Background - One fact was clear going into the 1955 season, Bowman Gum was king of the football card market. The Philadelphia-based manufacturer had solidified its hold on the attention of gridiron enthusiasts through a well-conceived, black and white photo production in 1948, and followed that milestone with increasingly alluring full-color releases in each succeeding year from 1950 through 1954. It was presumed by all observers that Bowman's 1955 offering would be comparable in style and quality - and degree of success - to its immediate predecessors.
The Topps Company, meanwhile, was seeking to perpetuate the aggressive posture it had demonstrated through the first half of the decade. Its determined pursuit of candy counter market share had yielded considerable reward with the baseball theme, and the company was responsible during this period for dozens of non-sports productions covering a mind-boggling variety of topics. Not yet known was the fact that this same, proactive stance on the part of Topps toward its gum card business would result in a takeover of Bowman by the end of 1955.
It must have been frustrating for Topps during the early 1950s, as the company no doubt sensed there was a real market for football cards, but felt powerless to engage it. Bowman held an iron grip on the NFL's contract rights - and what was Topps to do? Its attempts to enter the category had been limited to a gimmicky series of tiny, part-cloth collectibles in 1950 and an equally problematic, scratch-off effort in 1951. Both of those issues featured then-current collegiate players, and the company's retrospective assessment of that very limited talent pool apparently led to a boardroom revelation as the 1955 season dawned.
"How about college players from the past? We'll find loads of big-name players if we look into the college game's history!" Having articulated a concept in this imaginary and possibly oversimplified fashion, Topps proceeded to create one of the most attractive and generally appealing card sets that's ever been associated with the football collecting specialty.
Heisman Trophy winners and Hall of Famers - some of whom had played their last down several decades ago as well as some who had recently retired - shone from the ranks of the 1955 Topps series' lineup. The set, christened "All-American," brought great college coaches to the modern public's attention, gave quite a few powerhouse college programs a moment in the sun, and showcased numerous legends who had never before appeared on a football card.
A noticeable aspect to the gallery was found in the fact that none of the players' professional teams were mentioned in any way; to avoid contractual conflicts, the athletes' illustrations, captions and referenced highlights noted only their onetime college affiliations. (This feature, far from acting as a negative, actually came to be seen as an element of "purity," and as rather charming.)
Composition - The 1955 Topps All-American set contains 100 cards. Its spectacular player selection confirms that this relatively short span of numbers is a suitable one, and it was probably just right for a year-ending sports season that wasn't as lengthy as baseball's. Into this group of 100 subjects, Topps stuffed what is arguably more "greatness," card for card, than any other production seen to date.
The college-only framework opened plenty of avenues, turning a vast group of stars into "fair game" for inclusion. Olympian Jim Thorpe, 1920s superstars "Red" Grange, "Turk" Edwards, "Fats" Henry and Beattie Feathers; standout Heisman winners who never reached the pros such as Jay Berwanger (the first Heisman Trophy recipient) and Nile Kinnick; plus greatest-ever coaches Knute Rockne and Amos Alonzo Stagg, are all represented in the special 1955 Topps array. Players who until a couple of years prior could be found in Bowman's annual regular issues included Otto Graham, Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Leo Nomellini and Alex Wojciechiwicz.
Key Features and Rarities - Topps' 100-card set was printed on press sheets that held 110 designs. Under this formula, clearly some cards would be produced in lesser quantities than others. "All-American" is home to more than 25 "Short Prints" ("SPs") who are tougher to obtain than their set-mates. Among these particularly difficult entries are Tom Harmon, Ace Parker, Mel Hein, Berwanger, Nomellini, and all of the numbers from 93 through 100 (including #97 Don Hutson and #100 Henry). The most hungered-for "SP" of all is #68, which features an especially popular depiction of all four of the players who comprised Notre Dame's 1924 backfield combo: The Four Horsemen.
All of the series' entries received "star treatment" in aesthetic terms. The prevailing-standard card dimensions of 2 5/8" by 3 5/8" were employed - none of that oddball small stuff, which Topps had tried before - and attractive border hues were used to complement each player's color-enhanced photographic image. A black and white "action" photo was placed as a tasteful backdrop to each man's likeness, and a picturesque rendering of his respective alma mater's symbol occupied one corner of every card's obverse. (A red-and-white "All American" logo, at another corner, afforded balance in design.) The cards' backs, printed in black against a two-tone blue color scheme, revealed collegiate career highlights in a paragraph of text, and a cartoon/trivia item also was featured.
There are tempting pieces for variation collectors in this set, too. The cards of Gaynell Tinsley (#14) and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice "Whizzer" White (#21) can be found with or without the back of the other man's card. A.A. Stagg's collectible is also known with an error in place. In all of these cases, the proper, "corrected" version is much more widely available.
Although no true "rarities" exist within the All-American's composition, the unremitting effects of "demand scarcity" (brought on by the issue's star power), "short printing," and general condition-sensitivity ensure that the gathering of "only" a hundred different cards isn't quite as easy as one might assume!
Bottom Line - Here's a wonderful product, which must have emerged out of the blue. 1955 Topps All-Americans form a timeless, enduring effort showcasing football history in its most exciting and favorable light. The following year would see Topps take over where Bowman would leave off, as the growing confectioner became the new leader in football card production. Though its maker quickly and pragmatically abandoned their concept, these "All-Americans" were left behind as a marvelous and indisputably "all-time" level, one-year effort.