Topps returned to the forefront of football cards in 1968, as it reclaimed rights to print cards of not only NFL players and retained its AFL players too. Football collectors would be treated to a Hall of Fame lineup.
For the first time since 1961, one Topps set contained players from each league. Topps had lost its right to issue cards of NFL players in 1964 when the Philadelphia Gum Company took over production. Topps grabbed the rights to AFL cards that Fleer had held in the early years of the upstart league and printed those players from 1964 to 1967.
But by 1968, Topps was back in control with a set that increased to 219 cards — an odd number, to be sure, and the first Topps set to top 200 cards — but it is chock full of Hall of Famers.
Stars and Hall of Famers
Bart Starr, just off a second Super Bowl MVP award, kicks off the set at No. 1. Among the other Canton dwellers are Paul Warfield (No. 49), Joe Namath (No. 65), Gale Sayers (No. 75), Johnny Unitas (No. 100), Bob Hayes (No. 103), Dick Butkus (No. 127), George Blanda (No. 142), Len Dawson (No. 171) and Bob Lilly (No. 181).
Why do some collectors consider this a great 1960s set? Look at the Hall of Famers stacked from Nos. 160 t0 169: Jim Taylor (160), Fran Tarkenton (161), Mike Ditka (162), Larry Wilson (164), Paul Krause (166), Fred Biletnikoff (168) and Don Maynard (169).
There are several more in this set, which makes it fun to collect.
Rookie Cards, Heisman Winners…and Politicians
What also makes this set stand out are the rookie cards. They include Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart (No. 60), Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton (No. 155), Steelers linebacker Andy Russell (No. 163), Packers running back Donny Anderson (No. 209) and two more Hall of Famers — Broncos running back Floyd Little (No. 173) and Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese (No. 196).
The set also included two former Heisman Trophy winners (John David Crow and Billy Cannon) and a future politician (Jack Kemp). 1968 also marked the final cards from the playing careers of Ditka and Taylor.
The card design for the 1968 Topps football set is fairly simple. Players are shown in posed shots, and most of those cards are displayed in a vertical design. There is a team logo in one of the upper front corners of the card, and the player’s name and position are in white block letters against a color back ground at the bottom of the card. Thin blue lines run across the card top and down each side — but not across the bottom. The photo and blue lines are framed by a white border.
The card backs featured the player’s name at the topof the card, with the card number to the left of the name. The rest of the upper half was reserved for statistics from the previous year and career numbers, and a short paragraph gave the collector a compact player description. The bottom half of the card was a cartoonish football icon that either displayed football highlights or had a place where fans could rub a coin to reveal a fun stat about the player.
Super Bowl Teams Turned Horizontal
Exceptions to the vertical design are players from Super Bowl II — the champion Green Bay Packers and the Oakland Raiders — who are displayed in a horizontal format. Those card fronts also include a yellow background that shows a cartoon drawing of a player in action. The cartoon does not necessarily match the player. In Biletnikoff’s case, for example, the cartoon depicts a running back (No. 20) running the ball, while No. 87 blocks for him. Biletnikoff was No. 25 with the Raiders.
Some of the cards of the Packers and Raiders feature puzzle backs, which form poster-like photographs of Starr and Dawson.
Distribution and Numbering
The 1968 set was printed in two series, with the first containing cards 1 through 131; Nos. 132 through 219 made up the second series. The card backs have green ink for lettering in the first series, while the lettering is blue in the second series. Card No. 219, the second series checklist, has blue and green variations.
Puzzle backs were part of the second series.
In 1968, Topps abandoned the practice of grouping players together by team for its checklists, instead going for a random mix. That was more in line with Topps’ habit of putting key players in “prime” numbers — Starr at No. 1, Don Meredith at 25, Sayers at 75, Unitas at 100 — but the practice was not exercised consistently in this football set. Kemp was No. 149, right behind Art Graham at No. 150. No knock on Graham, who caught 20 touchdown passes in his six-year career with the Boston Patriots, but Kemp was a lot more famous — and his card is far more coveted.
Five-cent wax packs of Topps ’68 football contained inserts in each series. Full-color mini-posters were part of the first series. They were similar to the posters Topps issued the same year in its baseball product and measured 5 inches by 7 inches. The posters included action shots of 16 players on the front, and the backs were blank.
The second series included a standup set, featuring 22 players including Namath, Meredith, Jurgensen and a few other notables. They’re very condition-sensitive because of the nature of the card, the thin stock, poor centering and the red borders at the bottom.
There are two notable errors in the main set. Card No. 12, of Raiders defensive back Kent McCloughan, is spelled “McLoughlan” on the card back. Card No. 70, depicting Dick Van Raaphorst, shows his name spelled as “Vanraaphorst” on both the card front and back.
1968 Topps Football Set Values
The value of complete sets varies greatly based on condition but a near mint type set will sometimes cost $800 and up. Sets with cards that are generally closer to EX can sometimes be had for half of that or less.
Centering is sometimes a problem for collectors seeking high-grade cards, but the content of the 1968 football set is outstanding. Topps, by being able to secure the rights to both the NFL and AFL card distribution, was able to enjoy a golden age of success, as the league merger in 1970 put the NFL on the fast lane to becoming the most popular sport in the United States.