Pre-Rookie Vintage Football Cards

Rookie card is a confusing and unfortunate term, since many of the cards we call rookie cards are not from the players' rookie seasons. Non-collectors often email me to say "you say 19xx Topps is so-and-so's rookie card, but he was a rookie in 19yy." And so I try to explain.

Adding to the confusion is the idea that a card is a rookie card only if it was printed by a major card company. Some players' first cards were part of minor or regional issues, and these are not considered their rookie cards. Because of their limited distribution, these pre-rookie cards are usually harder to find than the "official" rookie cards. Below are the pre-rookie cards of some well-known players, along with their commonly recognized rookie cards.

1926 Spalding Champions

There are 210 cards in the multi-sport 1926 Spalding Champions set. Fourteen of the Spalding cards picture football players. Eight of the fourteen football players (not counting Harry Stuhldreher, one of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen) appeared again in the 1955 Topps All-American set. The All-American cards are generally considered those players' rookie cards, so the 1926 Spaldings are pre-rookie cards.

Ernie Nevers

Ernie Nevers is one of two Pro Football Hall of Fame members in the 1926 Spalding set. Here he is on his 1926 Spalding card and his 1955 Topps All-American rookie card.

Ernie Nevers 1926 Spalding pre-rookie football cardErnie Nevers 1955 Topps All-American rookie football card

Bennie Friedman

Benny Friedman is the second Pro Football Hall of Famer in the 1926 Spalding set. Here are his Spalding card and his 1955 Topps All-American card:

Benny Friedman 1926 Spalding pre-rookie football cardBenny Friedman 1955 Topps All-American rookie football card

1946 Sears Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns were one of the eight original All-America Football Conference (AAFC) teams in 1946. Cleveland's Sears stores and WGAR radio station sponsored a set of eight Browns cards that year; they are known as 1946 Sears Browns cards. The set includes three players who made the Hall of Fame, but the three Hall of Famers did not appear in major football card issues until after the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950.

Otto Graham

Here are Otto Graham's 1946 Sears card and his commonly recognized rookie card, a 1950 Bowman.

1946 Sears Browns Otto Graham pre-rookie football card1950 Bowman Otto Graham rookie football card

Dante Lavelli

Dante Lavelli's rookie card is also in the 1950 Bowman set.

1946 Sears Browns Dante Lavelli pre-rookie football card1950 Bowman Dante Lavelli rookie football card

Frank Gatski

Frank Gatski finally appeared in a major issue in his tenth year with the Browns. His rookie card is a 1955 Bowman.

1946 Sears Browns Frank Gatski pre-rookie football card1955 Bowman Frank Gatski rookie football card

1948 Kellogg's Pep Lou Groza

Lou "The Toe" Groza, who played 21 seasons for Browns in the AAFC and NFL, appeared on a tiny 1948 Kellogg's Pep card two years before he appeared in a mainstream set. His rookie card is a 1950 Bowman.

1949 Silber's Bakery Colts Y.A. Tittle pre-rookie football card1950 Bowman Lou Groza rookie football card

1949 Silber's Bakery Colts Y.A. Tittle

Y.A. Tittle appeared on a 1949 Silber's Bakery Colts card while the Colts were still in the AAFC. Tittle's rookie card is a 1950 Bowman, issued after the AAFC folded and the Colts joined the NFL. (Thanks to Huggins & Scott Auctions for the picture of the Silber's Bakery card.)

1949 Silber's Bakery Colts Y.A. Tittle pre-rookie football card1950 Bowman Y.A. Tittle rookie football card

1953 Rams Team Issue Dick Lane

Though Dick "Night Train" Lane had 14 interceptions in his rookie year, 1952, he did not appear in a mainstream set until 1957. He did appear on a 1953 Los Angeles Rams team issue card, however. Lane's 14 interceptions is still an NFL record--and he did it in a 12-game season!

1953 Rams Team Issue Dick Lane football card1957 Topps Dick Lane rookie card

1959 Bell Brand Rams Sid Gillman

1959 Bell Brand Rams football cards were distributed in bags of Bell Brand potato chips and corn chips. They are beautiful cards, with sturdy cardboard stock and a glossy finish unlike other issues of the time. Unfortunately most of them were cut off-center, many badly. It is a challenge to find the cards at all, much less nicely centered ones.

Hall-of-famer Sid Gillman appeared in the 1959 Bell Brand set as the Rams' head coach. The next year he moved to the Los Angeles Chargers of the newly-formed American Football League. Gillman's official rookie card is in the 1960 Fleer set. I am still trying to find a PSA 9 of this card.

1959 Bell Brand Rams Sid Gillman football card1960 Fleer Sid Gillman rookie card

1961 Lake to Lake Packers

1961 Lake to Lake Packers football cards were distributed (I presume packaged with dairy products) by the Lake to Lake Dairy in Wisconsin. Half of the cards in the set are plentiful, and the other half were severely short-printed and are extremely difficult to find. I estimate that the non-short prints outnumber the short prints ten-to-one.

The set includes cards of four hall-of-famers whose "official" rookie cards were not printed for at least two more years. Of those four cards, only Herb Adderley is easily found. The other three are short prints.

Ray Nitschke

Ray Nitschke started his career in 1958, but he didn't appear on a card from a major company until 1963. Here are Ray's 1961 Lake to Lake card and his 1963 Topps rookie card:

1961 Lake to Lake Packers Ray Nitschke football card1963 Topps Ray Nitschke rookie card

Willie Wood

The official rookie card of Willie Wood is also a 1963 Topps:

1961 Lake to Lake Packers Willie Wood football card1963 Topps Willie Wood rookie card

Willie Davis

The official rookie card of Willie Davis is a 1964 Philadelphia card. He also has a pre-rookie card as a Cleveland Brown, a 1960 Kahn's Wieners card.

1961 Lake to Lake Packers Willie Davis football card1964 Philadelphia Willie Davis rookie card

Herb Adderley

Herb Adderley's rookie card is also a 1964 Philadelphia card. When they finally gave Herb a card, they misspelled his last name. And they misspelled it the next three years, too!

1961 Lake to Lake Packers Herb Adderley football card1964 Philadelphia Herb Adderley rookie card

1961 National City Bank Browns Len Dawson

Hall-of-famer Len Dawson appeared on a 1961 National City Bank Browns card two years before his 1963 Fleer rookie card. Dawson had also played for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

1961 National City Bank Browns Len Dawson football card1963 Fleer Len Dawson rookie football card

1961 Nu-Card

1961 Nu-Card football cards featured star college players, many who later went on to the NFL. While there aren't any hall-of-famers in the set, a few of the players are notable.

Ernie Davis

Ernie Davis was a Heisman Trophy winner who was drafted by the Browns and would have teamed with Jim Brown had he not contracted leukemia. Here are his 1961 Nu-Card pre-rookie card and his 1962 Topps rookie card:

1961 Nu-Card Ernie Davis football card1962 Ernie Davis rookie card

Roman Gabriel

Roman Gabriel was drafted by both the Rams and Raiders in 1962, and he opted for the Rams. His rookie card is also a 1962 Topps. (This is one of several 1962 Topps cards that picture the wrong player in the inset photo.)

1961 Nu-Card Roman Gabriel football card1962 Roman Gabriel rookie card

John Hadl

John Hadl was the starting quarterback for the San Diego Chargers for eleven years, until Dan Fouts took over. Hadl then went on to spend five more years with the Rams, Packers, and Oilers. His rookie card is a 1964 Topps.

1961 Nu-Card John Hadl football card1964 John Hadl rookie card

1962 Post Cereal

1962 Post Cereal football cards were distributed on cereal boxes and had to be cut from the boxes by hand. There are 200 cards in the set, so you had to eat a lot of cereal to collect them all. The set includes four hall-of-famers whose official rookie cards were issued in later years.

Bob Lilly

Bob Lilly's official rookie card was issued a year later, in the 1963 Topps set.

1962 Post Cereal Bob Lilly football card1963 Topps Bob Lilly rookie card

Larry Wilson

Larry Wilson's official rookie card was also in the 1963 Topps set.

1962 Post Cereal Larry Wilson football card1963 Topps Larry Wilson rookie card

Gene Hickerson

Gene Hickerson's rookie card was a 1966 Philadelphia card. He also had several pre-rookie cards in the Kahn's Wieners sets.

1962 Post Cereal Gene Hickerson football card1966 Philadelphia Gene Hickerson rookie card

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson's rookie card appeared in the 1964 Philadelphia set. Jim gave us some funny poses.

1962 Post Cereal Jim Johnson football card1964 Philadelphia Jim Johnson rookie card

1969 Glendale Stamps

The 1969 Glendale stamps and album were published by Glendale Publishers, Inc., of New York City. You can see a picture of the album on my blog. There are five Hall of Famers in the 1969 Glendale set whose stamps predate their rookie cards.

Jan Stenerud

Jan Stenerud's rookie card is a 1970 Topps.

1969 Glendale Stamp of Jan Stenerud1970 Topps Jan Stenerud rookie football card

O.J. Simpson

O.J. Simpson's rookie card is also a 1970 Topps.

1969 Glendale Stamp of O.J. Simpson1970 Topps O.J. Simpson rookie football card

Claude Humphrey

And Claude Humphrey's rookie card is a 1970 Topps.

1969 Glendale Stamp of Claude Humphrey1970 Topps Claude Humphrey rookie football card

Willie Lanier

Willie Lanier's rookie card is a 1971 Topps.

1969 Glendale stamp of Willie Lanier1971 Topps Willie Lanier rookie football card

Gene Upshaw

And Gene Upshaw's rookie card is a 1972 Topps.

1969 Glendale Stamp of Gene Upshaw1972 Topps Gene Upshaw rookie football card

1971 Kellogg's Curley Culp

Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Curley Culp appeared in at least two issues before his rookie card was released. The first pre-rookie issue, his 1971 Kellogg's card, is pictured here, alongside his rookie card, a 1973 Topps. The second, a 1972 Sunoco Stamp, is shown below.

Curley Culp 1971 Kellogg's pre-rookie football card1973 Topps Curley Culp rookie football card

1972 Sunoco Stamps

1972 Sunoco Stamps were given away at Sunoco and DX service stations with purchases of gas. The entire set is huge--624 stamps--so it is not surprising that it contains a few pre-rookie cards (or rather, stamps). Six of the pre-rookies are Hall of Fame players.

There is an update set, as well--82 more stamps!--and the update set includes Hall of Famer Jim Langer, whose rookie card is a 1973 Topps. I will post the Langer stamp here when I get one.

Jack Ham

Jack Ham's Sunoco stamp has a dark image. His rookie card is a 1973 Topps card, and it's much more attractive.

1972 Sunoco Stamp of Jack Ham1973 Topps Jack Ham rookie football card

Jack Youngblood

Jack Youngblood's Sunoco stamp also shows him in action. I'm not fond of the action shots on these stamps. The images are so small that you can't tell who the players are. Youngblood's rookie card is also a 1973 Topps.

1972 Sunoco Stamp of Jack Youngblood1973 Topps Jack Youngblood rookie football card

Art Shell

Art Shell's Sunoco stamp shows him with his helmet on, but at least you can tell it's him. His rookie card is a 1973 Topps.

1972 Sunoco Stamp of Art Shell1973 Topps Art Shell rookie football card

Dan Dierdorf

Dan Dierdorf's Sunoco stamp is a nice head-and-shoulders shot. His rookie card appears in the 1973 Topps set.

1972 Sunoco Stamp of Dan Dierdorf1973 Topps Dan Dierdorf rookie football card

Curley Culp

Curley Culp's Sunoco stamp is his second pre-rookie issue, the first being his 1971 Kellogg's card, above. As noted above, his rookie card is a 1973 Topps.

1972 Sunoco Stamp of Curley Culp1973 Topps Curley Culp rookie football card

Mel Blount

Mel Blount's Sunoco stamp was issued three seasons before his rookie card, a 1975 Topps.

1972 Sunoco Stamp of Mel Blount1975 Topps Mel Blount rookie football card

1972 Alabama Playing Cards John Hannah

Finally, Hall-of-famer John Hannah appeared on a 1972 Alabama playing card two years before his 1974 Topps rookie card.

John Hannah 1972 Alabama playing card1974 Topps John Hannah rookie football card