Every hobby specialty has a cherished set of cards that stands as the keystone in its realm. Often, they're the first cards devoted to a particular discipline or, in some cases, they're the prettiest, most rare or most expensive. In all instances, these special items claim a relentless hold on enthusiasts' devotion. That elite niche in football collecting - the production universally revered above all others - is acknowledged to be National Chicle Co.'s "Football Stars" release of 1935.
National Chicle of Cambridge, Massachusetts - well-known as the makers of baseball's aesthetically comparable "Diamond Stars" - elected to take a chance with a new league (and relatively new sport) as it conceived and released the first two dozen entries in this phenomenally attractive, Art Deco-inspired series of collectibles. Although the college game was familiar to many at the time, gridiron activity at the professional level had been around for barely a decade.
Several professional "leagues" had been formed, modified and subsequently disbanded during the early 1920s, but a stable organization that satisfied the need for unity was created with the formation of the National Football League in 1922. A number of franchise owners in the now-crystallized NFL, including George Halas, Tim Mara and Curly Lambeau, ultimately became inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, as did such legendary players as Jim Thorpe and Harold "Red" Grange. By 1935, National Chicle, which had also experimented with untested subject matter in its "Sky Birds" and "Tom Mix" card sets, felt the time was right for its inaugural 24-piece treatment of football.
The initial release was deftly seeded with the era's big-name talent. The presence of period luminaries like Dutch Clark, Ken Strong and Cliff Battles was expected to draw attention, and buyers, to the colorful product. The cards also drew upon the considerable fame of Notre Dame's Knute Rockne - the acclaimed head coach who had passed away in 1931 - and featured his image on its #9 entry.
"Football Stars," which quickly became known, less generically, as "National Chicle Football," followed the classic baseball model pioneered two years prior by Goudey, and which was continued in its own "Diamond Stars." The cards' artistically rendered player likenesses were beautifully enhanced by Deco-style patterns on their uncluttered obverse sides; the back of each standard-sized 2 3/8" by 2 7/8" piece carried a descriptive paragraph and a couple of lines devoted to the player's position, college, age and related data. Just above the cardback's copyright information, a provocative inscription, "One of 240 football players with playing tips," announced an ambitious total number of depictions that could be anticipated by collectors.
National Chicle expanded soon after its initial release, growing by a dozen subjects to a total of 36 cards. This second group was made immediately noteworthy by the inclusion of the Chicago Bears' star fullback, Bronko Nagurski, on card #34.
Collectors who awaited further expansion of the release after that point were destined to face disappointment. Perhaps the NFL wasn't yet ready to generate enough momentum to propel its own series of gum cards. Or, since National Chicle was facing financial peril at the time (largely due to its expensive artwork and production costs), it's possible that the company didn't hold sufficient faith in the fledgling market to justify prolonging the Football Stars venture. The rough-and-tumble pastime was gradually increasing its hold on the population's imagination, but after National Chicle Football, more than a decade would pass before another card company was willing to tackle further development of the game's collectibles.
Composition - Just 36 cards.. but what a roster! The highest-profile elements of a different and newly refined athletic discipline were gathered in one of the most visually appealing and stunning spectacles afforded by the one-and-only National Chicle Football.
Each National Chicle Football card has become, quite legitimately, a standalone, origin-piece treasure in a hobby category that now boasts hundreds of football-themed card sets, with dozens more arising every season. The 1935 issue's depictions of Turk Edwards, Shipwreck Kelly, Beattie Feathers and their contemporaries are coveted by hobbyists to a degree that dwarfs the magnitude of the impact made by those cards at the time of their brief availability in packs of gum.
The cards of period superstars Rockne and Nagurski hold additional, specific significance. Rockne's is one of the very few items from the era that pays suitable homage to the immortal figure. Nagurski appears on what is widely seen as the most valuable and desirable football card of all. articularly in view of its short-lived period of distribution, National Chicle Football's ongoing degrees of recognition and importance are essentially incomparable.
Key Features and Rarities - The National Chicle Football issue's "High Numbers" - #s 25-36, inclusive - are at least twice as scarce as their lower-numbered predecessors. And, this tougher group harbors the hobby's "Holy Grail" in the form of the Bronko Nagurski portrayal.
But all National Chicle Football cards can be seen as "rare," and certainly so in the highest grades. The items are demonstrably "condition sensitive" with cardstock that's prone to reveal toning from age, and corners that readily concede wear. The set's opening and concluding subjects (#s 1 Clark and 36 Bernie Masterson, respectively) fell victim to rubber-banding and exposure to light in higher proportions than other numbers, and their surviving population totals suffer accordingly. Finally, focus problems and centering mishaps affecting many National Chicle cards constitute yet another aspect that contributes to a persistent lack of topgrade pieces. National Chicle Football cards in their pack-fresh state are wondrously captivating collectibles. And very few of them have been observed in modern times.
Bottom Line - National Chicle Football broke ground in unexplored card-market territory, and in hobbyists' estimation, vacated its claim much too readily. The 36-card set holds relics that showcase vintage football in a manner that historically-minded present-day fans can appreciate in a way that no other football cards can match. The Chicles comprise a short set numbers-wise, but the cards have earned character and value assessments that are certain to remain unequaled. An absolutely pivotal release!