The old school NFL was battling the brash AFL for center stage, and pro football itself was beginning to rise in popularity among American sports fans.
For football card collectors, 1964 mirrored that turbulence. That was the year Topps lost its license to produce National Football League cards to the Philadelphia Gum Company. After producing NFL cards exclusively since 1956, Topps was forced to switch gears and produce cards of AFL players.
Fleer issued AFL cards from 1960 to 1963, but Topps gained the rights for 1964. That ’64 set doubled the size of Fleer's last set in 1963 from 88 cards to 176. The Standard Catalog of Football cards notes that the 1964 is “one of the toughest football sets of the 196os to complete.” That is especially true if one is trying to put together a high-grade set.
The biggest issue for this set was centering. Locating well-centered cards is a big challenge for collectors. Photos were not always sharp, and occasionally cards would be out of register. Plus, the photos themselves were not centered, leaving a lot of dead space. Card No. 158 (Sam Gruniesen) and No. 166 (Charlie McNeil) are perfect examples. There are almost three-quarters of an inch of space above each player’s head. Filling the photo frame did not seem to be a priority.
The large mug shots did fare better than some of the action shots, which at times were skewed to the left or right depending on the photograph. Card No. 145 of punter Mike Mercer is an example of how the action shot was tiny in relation to the overall card. Same with card No. 141 (Ken Herock). Ed Budde (card No. 93) is literally running off the left side of the card.
On the other hand, there are some nice, full frame photos in the set. Some that come to mind were Tom Flores (card No. 139), Clem Daniels (card No. 136) and Tom Nomina (card No. 57).
The other issue was the number of cards in the set. With 176 cards, approximately half of the cards are short prints. There are also two checklist cards, and card No. 176 — a short print — is extremely tough to find unmarked and in mint condition.
The design was fairly simple. Players’ photos were ringed by stars, and the background was either in yellow, blue, green or red. The player’s name, team and position were situated at the bottom of the card, with white block letters in a black box near the bottom of the card. The card backs were printed in blue, with a trivia cartoon and stats box (when appropriate) on the right-hand side. Cards are grouped by the team’s home city, with players listed alphabetically.
The photos are not bad in many cases. They are much better than some of the Philadelphia shots from the same year, which depicted members of the Cleveland Browns in an area that looked like a parking lot. Players were posing, and cars were in the background. Strange.
The 1964 Topps football set is the only one where there were team cards for all eight AFL squads. The team photo is on the front, while the back lists the head coach and some of the top players from the previous season.
There are not many key rookies in this set, although Chiefs defensive standouts Buck Buchanan and Bobby Bell made their debuts in this set. So did quarterbacks Daryle Lamonica and John Hadl and running back Matt Snell.
What carries this set are some of the big stars in the AFL that season — Cookie Gilchrist, Don Maynard, Jack Kemp, Len Dawson, George Blanda and Lance Alworth.
There are two major errors in the set. Patriots wide receiver Gino Cappelletti’s name was spelled as “Cappalletti,” and Bills defensive back Ray Abruzzese’s card (No. 22) actually showed a photo of Ed Rutkowski in a posed mug shot. Rutkowski appeared in his own card (No. 35) in a three-point stance.
Collectors buying packs of 1964 Topps got an added bonus — a sticker insert that featured team pennants. In addition to the eight AFL teams, the insert set also included 16 college football team stickers. The peel-off stickers were not numbered and were folded to fit into the pack of cards; every sticker a collector will find will have a crease.
The 1964 Topps football set is usually overshadowed by the more popular tall boy set of ’65. The key card in that set is the Joe Namath rookie, and the unusual size of the 1965 cards makes it an interesting set to collect. But the 1964 set does have some nice cards and presents a difficult, yet rewarding challenge to collectors.
1964 Topps football cards are plentiful on eBay. Click here to see them.