Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The 1958 NFL Championship Game 50 Years Later: Why the 1952 Bowman Large Football Set is Superior to the 1952 Topps Baseball Set

by Mike DeNero

** Originally published in our January Newsletter and scheduled for publication in the Spring '09 issue of SGC Collector Magazine **

Fifty years ago, the New York Giants hosted the 1958 NFL Championship Game (and the visiting Baltimore Colts) at Yankee Stadium, a game widely chronicled as the birth of the modern NFL and the greatest game ever played. Fifty years later, football has replaced baseball as our nation's favored sport. However, while football reigns in the hearts of today's fans, the vintage sportscards market certainly continues to recognize baseball as king. This counterintuitive reality perhaps can be explained, at least in part, by the great effort that Major League Baseball ("MLB") exerts to bring its history to the forefront while the NFL largely, and mistakenly, neglects to promote its own glorious past effectively.

To illustrate, more likely than not, each person reading this editorial has seen more photographs and film footage of any one of Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson or Willie Mays than they have of the twelve NFL Hall of Famers who played in the 1958 NFL Championship Game combined. This is true even though that game featured some of the greatest and most popular players in the history of pro football: Johnny Unitas, Frank Gifford, Raymond Berry, Sam Huff, Lenny Moore, Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, and Emlen Tunnell (the first African-American player enshrined in Canton). While we are aware that ESPN recently aired a colorized broadcast of the 1958 NFL Championship Game in recognition of the game's fiftieth anniversary, we also note that the broadcasts of the NFL games that occurred this past December 28th (the season's final week) paid little, if any, attention to the fact that the 1958 NFL Championship Game was played on that date, fifty years prior.

In another recent example, during FOX's broadcast of the Eagles/Giants playoff game on Sunday, January 11th, the only visual reference to that storied rivalry was a five second vignette of photographs from past games, which was shown after a commercial (the only featured photograph that was snapped prior to 1980 was the famous shot of Chuck "Concrete Charlie" Bednarik celebrating after forcing a fumble from Giants' back Frank Gifford). In contrast, FOX spent at least two minutes, in the aggregate, showing the ubiquitous, not to mention ridiculous, Fox Football Robot dancing The Swim and The Electric Slide.

Although the NFL's insufficient promotion of its glorious history is one factor keeping vintage football cards from equaling the prices of their otherwise comparable baseball counterparts, there is a second factor: tradition.

To illustrate how tradition has affected valuation, we sought to compare each sport's greatest set produced in the 1950's: the 1952 Topps Baseball Set (490 cards) (the "Topps Baseball Set") and the 1952 Bowman Large Football Set (144 cards) (the "Bowman Football Set") (although the 1957 Topps Football Set recently was chosen the "most important football set of all-time" in a recent reader poll conducted by PSA Insider, we believe that being deemed the "most important," whatever that actually means, does not necessarily equate to being the greatest).

Unquestioningly, the cards in the Topps Baseball Set are valued much more highly among collectors than those in the Bowman Football Set. But why? Is it because the Baby Boomers, who have reached and even surpassed the years of their greatest earning potential, initially drove prices to their highs? That certainly seems to be a likely cause. However, those of us who were born after 1952 have helped to maintain prices at their current levels because we have mistakenly bought into what our fathers and uncles have sold us - the unquestioned desirability and necessity of owning cards Marchetifrom the Topps Baseball Set. Perhaps there is wisdom in what Woody Allen's character, Alvy Singer, said in the film Annie Hall, "Everything that our parents told us was good for us is bad for us: sun, milk, red meat, college."

What would happen, however, if the post Baby Boomer collectors suddenly begin to rethink the valuation of the Topps Baseball Set, especially in relation to its undervalued cousin, the Bowman Football Set?

In short, we believe that if vintage card collectors question and study established card valuations, that process, coupled with an effort by the NFL to promote its glorious history more appropriately, should produce prices realized for cards from the Bowman Football Set that will equal or surpass those from the Topps Baseball Set. In support of our conclusion, we ask you to consider the following:

The Bowman Football Set features a much higher percentage of Hall of Famers as well as rookie cards of Hall of Famers.

There are 26 cards of Hall of Famers comprising roughly 5% of the Topps Baseball Set. The Bowman Football Set, however, includes 33 Hall of Famers, roughly 23% of the set. In fact, five of the twelve Hall of Famers who played in the 1958 NFL Championship are pictured (Marchetti, Donovan, Gifford, Tunnell, and Robustelli). Incidentally, Tom Landry, who roamed the sidelines as the Giants' defensive coach during the 1958 NFL Championship Game, is pictured as a Giants player.

If you are in pursuit of Hall of Famer rookie cards, you will find the Topps Baseball Set to be a barren wasteland - the set features only one such card (Eddie Mathews). To those of you who count the Mickey Mantle card as a rookie card, we point you to his only rookie card, the 1951 Bowman. In contrast to the Topps Baseball Set, the Bowman Football Set features a dozen rookie cards of Hall of Famers, close to 10% of the set.

The cards in the Bowman Football Set are generally more difficult to find.

Even considering the number of short prints in each set, the cards from the Bowman Football Set are generally more difficult to find. For example, on January 4, 2008, we conducted eBay searches for auctions and fixed price listings (we excluded Store Inventory items) for six cards (solely examples graded by PSA, SGC or BVG), three from each set. Here is what we found.

A search for each set's #1 card, Andy Pafko (Baseball) and Norm Van Brocklin (Football) yielded eight auction results for the Pafko but only one for the Van Brocklin. Yet, in the grade of a five, Pafko, who was a slightly better than average player, typically sells for more than $1,000 while Van Brocklin, a legendary Hall of Fame quarterback, typically sells for under $200.

We also compared searches for the Mickey Mantle and Frank Gifford cards, each of which features a star “rookie” card of a tremendously popular player from a New York team. Sixteen Mantles were listed compared with two Giffords. In the grade of a five, Mantle typically sells for $12,000, or more, while “The Giff” can be had for a mere $200.

Finally, we compared search results for the only Hall of Famer rookie card from the Topps Baseball Set (Eddie Mathews) with one of the many Hall of Famer rookie cards from the Bowman Football Set, that of Ollie Matson. The Eddie Mathews search yielded seven offerings while the Matson yielded two. The prices of each graded a five? Mathews typically fetches $3,000-$5,000 while Ollie Matson can be purchased for a mere $200.

In short, while each of the Bowman Football cards were much less plentiful, they can be purchased for between 5%-15% of their baseball counterparts.

The two key cards in the Topps Baseball Set are grossly overvalued.

We believe that the Bowman Football Set features one overvalued card - #144 of Jim Lansford, the set’s final card. In comparison, the Topps Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews are currently at pricing levels, which could very well drop severely, due to possible overvaluation. Furthermore, while Mickey Mantle is undoubtedly a sports icon, we believe that his 1952 Topps card is nowhere near as visually appealing as his 1951 Bowman (rookie) or even his 1952 Bowman. If you disagree, we challenge you to show all three cards to someone who is unaware of the prices they fetch and ask that person to rank them in order of visual appeal. The results may surprise you.

As for the Eddie Mathews, while we understand that his 1952 Topps rookie card is relatively tough to find in decent condition, we question the wisdom of spending $5,000 for any Eddie Mathews card graded a five. After all, more likely than not, very few people make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown and have high on their list of things to see, the plaque or various memorabilia of Eddie Mathews. No offense to Mr. Mathews, who was indeed a great player, but $5,000 for one of his cards in the grade of a five is a price that could be considerably lower in the future.

Football players were much more interesting people in 1952 than were their baseball counterparts.

While this subsection is a bit cheeky, we believe that, as a whole, football players who played in 1952 were more interesting guys than their baseball counterparts. Take a look at the biographies featured on the back of the 1950-1952 Bowman football cards. The players typically were military veterans who played on both sides of the ball (sometimes, they kicked and punted, too) and held regular jobs during the off-season. For example, the following partial snippet appears on the back of the 1951 Bowman Football Tom Landry (rookie):

“Outstanding defensive back. Also an excellent runner and passer. Averaged 44.1 [yards] on 51 punts in 1949. Played all backfield positions at the University of Texas … Extremely versatile. With an electric plating company during the off-season.”

A client once told me that when he showed the back of the Landry rookie to Bill Parcells during his tenure in Dallas, Parcells remarked, “they just don’t make players like that anymore.”

The Bowman Football Set is a more visually appealing set than the Topps Baseball Set.

Finally, we believe that the Bowman Football Set is a more visually appealing set than the Topps Baseball Set. While the contest is far from a landslide, the Topps Baseball Set features too many portrait cards with dull and drab backgrounds (e.g., Dick Groat, Ralph Houk) and many of the cards have a generally dark and dreary appearance (e.g., Yogi Berra, Willie Mays). In contrast, the Bowman Football Set features brilliant designs, colors, and players poses (e.g., Gifford, McElhenney, Halas, Marchetti, Van Brocklin, Bednarik, and Weinmeister).

In conclusion, while the Topps Baseball Set is clearly a sportscards masterpiece, we believe that the Bowman Football Set is its superior for all of the foregoing reasons. As such, if vintage card collectors begin to question established card valuations, and if the NFL begins to promote its glorious history more appropriately, the prices realized for cards from the Bowman Football Set will equal or surpass those from the Topps Baseball Set.

Copyright © 2009 Mike DeNero's Vintage Sportscards, LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I agree that the NFL does a lousy job of promoting it's history. One of the problems is football is barely the same game now compared to the 50's. You never hear of records broken from someone who played back then. Only one I know of is Don Hutson of the Packers receiving record. Therefore, most people have never heard of the oldies names. We all know the old baseball records either still standing or just recently broken (with steroids). Baseball has also changed but not nearly like football-50 year old records still stand. Mark Pearson