As a result of acquiring their competitor Bowman in February of 1956, Topps debuted its first officially NFL licensed football trading card set, made up of 120 boldly colored cards later that year. Apparently not wanting to stray too far from the Bowman formula, the 1956 Topps FB set is often accused a bearing a very similar appearance to the 1955 Bowman FB set. However, Topps did differentiate their debut set with the addition of Team Cards, an unnumbered checklist and 5 contest cards. Like its baseball counterparts, Topps utilized the “jumbo” sized card that measured 2-5/8” x 3-3/4” for the football set.
The set was issued in one series, however the Washington Redskins and Chicago Cardinal cards were short printed (or single printed) and are the most difficult cards to find in high grade. This will be discussed in more detail later.
The 12 teams of the league are each represented with nine player cards and one team card. Each team has a commonly colored background and are sequentially patterned throughout the set. The coloring and sequence is as follows:
- Washington Redskins (Dark Green)
- San Francisco 49ers (Light Blue)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (Light Green)
- Philadelphia Eagles (Yellowish Orange)
- New York Giants (Red)
- Los Angeles Rams (Red)
- Green Bay Packers (Red)
- Detroit Lions (Red)
- Cleveland Browns (Blue)
- Chicago Cardinals (Blue-Green)
- Chicago Bears (Yellow)
- Baltimore Colts (Orange)
While some may accuse the set of lacking any major rookie cards, the Lenny Moore #60 is widely considered the key rookie and card in the set. The set also contains the following HOF RCs:
- Roosevelt Brown #41
- Joe Schmidt #44
- Bill George #47
- Stan Jones #71
While the basic set is comprised of 120 cards, anyone looking to complete the master set must also track down the unnumbered checklist in addition to the 5 contest cards. As would be expected, many of these cards did not survive due to being tossed by the young collectors, and those that did survive were sent in to win prizes, or in the case of the checklist were written on to track set completion progress. As a result, these cards are very difficult to find in high grade.
The purpose of the five different contest cards were to encourage kids to guess the scores of certain games, and send them in with the possibility of winning prizes like a basketball, football or baseball glove. The contest cards are labeled 1,2,3,A or B. Early hobby lore suggested that a “C” contest card existed, however no such card has ever been found.
With the exception of the checklist and contest cards, no errors or variations exist to complete the master set.
Just to make sure proper credit is given, the majority of the information in this section is a result of the incredible work done by Mike Thomas (Nearmint). Please take the time to visit Mike’s website (www.footballcardgallery.com) to learn more of Mike’s contributions to the hobby.
For Giant sized cards, Topps historically printed 200 card sheets, made of two 100 card half sheets. However, in 1955, Topps switched to a 220 card sheets, made of two 110 card half sheets. To my knowledge, little to no 220 card sheets exist intact today. The few 110 card half sheets that do exist are still referred to as “uncut sheets” within the hobby. For the 1956 Topps football set, no 220 or 110 card sheets are publically known to exist, but shown below is an example of a 110 card half sheet from the 1956 Baseball set, which sold for $39k in a 2013 Heritage Auction:
However, there does exist some partials sheets from the Football set. Here is an example of a sheet that was recently sold in a 2013 Mile High Auction for $1000. This sheet was purchased by legendary football hobby pioneer, Joe Squires. This half sheet has all 10 columns intact, but is missing 5 rows.
The following panels are also being offered on eBay:
It is interesting to note that the larger sheet comes from the opposite half sheet as many of the smaller panels, as can be seem from the addition of the Washington Redskins cards that appear above the 49ers cards on the smaller panels. On the larger sheet, the 49ers cards make up the top row of the sheet.
Using these partial sheets, Mike Thomas of Nearmint cards was able to reconstruct a complete 220 card virtual sheet.
Below is the virtual sheet:
As can be seen, every team is double printed on the sheet, with the exception of the Redskins and Cardinals teams, which are each single printed on each half sheet. In addition to being single printed, the cards also appear on the top and bottom rows of the sheet which only adds to the difficulty in finding them in high grade.
For most of the rows, the players are ordered alphabetically, with the only exceptions being
- Redskins – (Wells/Scudero)
- Giants – (Grier/Webster)
- Rams – (Richter/Towler)
The rows are ordered alphabetically on the sheet by team city, with the Chicago Cardinals being the only exception.
The only hint of doubt that I had regarding the sheet layout was the location of the Chicago Cardinals, as no actual sheets exist to verify its location under the Baltimore Colts. To put my mind to ease, I scoured eBay to find proof that this was the case. I was able to find the following miscut example of Buddy Young:
You can see from the example that the background color of a Chicago Cardinal card is located below.
Once again, incredible work by Mike Thomas.
For the Checklist and Contest cards, it appears these cards were printed together on a separate sheet; however I’m unsure of the sheet size. Thankfully there is a pretty large population of miscuts available, so I was able to get a pretty decent idea of how an uncut row may look. Assuming that these cards were also printed on a 220/110 card sheet, here is my best guess of what an uncut row would look like:
If this virtual row is correct, you will see that twice the amount of Contest A & B cards were printed in comparison to Contest cards 1,2 & 3. As a result, the numbered Contest would be twice as difficult to find. Also, the Checklist would be triple printed in this scenario. To support my theory, I compiled the PSA population report for these cards:
As can be seen, the lettered contest cards are roughly twice as available as the numbered contest cards and the checklist is in excess of being three times available. However, I think it does make sense that more checklists would survive as they would be more useful to kids and several of the contest cards may have been submitted through the mail to get prizes.
Below are some of the miscut examples I used to compile my virtual row:
Sales & Distribution
For this set, Topps distributed the cards in the following four manners:
- 1 cent wax pack
- 5 cent wax pack
- 10 cent cello pack
- Vending boxes
The one and five cent wax packs were the most common method of distribution. The one cent pack offered a single card with a stick of gum, while the five cent pack offered 5 cards with a stick of gum. Below is a picture of the packs:
In terms of rarity, there doesn’t appear to be a big difference between the two packs, however the five cent pack tends to carry a premium, most likely due to the fact they hold 5 cards vs 1 card.
Below is an example of a 5 cent box
In 2007, Memory Lane auctioned off a full box of 5 cent packs for $12.5k
The cello pack is by far rarer than the one and five cent wax packs, and rarely are offered for sale. Besides a full cello box that was sold by REA in 2011 for $30k, I was only able to find one other auction where a single cello pack was sold. Here is the picture of the full cello box from the REA auction:
The final means of distribution was vending boxes. Topps would fill a 500 ct. box of loose cards to retailers and businesses around the country to be sold in various types of vending machines. The cards would directly be loaded into the vending machines were kids could insert pennies or nickels to buy these cards. The vending boxes and machines from this time period most likely looked like this:
In the early 1990s, there was an unopened vending find of 3-4 boxes of 1956 Topps football cards by Illinois currency dealer Don Fisher. The vending boxes were discovered in the garage of an Alexandrian, Indiana resident who sold the boxes to Fisher. The boxes were then broken up and sold throughout the hobby. Many of the high grade cards that exist today are believed to have originated from this find. Many thanks to Bob Lemke for giving me the background on this find. I was able to track down Don, who is now retired, to chat with him regarding this find.
For sales and marketing, Topps would often produce salesman samples or advertising panels to assist with this effort. The purpose of these panels were distribution to retailers and samples to show businesses who may have interest in selling the product. The 3 card panels themselves most likely were cut out of full production sheets. However, instead of the typical player biography/stats backs, they would be printed with brief description and sales pitch. Below is an example:
While it is difficult to find any sports card nearly 60 years old in high grade, the 1956 Topps Football card, in comparison to other football cards of that era, are relatively easy to find. Thanks to a heavy card stock and unopened finds like the example shared above, the 1956 Topps Football cards are the most plentiful football cards to find in high grade from the 50s, with the exception of 1959 Topps Football cards. Below is a chart comparing the number of cards submitted to PSA for grading and the resulting PSA 9s and 10s:
While fairly plentiful in high grade, the 1956 Topps football cards are not without their fair share of defects. Like most early Topps issues, centering is notoriously poor for this set. In my experience, I would estimate that less than 25% of raw cards I’ve handled have 60/40 centering or better. However, probably the condition issue most unique to this set are the printing bubbles or fisheyes. Due to the solid color background, all of the cards in this set are prone to this issue, but it seems that the 49ers and Cardinals cards suffer the worst. Here are a few examples:
Regarding the toughest cards to find in high grade, the Redskins and Cardinals cards are by far the most difficult due to them being single printed. Between the two teams, the Redskins are actually more difficult to find, most likely as a result of being located on the top row of the sheet and receiving more wear and tear during handling and cutting. However, I have an additional theory why the Cardinals cards may be more plentiful which will be discussed later.
I have read in other articles that the toughest cards in the set are #1 Carson, #120 Vessels and the unnumbered checklist. The Carson is in fact a difficult card due to it not only being single printed, but also being the first card in the set. However, the Vessels card is not difficult to find in high grade and ironically has the second high PSA population in PSA 8 and higher in the entire set. The checklist is tough, but there are several other cards in the set that are more difficult. I went through the PSA population report and summed all grades PSA 8 and higher; the top 5 most difficult cards to find in high grade are:
It is interesting to note that none of the commonly perceived “tough” cards even make the list. Below is a graph by showing population data of PSA 8 or higher by card number in ascending order:
All of the dips on the graph are due to Redskins or Cardinals cards. Labels have been added to the lowest population cards. A more interesting way to show the data is by sorting the cards by team and re-graphing:
With this graph, it can easily be seen how the Cardinals and Redskins cards are tougher to find in high grade. One interesting observation is the Cardinals team card has a population of nearly 100 in PSA 8 or higher which definitely doesn’t follow the population of the other Cardinals cards. A possible theory will be discussed later. Another interesting note is the 49ers cards have a slightly lower population than the other teams. This is most likely due to the fact these cards were printed on the top row of one of the half sheets, which would lend itself to more damage.
As I’ve collected and researched this set, there have been a few anomalies that have stood out to me that didn’t pass the sniff test. Here are a few:
- It is fairly common to see some ‘56s in oversized PSA holders that wouldn’t fit the standard holder.
- The Billy Vessels abundant availability in high grade seemed odd given it was the last card in the set.
- The George Blanda in PSA 8 or higher is nearly twice as available as any other card in the set.
- A select few of the Cardinal cards seemed to have high populations in high grade even though they were single printed.
In order to gain a better understanding of these questions, I started by taking a closer look at the oversized cards. The prevalent theory was these cards came from vending boxes. This theory never made much sense to me as I doubt that Topps would change their cutting process specifically for vending boxes and I also believe that cards being packaged in wax, cello or vending were all coming from the same sheets and cutting process. Taking a closer look, I noticed that these oversized cards were basically limited to four cards:
- Chuck Ulrich
- Buddy Young
- Bears Team Card
- Browns Team Card
Here are some examples:
Using eBay and VCP as my sample size, it appears these cards are not rare to find as oversized, but are actually readily available. I estimate that 30-40% of these cards are oversized. It is interesting to note where these cards are located on these sheet. These cards are highlighted in red in the virtual uncut sheet shown below:
As can be seen, all four of these cards are located together on the lower right portion of the sheet. As a result of these cards being cut oversized, it makes sense that it would cause issues to the other cards that were cut from the same rows. Additionally, I noticed some of the teams in these affected rows had cards with strange populations, such as Blanda, Vessels and the Cardinals team card. I compiled the population in PSA 8 and higher for the bottom four rows and highlighted any pops that seemed out of line. The Browns row didn’t have anything that seemed out of line, so I didn’t include it in the table. For the highlighted cards in the table, I then located them on the sheet and colored those cards in green on the uncut sheet above. Here is the table:
With the exception of the Vessels card, you can see that all of these anomalies are all located on the same columns.
Here is my theory (for which I have no concrete proof):
During the sheet cutting process, something became misaligned, causing the last column of card (affecting only the four bottom rows) to be cut wider than normal. The misalignment caused cards from the first 9 columns to be miscut. To fix the problem, Topps printed new sheets to replace the ruined cards, however changed the sheet layout to double print only columns 1,2,4,7, and 9 (possibly the cards which were affected the most by the original misalignment). However, on column 9, instead of printing the Bill Wightkin and Len Teeuws, Topps replaced the Wightkin cards with George Blanda and Teeuws with the Cardinals Team card, resulting in these cards being quadruple printed. As a result of the extra printing of these cards, the Blanda and Cardinals Team card would be more widely available, which is reflected in the population data. Since the Cardinal Team card was only printed on one half sheet, it doesn’t stand out as much as the Blanda card, but in comparison to the other Cardinals cards, it has a significantly higher population. Also, since the Blanda and Cardinals cards replaced the Wightkin and Teeuws, they should have lower populations in comparison to other cards on the team, which is the case as seen in the table. Also, if Topps did in fact double print the highlighted cards, it would explain why some of the Cardinals cards are easier to find than the Redskins cards. The non-highlighted Cardinal cards have pops which are very much in line with the Redskins cards.
Honestly, I know way too little about the sheet production and cutting process to know if my theory holds any water at all, but I’m convinced there is some connection between the oversized cards and screwed up population reports for the other cards that are in those rows.