Given the choice of baseball or football cards, collectors have historically gravitated toward the diamond rather than the gridiron. Baseball cards have been produced on a more consistent basis and offer more options for collectors because of the number of manufacturers.
Football does deserve bonus points for having some of the most attractive sets in card collecting. Some of the most valuable cards honor huge names in the sport’s history. The granddaddy of them all is a Bronko Nagurski card.
Who was Bronko Nagurski?
Bronko Nagurski was a college and pro football star who also had a successful career as a professional wrestler. He was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 1951 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963 – in both instances as part of the inaugural class.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound native of Canada was a two-way star at the University of Minnesota in the late 1920s, playing tackle on defense and fullback on offense. He was a consensus All-American at fullback as a senior in 1929 and made some All-America teams at tackle.
He played professionally with the Chicago Bears from 1930-37 and then again in 1943 when the team was shorthanded during World War II. Nagurski helped the Bears to a pair of NFL championships and finished with 3,947 rushing yards on 856 attempts.
The Football Writers Association of America created the Bronko Nagurski Award, presented to college football’s top defensive player, in 1993.
The story behind the Bronko Nagurski football card
The 1935 National Chicle set manufactured by a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company is considered the first nationally distributed collection consisting exclusively of football players.
The set has consistently ranked as a favorite with collectors both for being groundbreaking and for its art deco design style. Generations of collectors have become used to finding player biographies and statistics on the back of cards, but the 1935 National Chicle series instead featured tips for playing football.
The age of the card and the relatively low interest in football cards in the 1930s makes finding the Bronko Nagurski card difficult to find in any condition.
A tattered version of the card can still fetch close to $10,000. The most well-preserved version of the card known to exist sold for $240,000 in 2006 and then $350,000 in 2011. There’s a consensus that it would sell for $750,000 or more today, putting it far behind the well-known Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card that has been sold for more than $3 million.
A well-preserved Knute Rockne card from the same 1935 set is more common and valued at about $16,500.
Other valuable football cards
Surprisingly, there is a 19th-century tobacco card set containing Ivy League football players. The Mayo’s Cut Plug card of Harvard’s John Dunlop is the rarest piece of the set and impossible to find in anything other than battered condition. Its estimated value is $22,750, owing largely to the fact that the manufacturer neglected to print Dunlop’s name on the card.
As far as collectibles of a more recent vintage go, a Jim Brown card in the 1958 Topps set carries an estimated value of $275,000. The Joe Namath card from Topps’ 1965 set is a close second at $250,000 for top-notch condition.
Two 1957 Topps quarterbacks, Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas, are valued at $125,000 and $110,000 respectively.