game” blossomed, is how many hobbyists enjoy it. u
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Tuff Stuff. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.