Like a lead-footed lineman scooping up a fumble and lumbering 90 yards for the score, the 1956 Topps Football set is finally reaching the hobby "end zone."
OK, so it doesn't take a burly lineman more than 50 years to trudge down the field (it only seems that way), but that's how long it has taken the 1956 set - despite its dazzling design, revolutionary features and impressive player selection - to score a touchdown amongst collectors.
"I think the appeal of the cards is always going to be there for collectors because it's a short set. It's only 120 cards and it has very good eye-appeal," said Bob Shade, who collected the set as a youngster and recently parted with the PSA Set Registry's No. 5 All-Time Finest Basic Set.
Scott L. Whittenburg, proud proprietor of the No. 1 Basic Set, agrees.
"The layout and color on the cards is quite striking," he said.
This flashy design helps explain why a growing number of collectors are pursuing this issue on the PSA Set Registry. The Registry boasts a Basic (120 cards) and Master Set (126). An unnumbered checklist and five contest cards account for the six additional singles in the Master Set.
Distributed in one-cent and five-cent packs with gum, these cards boast colorful fronts that feature a photo, as well as the player's name, team, logo and position.
"You'll notice that each team has a designated color background and that makes it kind of appealing," said Shade.
Employing red and black ink on gray stock, the regular card backs feature stats, biographical information and a cartoon accompanied by a trivia question. This was also the first Topps gridiron issue to showcase team cards.
One of the set's oddities is that different sized cards have been discovered. Whittenburg says that cards culled from vending boxes are slightly larger.
The unnumbered checklist is, arguably, the toughest card to uncover in high-grade. Shade, who purchased 1956 Topps packs as a child, says the checklist was randomly included in packs with the rest of the cards.
"There would be five cards in a pack and you used to get a little ticked off if the checklist was one of them, because you were getting a checklist as opposed to a regular card," he said.
Also, because the checklist was not numbered, collectors often discarded it. And if it wasn't thrown out, young collectors frequently marked it up. Of the 123 checklists submitted, the highest grade doled out has been PSA 8. A PSA 4 checklist sold for $41.02 on eBay in December.
The contest cards were also often tossed out. These singles were randomly inserted in packs and urged collectors to guess the scores of football games and send in these cards with their predictions for the opportunity to win prizes like footballs, basketballs or baseball gloves. Labeled with a number (1 through 3) or letter (A or B), these cards are difficult to track down.
"We didn't pay any attention to them (the contest cards) back then," said Shade. "That's why it amazes me that there are still some of them around in such good condition, because most of us chewed the gum, collected the (regular issue) cards and threw the wrapper, contest cards and checklists away."
No more than 26 of any contest card has been submitted to PSA, and just one copy has been deemed a PSA 9.
Another idiosyncrasy of this issue is that Redskins and Cardinals singles were short-printed.
"The hardest thing to find were Washington Redskin cards. The Redskin and Cardinal cards were short-printed, but the Cardinal cards were not as difficult to obtain," said Shade.
The most difficult Redskin to track down in pristine condition is Jack Carson (#1).
"It's, of course, the No. 1 card, plus it's a Washington Redskin card, so that made it doubly tough to find in very nice shape," said Shade.
Dan Potter, who owns the No. 9 Basic Set, agrees. He hasn't been able to track down a high-grade Carson for his set.
"Anything over an (PSA) 8, you're going to have a very difficult time finding it and when they do come up, the bidding on these auction sites gets pretty stiff," he said.
Of the 122 Carsons evaluated, there have been two PSA 9s and 15 PSA 8s. A PSA 8 example sold for $2,225 in an eBay auction in December 2006.
Billy Vessels, the set's last card, is also elusive in top grade.
"The key cards in the Basic Set are No. 1, Jack Carson, and No. 120, Billy Vessels. Both are difficult to find in high-grade and both almost always have centering issues," noted Whittenburg.
Eddie LeBaron (#49) is another short-print Redskin that's difficult to find in flawless form. Of the 95 sent in, no copies have graded higher than PSA 8.
Chuck Ulrich (#94) is another elusive single in mint condition.
"The #94 Chuck Ulrich card was difficult for me. There are very few copies of the non-vending or regular size of the card in good condition," said Whittenburg.
Forty-six Ulrichs have been evaluated by PSA and there are three PSA 9s and 14 PSA 8s.
The highest-profile rookie in the set is Lenny Moore (#60). Shade says centering issues hamper the Moore card, which helps to explain why a PSA 9 Moore - one of just four in existence - fetched $3,383 in an eBay auction in December.
Other notable rookies include Alex Webster (#5), Roosevelt Brown (#41), Joe Schmidt (#44), Bill George (#47), Stan Jones (#71) and Roosevelt Grier (#101). Some prominent Hall of Famers featured are Lou Groza (#9), George Blanda (#11) and Frank Gifford (#53).
Print flaws, gum stains and bad centering make almost any card from this issue difficult to obtain in pristine form.
"Many of the player cards have centering issues which are prevalent in almost all copies of the card," said Whittenburg.
Another common condition woe is ink bubbles on the colored backgrounds.
"You might have a card that's perfectly centered and has great corners . . . but you look at it and all those ink bubbles in the solid background sort of ruin it for me," said Potter.
The scarcity of high-grade examples, combined with the relative affordability of these cards, has made this set more appealing to collectors in recent years.
"There's not that many cards that carry a real high price," noted Shade. "The Lenny Moore is the top rookie card and he's a Hall of Famer and a fine player, but he's not up there with the Frank Giffords and Bart Starrs of the world. He was just a good solid player."
The set may not remain affordable for much longer though.
"In the last two years or so, I did notice some new people coming in and bidding on the high-grade cards, which led me to believe that there were more people getting into trying to put together the 1956 Topps set," said Shade.
Potter has noticed a similar trend.
"I think that football in general has become more and more popular," he said.
You could say that after long, lumbering 52-year run, the 1956 Topps Football set is finally reaching the hobby "end zone" and scoring a touchdown amongst collectors.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any additional information or comments. Scott L. Whittenburg provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted are those as of press time.
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