Like baseball cards, the first football cards were printed by tobacco companies, which used images of athletes to promote their products. In 1888, cigarette maker Goodwin & Co. distributed 50 different cards in packs of Old Judge and Gypsy Queen cigarettes. Most of the Goodwin Champions, as they were called, were of baseball players, but one of the cards in that series was the first football card, an illustration of Henry Beecher, who was the captain of the Yale Bulldogs.

Mayo Cut Plug Tobacco published the first set of cards devoted exclusively to football. Its 1894 series featured the stern photographic portraits of 35 football players from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, which were then the nation’s pigskin powerhouses.

Football remained the poor cousin to baseball until 1935, when a gum company called National Chicle printed a football-card set of tinted photographs of 36 players. The first 24 cards are fairly common, although #9, Knute Rockne’s rookie card, is highly collectible. Other rookie cards of note in the series include Shipwreck Kelly and Bronko Nagurski.

Next came the almost-square 1948 Bowman Gum cards, which featured a black-and-white photo of the player on the front with no writing on it whatsoever. Among the collectible cards in this all-rookie 108-card set are future hall-of-famers Alex Wojciechowicz of the Philadelphia Eagles, Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins, and George McAfee of the Chicago Bears.

Bowman did not make football cards in 1949, but it did produce cards from 1950 through 1955. All were in color, and in 1952, two sets were produced. The smaller-size 144-card set from that year is relatively common, but the 144 large-size cards include some of the most collectible vintage Bowman football cards around, including rookie cards for Art Donovan of the Dallas Texans, Thomas Johnson of the Green Bay Packers, and Jack Christiansen of the Detroit Lions.

Some of the 160 cards in Bowman’s final 1955 set are also rare, but the big news that year was the purchase of Bowman by Topps. Until then, Topps had only produced a small, felt-back set of college football players in 1950 (collectible cards from this series include the ones for an obscure Brown University player named Joe Paterno and future hall-of-famer Ernie Stautner), and the Topps Magic set from 1951 (it also focused on college players).

By 1955, though, Topps was ready to make its move. In addition to buying Bowman, Topps also released its own All-American set of 100 football cards. Some collectible error cards ...

Key collectible Topps pro-football cards through 1970 range from Y.A. Tittle (San Francisco 49ers, 1956) to John Unitas (Baltimore Colts, 1957), Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns, 1958) to Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota Vikings, 1962), and the rookie card for O.J. Simpson (Buffalo Bills, 1970).

Other gum companies of interest to collectors of vintage football cards are Leaf, whose 1948 and ’49 cards are graphically similar to the ones the company produced for baseball players during the same two years, and Fleer, which produced football cards in the early 1960s. Jack Kemp’s rookie card appeared on Fleer in 1960; Len Dawson’s rookie card was printed in 1963.

Gum was not the only consumable to use cards to drive sales. In 1959 and 1960, Bell Brands packaged cards of the Los Angeles Rams with bags of potato chips and Lake to Lake Dairy of Sheboygan, Wisconsin sold its products with green-and-white Green Bay Packers cards. In fact, regional sets like these are among the toughest to find, with the Royal Castle Miami Dolphins set from 1967 being a Holy Grail of sorts for vintage football card collectors.Like baseball cards, the first football cards were printed by tobacco companies, which used images of athletes to promote their products. In 1888, cigarette maker Goodwin & Co. distributed 50 different cards in packs of Old Judge and Gypsy Queen cigarettes. Most of the Goodwin Champions, as they were called, were of baseball players, but one of the cards in that series was the first football card, an illustration of Henry Beecher, who was the captain of the Yale Bulldogs.

Mayo Cut Plug Tobacco published the first set of cards devoted exclusively to football. Its 1894 series featured the stern photographic portraits of 35 football players from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, which were then the nation’s pigskin powerhouses.

Football remained the poor cousin to baseball until 1935, when a gum company called National Chicle printed a football-card set of tinted photographs of 36 players. The first 24 cards are fairly common, although #9, Knute Rockne’s rookie card, is highly collectible. Other rookie cards of note in the series include Shipwreck Kelly and Bronko Nagurski.

Next came the almost-square 1948 Bowman Gum cards, which featured a black-and-white photo of the player on the front with no writing on it whatsoever. Among the collectible cards in this all-rookie 108-card set are future hall-of-famers Alex Wojciechowicz of the Philadelphia Eagles, Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins, and George McAfee of the Chicago Bears.

Bowman did not make football cards in 1949, but it did produce cards from 1950 through 1955. All were in color, and in 1952, two sets were produced. The smaller-size 144-card set from that year is relatively common, but the 144 large-size cards include some of the most collectible vintage Bowman football cards around, including rookie cards for Art Donovan of the Dallas Texans, Thomas Johnson of the Green Bay Packers, and Jack Christiansen of the Detroit Lions.

Some of the 160 cards in Bowman’s final 1955 set are also rare, but the big news that year was the purchase of Bowman by Topps. Until then, Topps had only produced a small, felt-back set of college football players in 1950 (collectible cards from this series include the ones for an obscure Brown University player named Joe Paterno and future hall-of-famer Ernie Stautner), and the Topps Magic set from 1951 (it also focused on college players).

By 1955, though, Topps was ready to make its move. In addition to buying Bowman, Topps also released its own All-American set of 100 football cards. Some collectible error cards include Gaynell Tinsley and future Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, whose bios are swapped on the backs of some cards. Other famous cards are the ones for Illinois quarterback Red Grange, Carlisle halfback Jim Thorpe, and a card labeled The Four Horsemen that depicted the Notre Dame backfield.

Key collectible Topps pro-football cards through 1970 range from Y.A. Tittle (San Francisco 49ers, 1956) to John Unitas (Baltimore Colts, 1957), Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns, 1958) to Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota Vikings, 1962), and the rookie card for O.J. Simpson (Buffalo Bills, 1970).

Other gum companies of interest to collectors of vintage football cards are Leaf, whose 1948 and ’49 cards are graphically similar to the ones the company produced for baseball players during the same two years, and Fleer, which produced football cards in the early 1960s. Jack Kemp’s rookie card appeared on Fleer in 1960; Len Dawson’s rookie card was printed in 1963.

Gum was not the only consumable to use cards to drive sales. In 1959 and 1960, Bell Brands packaged cards of the Los Angeles Rams with bags of potato chips and Lake to Lake Dairy of Sheboygan, Wisconsin sold its products with green-and-white Green Bay Packers cards. In fact, regional sets like these are among the toughest to find, with the Royal Castle Miami Dolphins set from 1967 being a Holy Grail of sorts for vintage football card collectors.

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