Monday, February 22, 2010

Keith's Key Kard Korner: February 2010

1948 Leaf #54 Chuck Bednarik (Rookie Card)

Chuck Bednarik was one of the most feared and crushing tacklers in the history of professional football. Born to Slovakian emigrants, Charles Philip Bednarik played football with the University of Pennsylvania after he returned from World War II. He became a “60 Minute Man” at Penn, playing both sides of the ball – center and linebacker. Appropriately, he sported the #60 jersey, as the Philadelphia Eagles selected him as 1949’s #1 Overall NFL Draft Pick.

Hard-hitting Charlie developed a nickname, “Concrete Charlie.” Despite public perception that the nickname derived from Bednarik’s rough-tackling style, it is actually a moniker that came from his off-season occupation as a concrete salesman. As it turns out, the name fit appropriately on the field – never more so than when he made his notorious tackle on New York Giants running back Frank Gifford. Bednarik struck him so hard that “The Giff” missed the next 18 months of his career, and was never the same player again.

Chuck’s athletic abilities and inspirational play became particularly distinct in 1960 when injuries forced the Eagles to ask their 12-year veteran to again play both sides of the line, just as he had in the early part of his career. “Concrete Charlie” again fulfilled 60-minute duties terrifically. He finished the season by capping the Eagles' 1960 NFL Championship Title win over the Green Bay Packers with a last-second, title-saving tackle. With just seconds remaining, the Packers' Jim Taylor appeared to be heading for a winning Packers touchdown until the last Eagle in his path, Bednarik, wrapped him up and slammed him to the ground. In fact, Bednarik stayed on top of Taylor for a few seconds so that the final seconds ticked off the clock, making sure that the Packers could not run another play.

In retirement, Chuck’s relationship with the Eagles has been...well...pretty weird, dude. His on-again-off-again feud with current Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie stemmed from Lurie’s refusal to buy copies of Bednarik’s book for the entire team – an act that would have actually violated league rules. Bednarik’s grudge continued for years to the point where Chuck openly rooted for the Patriots to beat the Eagles in the 2005 Super Bowl! Bednarik has also openly criticized Deion Sanders when he played both sides of the ball, stating that Bednarik played tougher positions when he accomplished the feat with regularity. Chuck has since apologized and reconciled for many of the above incidents.

What kind of legacy do Chuck Bednarik’s fourteen NFL seasons leave behind? Here in 2010, the College Defensive Player of The Year Award is named “The Chuck Bednarik Award”, and Bednarik’s vintage memorabilia – along with much of vintage football memorabilia at large – has surged in value and popularity in recent years.

His 1948 rookie sports card issued by the Leaf Gum Company is enormously popular with collectors. Why would that be? Many collectors curry aesthetic favor with the sweeping artistry of the early 1950s Bowman Football cards, issued just a few years later. Comparably, it can be opined that 1948 “Leafs” simply don’t look as good with their monochrome backgrounds and the odd dichotomy of players depicted in color uniforms with black-and-white flesh portions of their body showing.

So then why is this card so popular? It’s the perfect storm of scarcity, Hall of Famer, a popular card issue, and rookie. The lack of artistic quality seems to be replaced by the quirky sort of caricature-like charm that the simple Leaf design exudes. Further, the fact that the Bednarik card is often cut “off-centered” such that the white frame surrounding the card has varying widths only heightens the pursuit of better-centered examples. It is also characteristic of any 1948 Leaf cards to have extraneous print marks and ink stains, further amplifying a hunter’s pursuit of a presentable example. The fact that Bednarik is donning his collegiate Penn Quakers uniform on the card does not at all diminish the desirability. An example graded PSA 8 brought over $38,000 in 2007. Whether seeking the Yellow Background or Orange Background variety, finding a pristine, high-grade example to surface can take years.

Concrete Charlie may not have won a lot of friends, but he won nearly everything else – two NFL Championships, a Pro Football Hall Of Fame induction, eight All-Pro Selections, 1950s All-Decade Team honors, a spot on the 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and, finally, his the retiring of his trademark #60 by the Eagles. His inaugural sports card has also won lasting adoration from modern football memorabilia collectors – one that is as hard to find as ... well ... concrete.

So who would really pay thousands for an example of a card that many concede is not aesthetically fulfilling. Well, I can think of one person who is typing on a computer right now. His initials are “KW.”

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