Going Deep with Vintage AFL Cards

By Doug Koztoski

The American Football League has a lasting appeal for several hobbyists, including Dave Steidel, who witnessed the AFL go from zero to 60 and way beyond during the 1960s.

The allure for Steidel included the AFL’s newness, its anti-establishment attitude, the new uniforms and helmets, wide-open offenses, exciting players and the flair of it all.

He also liked the league’s football cards, starting with the 1960 Fleer packs, which he first bought by mistake, thinking they contained NFL cards.
 Steidel enjoyed the renegade league and its pasteboards so much so that he penned the recently released book, Remember the AFL. A well-written and comprehensive effort, about 450 pages, Remember the AFL contains season-by-season history, rarely seen photos, trivia quizzes and more than 175 shots of cards from “that other league.”

 “In most cases, I selected cards of players who were prominent in that season’s story as well as cards of players who were not high- profile stars. The AFL was about the Average Joes who drained every ounce of talent from their ability,” he said.

 This January marks the 40th anniversary of the AFL essentially draining every ounce of blood from many football fans faces as the New York Jets, led by a not-so-average quarterback named Joe Namath, notched a stunning victory against the heavily favored Colts in Super Bowl III.

Just a few years before the surprising Jets victory, the first time the AFL beat the long-established NFL in a title contest, the rival leagues agreed to merge in 1970.

Top Choices
For the 1961 season there was a brief merger of sorts since Fleer and Topps had a mix of AFL and NFL players in their sets. Steidel said the Fleer offering was the favorite for any true collector who leaned toward teams with names like Raiders, Broncos, Oilers and Patriots.

“The 1961 (cards) were great because it was the first look at AFL uniforms on the cards. TVs were black and white back then and this was my first chance to see each team’s uniform in color,” he recalled. “Fleer only had college photos available for cards in their first set (1960). The ’61 (cards) also had scenic backgrounds instead of the full-color backdrop that 1960 had,” he said.

Steidel, however, tossed a penalty flag toward the 1961 Topps Football product.

“Topps appeared to simply be patronizing the league but didn’t have the courtesy or respect to go out and get up-to-date photos of the players in their AFL jerseys,” he said. “I give the set a failing grade for lack of effort and authenticity.”

From 1968 on, Topps was the sole regular football card producer for years and included both leagues in their sets. But between 1964-67, Topps gridiron issues were AFL-only and in this four-year timeframe, Steidel said, the cardmaker redeemed itself for some earlier missteps.

“The 1965 Topps set, to me, is a classic because it was such a unique card and a totally new style. The size (about 21/2-by-5 inches) was ground breaking, straying from the traditional 21/2-by-31/2-inch format. The backgrounds are bright and colorful, and the pictures are really crisp,” said the author.

 “There is not a bad shot in the 1965 set,” said veteran dealer Paul Szczesek of Bases Loaded Sports Collectibles. “It’s a key set as you have the Namath, (Ben) Davidson and (Fred) Biletnikoff rookies and a slew of short-prints, but the odd size of the ’65 (cards) made them difficult to store, so you usually find them dinged up,” Szczesek said.

The short-printed 1965 Namath (No. 122), the crown jewel of AFL cards, books for $4,500 in PSA 8 and about $16,000 in PSA 9.
Other top AFL star cards of the period include QBs Jack Kemp, Len Dawson, George Blanda and Bob Griese, running back Mike Garrett and receiver Lance Alworth.

 Alworth was the first AFL player elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1978). His rookie card (No. 72, $250) appears in the 1963 Fleer set, their last 1960s regular-issue gridiron collection.

“The 1963 Fleer set is scarce,” said dealer Steve Brandenburg. “Most of what you see in the ’63 (cards) are nice, but you just don’t see them much.” Brandenburg added that too frequently the solely AFL 1962 and 1963 Fleer collections have centering problems.

Strong Connection
Meanwhile, well-centered perhaps best describes Steidel’s links to football and baseball cards. “They brought me closer to the players and sport; and the more aesthetic they were, the more appeal they had to me. Any time you can own a piece of history, especially like these works of art, and have them hold the added value of memories in your heart, then I think you have everything you could want,” he said.

“Since the AFL is such a great part of the history of sports in America and because next year is the 50th anniversary of its beginning, I think that AFL cards, especially ones from 1960 through 1967, will always be a timeless and wise investment,” he noted.

 Another evergreen and smart purchase is Remember the AFL. Much like the league and its cards, Steidel’s book is something different and a lot of fun. SCM

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