PSA Set Registry
1971 Topps Football Card Set
The Best Gridiron Set of Its Decade?
by Kevin Glew
It would be easier to bust through a tackle from "Mean Joe" Greene in his prime than it is to find a Gem Mint example of his rookie card.
At least that's what a hardcore vintage football card collector might tell you. Like most cards in the condition sensitive, 1971 Topps Football set, the Greene rookie (#245) is plagued by chipping on its colored borders and poor centering. And it's these flaws that make this gridiron issue the most challenging of its decade to assemble in high grade.
"I've seen 1971 Topps Football packs opened where you might as well just throw the whole pack away," noted Kevin Roberson, who owned the No. 1, 1971 Topps Football set on the PSA Set Registry from 2012 through 2014. "I've seen 1971 Topps Football cards fresh from a pack where there's no border [on one side of the cards] through the whole pack. The centering is as much of an issue as the chipping on the borders."
Like its predecessor, the 1971 Topps Football set is comprised of 263 cards. The AFC players are highlighted on red-bordered cards, while NFC players are showcased on blue-bordered singles. All-Star players are presented on cards that have blue borders surrounding the top half of the photo and red borders surrounding the bottom.
The large player photo is the centerpiece of the fronts. These are generally posed shots, many of which accentuate their position. A lot of the quarterbacks, for example, are presented in a throwing pose, but two quarterbacks - Joe Kapp (#145) and Dennis Shaw (#235) - are shown in game-action shots. Two other players - Jake Scott (#211) and O.J. Simpson (#260) - are spotlighted in what appear to be sideline photos.
After their 1969 issue, Topps reportedly opted not to pay the licensing fees the NFL required for the use of team logos, so starting with their 1970 series, logos were not included on Topps Football cards until 1982. So you'll notice that the logos are absent on the helmets in the aforementioned action photos in the 1971 series.
The player's name is listed at the top in bold, all-caps letters, while the team name is emblazoned in similar lettering below the photo with a cartoon player to its left. The player's position and conference are indicated at the bottom.
"I love the design," said Jack Emerson, who owns the No. 10 Current Finest, 1971 Topps Football set on the PSA Set Registry. "I thought the cards looked great. The blue and red borders were such a departure from the past. I thought some of the individual photos were great - like on the Joe Namath card. I think this set has turned out to be the best set of the 1970s."
Joe Mancino, who has compiled the No. 12 Current Finest set on the registry, shares a similar assessment.
"The 1971 cards are sharp looking with their colored borders, and the photographs are a little bit better than what Topps had previously produced," he said.
The vertical backs offer the card number, the player's position, team, name and vitals (e.g., Height, Weight, Born, School, First Year Pro, Home, etc.) in a box at the top to the left of a cartoon that illustrates a fact about the player. These cartoons sometimes highlight the player's nickname or their professional or collegiate accomplishments, but some reveal fascinating facts about the player away from the field. For example, Ken Avery (#22) was a ballet dancer and Bake Turner (#56) and Bob "Bake" Tucker (#79) were "professional country and western singers."
These cartoons also often illustrate just how much times have changed. Many of the players had off-season jobs. Chuck Allen (#6), for instance, operated a mink farm; Gary Cuozzo (#18) was a dentist and Craig Morton (#171) owned a bookstore. The authors also felt it was noteworthy to share that three players - Pat Matson (#72), Sam Brunelli (#185) and Steve Chomyszak (#252) - work out with weights. Today you'd be hard-pressed to find a player who doesn't work out with weights.
There are also several sentences of biographical information about each player in the middle of the back. These bios tend to be glowing assessments of the players' skills and are generally devoted to their professional or collegiate achievements. Also, for the first time on their football cards, Topps included year-by-year statistics (where applicable).
The 1971 Topps Football cards were released in two series (#1 to #132, #133 to #263). The second-series checklist (#106) was included on each series sheet, making it the only double-print in the set.
Cards were available in 10-cent wax packs that included eight cards, a game card, a pin-up poster and gum. Several years ago, Steve Hart, owner of the Baseball Card Exchange, was able to purchase 19 unopened wax boxes.
"They were all Series 2, except for two boxes of Series 1 that were placed in there too," noted Hart. "They came out of Tampa, Florida. We sold them all in less than a month."
The 1971 cards were also available in 23-card cello packs and 500-card vending boxes. A vending box fetched $5,994 in a Collect Auctions sale in April 2016.
"1971 Topps Football unopened is probably the most popular unopened [football series] from the whole decade, due to the popularity of the issue, the key Hall of Famer rookie cards in it and the scarcity of it," noted Hart.
The text on the back of the Speedy Duncan card (#148) sheds some light on when these cards were produced. The front of his card indicates that he's with the San Diego Chargers, but a line of text has been added to the end of his bio on the back, noting that he had been acquired by the Redskins on "5-25-71." In other words, these cards were too far along in the production process on May 25, 1971, for the front of the card to be updated.
There's no set sequence to the cards in this issue. Most of the 26 NFL teams have 10 representatives each, while the previous season's Super Bowl opponents - the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Colts - have 11 cards each.
And while the aforementioned Greene rookie (#245) is an important card, it's the Terry Bradshaw single (#156) that's considered the key rookie in this set. This pasteboard features a headshot of the four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. The red borders on this single are susceptible to chipping. Of the 2,609 submitted, there have been three PSA GEM-MT 10s and 20 PSA MINT 9s. One PSA 9 sold for $50,190 in a Heritage Auctions sale in May 2016.
On top of the Bradshaw and Greene rookies, four other Hall of Famers make their cardboard debut: Ken Houston (#113), Willie Lanier (#114), Roger Wehrli (#188) and Charlie Sanders (#210).
Other significant rookies in this offering include Marty Schottenheimer (#3), Terry Hanratty (#30), Duane Thomas (#65), Mercury Morris (#91), Preston Pearson (#177), Jake Scott (#211), Lemar Parrish (#233) and Mark Moseley (#257). With just one PSA 9, the Schottenheimer single is very tough to uncover in mint condition. This card was located on the left edge of the third row of the print sheet, a position that left it vulnerable to flaws such as miscuts.
Roberson says the Morris card (#91) is also a key card in the set.
"The Mercury Morris card, for whatever reason, is still just a highly, highly sought-after card," he said. "I can tell you that a PSA 9 Mercury Morris just sold for $1,550 last year. So what would that make a PSA 10 worth? It's hard to say. I personally think the Mercury Morris is the toughest card in this set to get in a PSA 10. It's even a low population card in PSA 9."
Of the 306 graded, there's one PSA 10 and just three PSA 9s.
In total, there are over 50 Hall of Famers with cards in this set, including Johnny Unitas (#1), Lance Alworth (#10), Dick Butkus (#25), George Blanda (#39), Fran Tarkenton (#120), Ray Nitschke (#133), Gale Sayers (#150), Bob Griese (#160), Bart Starr (#200), Deacon Jones (#209), Joe Namath (#250) and O.J. Simpson (#260).
"This was a golden era of pro football," noted Mancino. "You're getting to the end of the careers of guys like Unitas and then you got new careers starting up. You've got the rookies of Bradshaw and Joe Greene."
On top of its fragile red borders, the Unitas single was also the first card in the set and was subjected to additional wear and tear being on top of collector piles. Of the 1,178 evaluated, there have been 12 PSA 9s, one of which garnered $2,616.66 on eBay in February 2016, and nothing higher.
Mancino says the Ray Nitschke card (#133) is also evasive in top grade. This card was located on the top-left edge of a print sheet and was also the first card on the left in the eighth row. These edge-sheet positions made it more vulnerable to condition woes. Not surprisingly, it's regularly hampered by poor centering and chipping on its blue borders. There has been one PSA 9, one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5 and 47 PSA 8s.
The Namath card (#250) is also elusive in mint condition. Emerson says this may be his favorite card of all time.
"Yes, it's worth a lot of money," noted Emerson, "but I lived 10 minutes from Hofstra University where the Jets held their training camp, so I actually went to their training camp a lot. Those early Namath cards from 1968, 1969, 1970, they didn't really look like him. On those cards his hair was really short, almost crew-cut looking. But his card in 1971 looked exactly like the guy I was going to see at training camp, so I fell in love with that card."
The Namath card was on the right edge of the second and ninth rows of a print sheet. This helps to explain why it's typically found with poor left-to-right centering. The three PSA 9s represent the highest graded examples and one of those commanded $7,089 on eBay in April 2016.
Emerson and Mancino say the second-year Simpson single (#260) was also tough to track down in high grade. This is the first card on the left in the third and 10th rows of a print sheet. Of the 440 submitted, there has been one PSA 9, six PSA 8.5s and 42 PSA 8s. One PSA 8.5 sold for $709.99 on eBay in March 2015.
There are also five cards in this set that have yet to have a PSA 9 (or higher) example: Pat Fischer (#74), Nick Buoniconti (#147), Bill Bergey (#155), Gene Mingo (#227) and Tom Matte (#263).
Matte is also the set's final card and it was often damaged at the bottom of collector piles. The PSA 8.5 represents the highest graded example and there are just 22 PSA 8s. A PSA 8 fetched $316.27 on eBay in July 2016.
"Pop 1 PSA 10 commons from this set are going to go for between $500 and $1,000," noted Roberson.
And if you look closely, you'll also notice some uncorrected errors in this issue. The most egregious is on the Adrian Young card (#174) where the photo is actually Rick Duncan. Charley Taylor's name is also misspelled "Charlie" on his regular single (#26) and on the checklist (#27).
But these errors only make this set more appealing to its collectors who savor its wealth of Hall of Famer cards and the challenge of finding high-grade singles.
"I finished this set around 2006-2007, and at the time, there were maybe 20 guys collecting it [on the PSA Set Registry]," noted Emerson. "When I glance at the Registry now, there are 80-something sets registered."
Emerson and Roberson both believe that more people are likely to pursue this set in the future.
"The Hall of Fame rookie cards will continue to do nothing but surge; and all of the 1970s football [sets] are just beginning to come into their own," said Roberson. "I think people are really thinking of the 1970s as vintage now."
For more information on the 1971 Topps football card set, please visit http://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/football-cards/1971-topps/75.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thank you to Rich Ridgeway for providing the majority of the cards for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of November 2016.