I have long been a collector of bubble gum cards. Yes, I said “bubble gum” cards, and not trading cards, because most of the cards from the eras that I collect came with a stick of bubble gum. I was born in the early 1970s, so I didn’t have the opportunity to open packs of AFL cards when I was a kid. The first football packs that I ever opened were from the 1979 Topps set, and living in San Diego, if you got a John Jefferson card in a pack, then that gave you some serious street cred for at least a few days.
The first AFL-era cards that I collected were those of my beloved Chargers. Sid Gillman, Lance Alworth, Ernie Ladd and all of the other guys. As time passed, I expanded my collecting horizons and started to acquire cards of players from the other AFL teams as well. I then took my collection a bit further by attempting to build the autographed sets whose cards I use to illustrate so many of my blog posts. Along that line I have developed a certain fondness for particular cards. Sometimes that fondness is due to the card itself, while other times it may be because of a relationship that I have with a player, or the difficulty involved in finding a signed example of the card. Whatever the reason, these cards have brought me a lot of joy over the years.
I have given a lot of thought recently to my favorite AFL cards, and decided to put a list together. So, in no particular order, here are my 10 favorite AFL-era cards. For the purpose of this exercise I limited myself to regular-issue cards that were produced in the 1960s.
I began writing my master’s thesis on Sid Gillman in 1998, and was lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time with Sid and his wife, Esther. This was the first football card that I ever got signed for my AFL collection. I love the vintage look of the card, that it is Gillman’s rookie card, and that it represents the one year the Chargers called Los Angeles their home.
This is a great card for several reasons. First, it is Otto’s rookie card. Second, he is shown wearing #50, before changing his uniform number to his famed 00. It is the only horizontal card, at least in the AFL portion, of the ’61 Topps set. Lastly I like this set because of the rudimentary style, the cut-out player on a solid background. This set looks old to me.
Dick Christy had five cards made during his playing career, and really any one of them would suffice. Christy died on August 7, 1966, when he lost control of his car going around a turn. Dick Christy represents an unfortunate group of AFL players that passed away at a very young age, and as a result, finding autographed examples of their cards is very difficult. Additional members of this group include Coach Eddie Erdelatz (d. 1966), Frank Buncom (d. 1969), Jack Larscheid (d. 1970), Ross O’Hanley (d. 1972), Emil Karas (d. 1974), Clyde Washington (d. 1974), Jacque MacKinnon (d. 1975), Jesse Richardson (d. 1975), Jim Hunt (d. 1975), Ray Moss (d. 1976), Butch Songin (d. 1976), John Tracey (d. 1978), Dan Birdwell (d. 1978) and Bob Dee (d. 1979).
This is the card that made me decide to begin building autographed AFL card sets. Much has been said and written about Cookie Gilchrist, including a fantastic new book by Chris Garbarino. Gilchrist was a talented, tough, enigmatic back, and an AFL legend. His autographed cards are not easy to find. When I purchased this signed rookie card in a small collection many years ago, it sparked an interest in me to try to get the whole 1963 Fleer set signed.
I have been fortunate to work with Lance Alworth on several projects over the years. Lance has always been very kind, and my kids all love to go visit “Mr. Lance” because they know that they will walk out of his office with a soda and a big bag of candy. Like the Gilchrist card above, this rookie card comes from the 1963 Fleer set, which, in my opinion, is one of the two top AFL card sets.
This card was a challenge to get signed, which is why I like it. I had written to Barry twice, asking him to sign my card. Both times proved fruitless. Then I learned about a Broncos Alumni event that Barry was scheduled to attend in Denver. I emailed an old college lacrosse teammate of mine and told him the situation. He agreed to go to the event and get the card signed for me. So I shipped him the card and a $20 to get a few beers on me. He called me the evening of the event, to tell me that he had met with Barry, who was a very nice guy and gladly signed the card. Thinking of that story makes me smile every time I see this card.
Easily the most recognized of the all AFL cards is the Joe Namath rookie card. Namath’s effect on the AFL and professional football in general was huge, which helps to keep this card in constant demand regardless of condition. Having Namath add his signature to such a desirable card is like fingernails on a chalkboard to some collectors, but it was an easy decision for me.
Truthfully, I’m not pulling your leg with this one. In each of its packs of 1966 football cards, Topps also inserted a cardboard “Funny Ring.” These rings displayed tacky subject matter, and had absolutely nothing to do with football. However, card #15 in the 1966 Topps football set is a checklist dedicated to these funny rings. It had no idea who I should have sign this particular card, until a friend and fellow collector suggested that I ask Sy Berger. Berger was a 50-year employee of the Topps company, and credited with designing many of their card sets. So with the help of another friend, I was able to have Sy Berger autograph my Funny Ring Checklist.
This card features one of the great AFL characters. Wahoo McDaniel played guard and linebacker for the Oilers, Broncos, Jets and Dolphins. He was a rough-and-tumble kind of guy, the only AFL’er to have his first name on the back of his jersey. McDaniel began a second career as a professional wrestler in the football off-seasons, and continued to wrestle under the name of Chief Wahoo, long after retiring from football.
This card is one of my favorites for two reasons. First, is that I knew very little about Sonny Bishop when I first wrote and asked him to sign my card. But when the card came back to me in the mail, I found that Bishop had written me back, and talked all about growing up in my hometown of La Mesa. It turned out that we had gone to the same high school, though some 40 years apart. Secondly, I like this card because it has a pink background. My four-year-old daughter likes to sit in my lap sometimes, and look through my binders of cards to find “pink cards.” It is a funny, but sweet way for us to connect over something that probably would not interest her otherwise.