Chicago's Greatest Sports Legends
A List of Must-Have Rookie Cards
By Kevin Glew
A lot of championship banners have been raised in Chicago in the past 30 years.
Since 1989, the city's teams have secured 11 titles in the four major professional sports (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL), which is the second-most by a U.S. city to Boston (which has 12) during that span.
On top of the six NBA championships captured by the Bulls, the Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups, the White Sox were triumphant in the 2005 World Series and the Cubs finally extinguished the "Curse of the Billy Goat" in the 2016 Fall Classic.
It's not surprising then that some of the greatest athletes in professional sports history have showcased their talents in the Windy City. And with the National being held in Chicago this year, it's a good time to examine some of the most desirable cards of sports legends that have starred in Chi-Town.
1935 National Chicle Bronko Nagurski #34
After an outstanding collegiate tenure at the University of Minnesota, Bronko Nagurski began his professional career with the Bears in 1930. Over the next eight seasons, the talented full back who, at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, was one of the biggest players of his era, was a four-time First Team All-Pro who would help lead the Bears to three NFL championships. One of his finest seasons was in 1932 when he topped the circuit in rushing touchdowns. Nagurski also had a successful career as a pro wrestler. For his success on the gridiron, his No. 3 was retired by the Bears and he was named to the NFL 1930s All-Decade Team. In 1963, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His 1935 National Chicle card (#34) has been hailed as the "Honus Wagner" of football cards. This card is a short print and is extremely difficult to find centered.
"That's the Holy Grail of football cards," said Mike Faruq, who owns a large collection of PSA-graded Bears cards but not yet a Nagurski.
Of the 181 submitted, there has been one PSA MINT 9, one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5 and six PSA NM-MT 8s. A PSA NM 7 sold for $38,240 in a Heritage Auctions sale in November 2016.
1954 Topps Ernie Banks #94
Ernie Banks would play 19 seasons in the Windy City, belting 512 home runs and recording 2,583 hits. Competing in the National League against Willie Mays, Duke Snider and Roberto Clemente, the man who became known as "Mr. Cub" captured two National League MVP awards (1958, 1959). When an ailing knee forced him to move from shortstop to first base in 1961, he continued to be a prolific slugger, smashing 37 homers in 1962. Despite his heroics, however, the 14-time All-Star retired without participating in the post-season. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, and in 1982, his No. 14 was retired by the Cubs. Banks passed away in January 2015 at the age of 83.
Mark Wagner, who owns a massive collection of PSA-graded Cubs cards, says Banks' 1954 Topps card (#94) is the most coveted Cubs rookie. Fellow hardcore Cubs collector Joe Lill agrees.
"I can't think of any other Chicago baseball rookie card that's in the category of the Banks rookie," said Lill.
The white background and abÂsence of distinct borders on the front of this card make it hard to evaluate the centering. Of the 4,031 submitted, there have been just two PSA GEM-MT 10s and 14 PSA 9s. One PSA 9 fetched $74,400 in a Memory Lane auction in May 2018.
1958 Topps Bobby Hull #66
After making his NHL debut in the 1957-58 season at the tender age of 18, Bobby Hull would blossom into a full-blown star by this third NHL season (1959-60), when he topped the league in scoring. The following year he led the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup victory since 1938. In his 15 seasons with the Hawks, the Canadian left-winger won three scoring titles, two Hart trophies (as league MVP) and was a First-Team All-Star 10 times.
In 1972, he signed with the Winnipeg Jets of the upstart WHA when the owners of that league pooled their money to offer him pro hockey's first million-dollar contract. During his seven campaigns in the WHA, he notched four 50-goal seasons, was named the league MVP twice and was part of three championship-winning teams. For his efforts, Hull was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983 and his No. 9 was retired by both the Blackhawks and the Jets.
Hull's most sought-after pasteÂboard is his 1958 Topps rookie (#66). This card is hard to find with proper centering. It was also the last card in the set, which meant that it often sustained additional damage being on the bottom of collector piles. Of the 429 evaluated, there has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just two PSA 9s and seven PSA 8s. One PSA 8 commanded $102,000 in a Robert Edward Auctions sale in May 2017.
1960 Topps Stan Mikita #14
One of the best centers of the 1960s, this Blackhawks star topped the NHL in scoring four times and won two Hart trophies that decade. At the beginning of his career, Stan Mikita was one of the NHL's most penalized players, but he altered his game and later won the Lady Byng Trophy (awarded for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct) twice.
A six-time First-Team All-Star, the 5-foot-9 center became the first player to capture three major NHL awards (Art Ross Trophy, Hart and Lady Byng) in the same season. For good measure, he duplicated the feat the following campaign. Mikita spent his entire 22-season NHL career with the Blackhawks and holds franchise records for points, assists and games. Along with Hull, he helped lead the Hawks to a Stanley Cup title in 1961. For his efforts, he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983. He died in August 2018 at the age of 78.
"The only Hawks jersey I own is a Mikita jersey," said Wagner.
Mikita's 1960 Topps rookie (#14) pictures him in a posed shot in the middle of a multi-colored background. The top right and bottom left panels of the background are white and particularly difficult to find clean. The borders are also white, which makes it tough to discern whether or not the card is properly centered.
Of the 305 submitted, there have been three PSA 9s, two PSA 8.5s and 53 PSA 8s. One PSA 8 sold for $1,000 on eBay in January 2018.
1961 Topps Ron Santo #35 & 1961 Topps Billy Williams #141
It's difficult to choose between these two Hall of Famer rookie cards, so we've decided to list them together.
Signed by the Cubs in 1959, Ron Santo made his big league debut the following year. Despite being diabetic, the multi-talented third baseman was remarkably durable during his 15-year big league career. In 14 seasons with the Cubs, Santo was a nine-time All-Star and won five Gold Gloves. In each season from 1963 to 1970, he recorded over 90 RBIs, making him the only third baseman to notch eight consecutive 90-RBI campaigns. In 1972, he became just the second third baseman in big league history (Eddie Mathews was the first) to belt 300 home runs.
After spending his final season with the cross-town White Sox in 1974, Santo completed his career with 2,254 hits, 342 home runs and 1,331 RBIs. Unfortunately, like Banks before him, he never played in the post-season. Later, Santo's 21 seasons as a broadcaster would endear him to a new generation of fans. He passed away in December 2010 at the age of 70 and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Golden Era (Veterans) Committee in 2011.
Born in Whistler, Alabama, in 1938, Billy Williams grew up in the same area as Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey. In his first full, big league season in 1961, he socked 25 home runs and recorded 86 RBIs to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. The left-handed hitting outfielder evolved into a steady offensive force with the Cubs, at one point playing 1,117 consecutive games. In 1970, he put together one of the best seasons in Cubs history when he hit .322 and belted 42 homers. He followed that up by hitting .333 in 1972 to win the National League batting title.
Despite suiting up for 2,213 games with the Cubs, Williams never competed in the post-season for the club. In October 1974, he was dealt to the Oakland A's, where he would finally participate in the playoffs, serving as a DH in the 1975 American League Championship Series. In all, in 2,488 major league games, Williams hit .290, belted 426 home runs and drove in 1,475 runs. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
Both Santo and Williams made their cardboard debuts in the 1961 Topps set. Veteran Cubs collector Tom High says Santo is probably a little more popular than Williams in Chicago. But the Williams rookie is more elusive in top grade. Poor centering regularly hampers this card.
"I had trouble finding a PSA 9 of the Williams card," said Wagner.
Of the 3,004 Williams cards submitted, there have been just two PSA 10s and 50 PSA 9s. Meanwhile, of the 2,615 Santo rookies graded, there are 15 PSA 10s and 105 PSA 9s. One PSA 9 Williams rookie sold for $1,580 on eBay in September 2018, while a PSA 9 Santo fetched $899 in January 2019.
1962 Topps Mike Ditka #17
Drafted in the first round by the Bears in 1961, "Iron Mike" Ditka won NFL Rookie of the Year honors. In his 12-year NFL playing career, the menacing tight-end was a five-time Pro Bowler and four-time First-Team All-Pro. After a six-season tenure with the Bears to begin his career, Ditka suited up for the Philadelphia Eagles before winning a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys (Super Bowl VI).
Following his playing career, he enjoyed a successful stretch on the sidelines, first as an assistant coach with Dallas and later as head coach of the Chicago Bears. He collected two more Super Bowl rings as a coach - one as an assistant with the Cowboys (Super Bowl XII) and later as head coach of the Bears (Super Bowl XX). The two-time NFL Coach of the Year is one of only two people (along with Tom Flores) to have won an NFL title as a player, assistant coach and head coach. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.
Ditka's 1962 Topps rookie (#17) boasts fragile black borders that are susceptible to chipping. It's also regularly found with poor centering.
"That's an extremely tough card," said Faruq. "In fact, the only one I had graded a PSA [VG] 3."
Of the 834 evaluated, there have been four PSA 9s, one PSA 8.5 and 52 PSA 8s. One PSA 9 sold for $72,000 in a Robert Edward Auctions sale in May 2017.
1966 Philadelphia Dick Butkus #31 & 1966 Philadelphia Gale Sayers #38
Similar to the Santo and Williams cards in the 1961 Topps Baseball set, these two gridiron legends made their cardboard debuts in the same offering.
Selected in the first round of the 1965 NFL draft, the hard-hitting Dick Butkus developed into the most feared tackler in the league's history. In his nine NFL seasons, Butkus was an eight-time Pro Bowler, a six-time First-Team All-Pro and a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. At the time of his retirement, he held the NFL record for fumble recoveries (27) by a defensive player. For his efforts, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility. Following his playing career, he stayed in the spotlight in a commentator's role and various endorsement and acting gigs.
Gale Sayers was selected right after Butkus in the first round of the 1965 NFL draft. In his rookie campaign, he scored a record 22 touchdowns - including six in one rainy contest against San Francisco on December 12 - and was named the NFL's top rookie. He followed that up by leading the NFL in rushing yards in 1966. Unfortunately, in 1968, he suffered a devastating injury to his right knee. Many felt he would never recover, but he returned in 1969 to top the NFL in rushing again and earn comeback player of the year honors. Sayers would injure his left knee in 1970 and, after an unsuccessful comeback attempt in 1971, he opted to retire. In his abbreviated NFL career, Sayers was named a First-Team All-Pro five times and toiled in four Pro Bowls. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
The Butkus single is far more elusive in mint condition than the Sayers card, but both singles are frequently found with poor centering and chipping on the green borders on the card backs.
Of the 1,180 Butkus rookies evaluated, there have been eight PSA 9s, four PSA 8.5s and 145 PSA 8s. One PSA 9 sold for $31,915 in a Goldin Auctions sale in August 2018. In contrast, there are 33 PSA 9, 15 PSA 8.5 and 330 PSA 8 Sayers rookies of the 2,232 submitted. One PSA 8 fetched $4,256 in a Goldin Auctions sale in December 2018.
1976 Topps Walter Payton #148
Walter Payton was an All-American running back at Jackson State, before being selected fourth overall by the Bears in 1975. He spent
his entire 13-year NFL career with the Bears, toiling in nine Pro Bowls, winning the MVP award twice and leading Chicago to a victory in Super Bowl XX. At the time of his retirement, he held the NFL record for most rushing yards (16,726). For his efforts, his No. 34 was retired by the Bears and he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Six years later, Payton passed away from a rare liver disease when he was just 45.
"You can't be a Bears collector and not have a Walter Payton rookie," said Faruq. "That's like being a Cleveland Browns collector and not having Jim Brown."
Lill offers a similar assessment.
"If I had to pick one Bears football card, I'd have to go with the Payton rookie because I think that card is historically a hard one to get in a [PSA] 10," said Lill.
The Hall of Fame running back's 1976 Topps rookie (#148) is often plagued by poor centering, print defects and corner wear. Of the 8,487 submitted, there have been 51 PSA 10s. One PSA 10 sold for $14,060 in a Memory Lane auction in December 2018.
1983 Topps Ryne Sandberg #83
Selected by the Phillies in the 20th round of the 1978 draft, Ryne Sandberg was dealt to the Cubs with Larry Bowa for Ivan DeJesus on January 27, 1982, in one of the most lopsided deals in big league history. Sandberg enjoyed a breakout year with the Cubs in 1984, hitting .314, belting 19 homers and stealing 32 bases. His emergence that season propelled the Cubs to their first post-season appearance since 1945. For his efforts, he was named the National League MVP.
Over his next 12 seasons, Sandberg evolved into one of the most complete players of his generation, stealing more than 30 bases in a season five times, while also becoming the first second baseman to hit 40 home runs in a season since 1973. He finished with 282 homers, including 277 as a second baseman, which was a record until Jeff Kent surpassed it in 2004. The 10-time All-Star was also an elite fielder, winning nine straight Gold Gloves from 1983 to 1991. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.
High and Lill say the fact that Sandberg never left the Cubs during his playing career has endeared him to the fans in the city.
"Sandberg was a Cub his whole career, other than coming up as a Phillie," said Lill. "Everything he did was as a Cub."
Sandberg's 1983 Topps single (#83) is his most renowned rookie. This card is sometimes found with centering issues and print flaws. Of the 12,787 submitted, there have been 590 PSA 10s. One fetched $377 on eBay in February 2019.
1986 Fleer Michael Jordan #57
Michael Jordan is still widely considered the best player in NBA history. That's remarkable when you consider that he couldn't crack his high school team as a sophomore. But that slight is largely responsible for his legendary competitive spirit, and it helped him earn a basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina. In the 1982 NCAA championship game, Jordan sank the winning shot against Georgetown as a freshman. Following his junior year, he entered the NBA draft and was chosen third overall, but he wasn't projected to be an offensive force. He quickly proved his detractors wrong by scoring 28.2 points per game in his rookie campaign.
From there, Jordan developed into the biggest sports star in the world. He eventually earned six NBA championship rings and set career records for most points per game during the regular season (30.12) and playoffs (33.45). A five-time NBA MVP and 14-time All-Star, he also won two Olympic gold medals (1984, 1992) and 10 NBA scoring titles. On top of his statistical accomplishments, Jordan revolutÂionized his sport. His dunks became posters and his affiliation
with Nike made his shoes must-have footwear around the world. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
His 1986 Fleer rookie (#57) is the most widely coveted hoops rookie ever manufactured.
"His card should probably be at the top of the list," noted Wagner.
Fragile red and blue borders and poor centering can make this card difficult to uncover in top grade. Of the 18,098 submitted, there have been 304 PSA 10s. One PSA 10 sold for $21,100 on eBay in January 2019.
1988 Fleer Scottie Pippen #20
Selected in the first round by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1987, Scottie Pippen was dealt to the Bulls and would develop into one of the best small forwards in NBA history and the second biggest star on their six championship-winning teams of the 1990s. During his 17-season NBA career, he earned six championship rings, was a seven-time All-Star, an eight-time NBA All-Defensive First-Team member and a three-time NBA First-Team All-Star. He also picked up gold medals with the U.S. Olympic teams in 1992 and 1996 and remains the only player to have won an NBA title and an Olympic gold medal in the same year twice. His No. 33 was retired by the Bulls and he was elected to Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
"Without Scottie Pippen, I don't think all of those championships would have happened," said Faruq, a long-time Chicago resident. "Put it this way - there wouldn't have been six. He was a lockdown defender."
His 1988 Fleer rookie (#20) is readily available in high grade, but there's sometimes chipping on the side borders which vary in color from light to dark gray. This card is also sometimes found off-center. Of the 6,232 submitted, there have been 207 PSA 10s. One PSA 10 sold for $438 on eBay in February 2019.
1990 Topps Frank Thomas (No Name on Front) #414
Born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1968, Frank Thomas was a multi-sport star in high school and earned a football scholarship to Auburn in 1986. He would play tight end for the football team for one season, before focusing exclusively on baseball. In 1989, the White Sox selected him seventh overall in the draft. After hitting .330 in 60 big league games in 1990, Thomas followed that up with his first of an unprecedented seven consecutive seasons in which he batted at least .300, belted 20 homers, scored 100 runs, drove in 100 runs and walked 100 times.
A five-time All-Star with the White Sox, Thomas captured back-to-back American League MVP awards in 1993 and 1994 and won a batting title in 1997. In parts of 16 seasons with the White Sox, he established franchise records in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage. In all, "The Big Hurt" belted 521 home runs and hit .301 in 19 seasons. His No. 35 was retired by the White Sox in August 2010 and he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.
His regular 1990 Topps rookie (#414) is easy to uncover in pristine form, but a rare error version of this card without Thomas's name on the front (NNOF) is his most desirable rookie.
"There was a guy here in Michigan that was buying every box of 1990 Topps baseball cards just so he could find one Frank Thomas [no name card]," said High.
So far, 206 of the NNOF rookies have been graded by PSA and there's just one PSA 10. A PSA 8 sold for $4,800 on eBay in July 2018.
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1902-11 W600 Sporting Life Cabinets Mordecai Brown
1902-11 W600 Sporting Life Cabinets Johnny Evers
1902-11 W600 Sporting Life Cabinets Frank Chance
1902-11 W600 Sporting Life Cabinets Joe Tinker
1925 M114 Baseball Magazine Ted Lyons
1933 Goudey Sport Kings Red Grange #4
1934 Goudey Luke Appling #27
1948 Leaf Sid Luckman #1
1948 Leaf Clyde "Bulldog" Turner #3
1950 Bowman Nellie Fox #232
1951 Bowman Billy Pierce #196
1952 Bowman Large George Halas #48
1952 Topps Minnie Minoso #195
1956 Topps Luis Aparicio #292
1956 Topps Bill George #47
1957 Topps Glenn Hall #20
1969 O-Pee-Chee Tony Esposito #138
1977 Topps Bruce Sutter #144
1981 O-Pee-Chee Denis Savard #63
1981 Topps Harold Baines #347
1981 Topps Dan Hampton #316
1982 Topps Lee Smith #452
1983 Topps Mike Singletary #38
1985 Topps Richard Dent #316
1985 Topps Traded Ozzie Guillen #43T
1987 Donruss Greg Maddux #36
1988 Score Traded Mark Grace #80T
1990 Leaf Sammy Sosa #220
2000 SP Authentic Brian Urlacher #122
2007 UD The Cup Patrick Kane #185 - Auto/Patch #/99
2007 UD The Cup Jonathan Toews #190 - Auto/Patch #/99
Author's Note: To keep this list to a manageable size, we excluded cards of Chicago stars whose rookies did not picture them with a Chicago team (e.g., Fergie Jenkins is a legendary Cubs pitcher, but he is pictured with the Phillies on his rookie card).
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For more information on trading cards featuring these athletes, please visit PSA CardFacts.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Please note the PSA Population Report statistics and Set Registry rankings quoted are as of June 2019.