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Which Came First - the Football Card or the Baseball Card?

September 23, 2011

by William Szczepanek

September is here and the attention of most sports fans turns to football.  This year the baseball division races are all but decided except for the Red Sox and Braves who are giving some other teams a glimmer of hope. September will be a time to wait for the playoffs and many die-hard baseball fans will turn their attention to football. So, I decided to go along with it and will do some thinking about football cards. Football cards were important to me as a kid. I devised games to play with the cards, just like I did with my baseball cards. It got me thinking about football cards and their history, which is something that I am not as familiar with.  Thinking back to some of my first football cards I wondered about the graphic designs, some of which I thought predated baseball cards of the 1950s.

So, which came first, the baseball card or the football card? We all know that baseball was devised as a game decades before football and baseball cards of all types predate the game of football itself, but that's not what I'm getting at. What I'm really wondering is whether the baseball cards of the fifties, essentially beginning with the Topps set of 1952 are based on designs of football cards or vice versa.

1952 Bowman #022 Elroy Hirsh1952 Bowman #105 Lou Groza1951 Bowman #013 Clyde Turner1950 Bowman #103 Charlie Conerly

Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, Lou "The Toe" Groza, Clyde "Bull Dog" Turner and Charlie "Chunkin" Conerly are examples of Bowman design elements that would be incorporated into baseball cards. Conerly would go on to become the "Marlboro Man" on TV commercials in the 50s and was a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II where he fought in the Battle of Guam.

Let's begin by checking out some football cards. The early Bowman cards, like the Topps Baseball Cards, were painted artwork often taken from photographs and at times looked somewhat cartoonish.  Topps entry into the full baseball card set is somewhat reminiscent of the early Bowman cards (1950-1953). It wasn't until 1954 that Bowman used full card photographs of players, much like Topps did for their 1957 Baseball Card Set.

 1953 Topps Mickey Mantle # 0821953 Topps Pee Wee Reese #0761953 Topps Roy Campanella #0271953 Topps Jackie Robinson #001

Bowman pretty much controlled the market on football cards in the early fifties, particularly the NFL.  Topps produced cards for college players, like the Magic set in 1951. They did not get back into the mix until 1955 with their All-American set, and never really did not get into the NFL market against Bowman. But, when Topps bought out Bowman in 1955 they cornered the market on both baseball and football cards. Fleer would get into the battle when the American Football League arrived in 1960 going up against the NFL, but Topps regained control of both the baseball card and football card markets again in 1968. Year-by-year the football card market looked something like this:

Bowman 1950 - 144 cards
Bowman 1951 - 144 cards
Topps Magic 1951 - 75 cards - college
Bowman 1952 - 144 cards
Bowman 1953 - 96 cards
Bowman 1954 - 129 cards
Bowman 1955 - 160 cards
Topps All American 1955 - 102 cards - college
Topps 1956 - 120 cards
Topps 1957 - 157 cards
Topps 1958 - 133 cards
Topps 1959 - 176 cards
Topps 1960 - 132 cards
Topps 1961 - 198 cards
Topps 1962 - 176 cards
Topps 1963 - 170 cards

1954 Bowman #125 Whizzer White1955 Bowman #121 Andy RobustelliThe card of Whizzer White from 1954 is one of my favorites from this year because Whizzer White, who would lead the League in rushing in 1938 and be one of the NFL's highest paid players, later would become Byron White, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States under John F. Kennedy.

In 1955 Bowman would produce a set with a white glow behind each player ─ kind of artsy, but also corny ─ and somewhat like modern baseball cards with gimmicky backgrounds.

Topps entry into the football card market (NFL) in 1956 was bold colorful and professional. This set is a precursor in some ways to the 1958 Topps Baseball Card Set in that there was a large color picture of the player on a colorful, solid background with conservative lettering and similar logo presentation. George Blanda and Harlon Hill were two of my favorite players. Rosey Grier was a terrifying sight. He later was the bodyguard for Robert Kennedy during the 1968 presidential campaign.  While he could not prevent the killing of Kennedy, he did grab the gun and subdued Sirhan Sirhan. Chuck Bednarik symbolized the linebackers of the time with his vicious hits, one of which took Frank Gifford off the field for 18 months.

1956 Topps Roosevelt Grier #1011956 Topps Harlan Hill #0591956 Topps Chuck Bednarik #0281956 Topps George Blanda #011

1958 Topps Warren Spahn #2701958 Topps Andy Pafko #2231956 Topps Frank Bolling #0951958 Topps Roberto Clemente #052

In 1957 Topps released a football card set that had two panels one with a head shot and the other with an action shot ─ very similar to the 1960 baseball card set which also had two panels.

1957 Topps John Unitas #1381957 Topps Bart Starr #1191957 Topps Pat Summerall #0141960 Topps Ernie Banks #010

We could go on and on with comparisons, but at some point they become tedious. I don' t think that I would credit football cards with leading the way in the manner that the 1952 Topps Baseball Card Set did, but I can't help but think that there was some influence in that early football card market of the 1950s from both Bowman and Topps on the design of baseball cards going forward.

There are many similarities between football and baseball players from the time that hold true.  They played for the game, the money was not there yet and they were often leaders in society once their playing days were over, like Whizzer White, Jack Kemp and others. You just don't see that as much anymore.  I wonder why? Football is much more popular now than it was back then.  Maybe, like baseball, it's not just a game anymore.  It's a business. It's a shame.

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