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Friday, September 17, 2010

1955 Topps Football: All-American Classic


The following article was written by Dean and published in the September 24th, 2010 issue of Sports Collectors Digest.

The 1955 Topps All-American football card set was the most innovative, well-designed, strategically produced and marketed vintage card sets of all-time. It is a snapshot back in time that showcases the early heroes of the game and the set continues to increase in popularity over the years. Interestingly enough, Topps would have never conceived the All-American set if it were not for the Topps-Bowman gum war of the early 1950’s.

Some historical perspective

It was only three years since Topps had launched its surprise attack on the Philadelphia-based Bowman Gum Company and shook up the card collecting hobby with the 1952 Topps Baseball Card Set. The 1952 Topps Baseball Card Set (as detailed in my article in the August 13, 2010 issue of SCD) had catapulted Topps into a lead over Bowman in the baseball card market that they would never relinquish.

By 1955, Topps and Bowman were locked in a life or death struggle over the largest and most-profitable niche of the gum card market –baseball cards. Topps and Bowman cards uneasily sat side-by-side on every local candy counter across America – each desperately trying to grab the attention of boys that would appear every day after school with coins in their hand.

Production costs were high for both Bowman and Topps because of the competitive environment. Since the Baseball or Gum Card War had begun in 1952, Bowman was forced to make their cards bigger and better. The nickel packs now contained seven cards instead of five. Both companies were under pressure to out-design, out-produce, out-innovate and out-market the other company to order to survive.

It had become clear to both companies that the gum card market would be much more profitable with only one company making cards. Unlike many industries, a monopoly could be achieved because the most popular product – the professional athletes - could be signed to exclusive contracts that courts
would uphold.

If a monopoly could be re-established, kids would only have one type of baseball and football card to buy and that company would get all the sales. The winning company could steadily reduce design, production and marketing costs and increase the price of the product.

Topps’ Challenge

Topps baseball cards had a dominant position on candy counters across America’s five and dime shops during spring and summer– but the fall months were a different story. Bowman was the undisputed king of the football card market because it owned the NFL’s contract rights.

Topps made a half-hearted attempt to enter the football card category with an ill-conceived cloth set in 1950 and a scratch-off set in 1951. By 1955, Topps had much more at stake. Topps was now the leader in the gum card market and achieved that status by consistently releasing quality products.

Another problem in 1950 & 1951 was that Topps could not use NFL players on the cards and decided to produce images of the current collage stars. The 1950 & 1951 Topps football offerings were much like trying to make chicken salad without any chicken. These early Topps football sets were flops and have been pretty much ignored by collectors – both then and now.

Football was steadily gaining popularly during the decade of the 1950’s. Surrendering the field of battle (or in this case the candy counter) to their nemesis every fall was very frustrating to Topps.

As a stop-gap measure, Topps produced some very creative and well-designed non-sports cards: such as the World of Wheels and Who-Z-at-Star sets in 1953, the Wings and Scoops in 1954, and the Rails & Sails set in 1955. These Topps issues were clearly superior to the Bowman non-sport sets and sold fairly well in the first couple of months of the year - but no non-sport card could hope to compete with football cards in the fall.

Bowman was clearly buckling from the sales beating that it had been taking over the last few years and Topps was eagerly looking for a way to finish off its competitor. By 1955, it became apparent to Topps that football card sales were the only thing keeping the Bowman Gum Company alive.

The stage was set. Topps had to do something to cut into Bowman’s last remaining profitable category and they responded with their typical aggressiveness.

Topps steps onto the Gridiron

Competition almost always benefits the consumer because it forces companies to innovate their product offerings in order to survive. By featuring great college players of the past, every one of 100 cards in the 1955 Topps All-American Football Set was a college gridiron superstar. Collectors found this a refreshing change from opening a pack of cards with unknown common players.

Legally prohibited from issuing cards of any of the then current NFL players, Topps filled the set with Heisman Trophy winners and retired Pro-Football Hall-of-Fame Players. Topps totally avoided any mention of a player’s professional team, statistics or highlights. Topps turned a negative into a positive and their dedication to a purely collegiate theme made for an extremely focused set of cards.

The design of the 1955 Topps All-American cards is a thing of beauty and is by far the most attractive football card printed up to that time. The Topps All-American football set was printed on the then standard 2 5/8 inch by 3 5/8 inch “vintage card” size that was currently being used by both manufacturers for the last few years. The All-American cards have a standard white outer border, highlighted by a colorful inner border. Inside that is an innovative black and white action photo of a football game. These photos purposely resemble the view that one would have watching a game on a 1955 television set.

The black & white photos on the 1955 Topps All-American set is a fantastic backdrop and make the large, attractive color enhanced photo of each man appear to jump off the card. Somewhat surprisingly, these are random black & white action photos and do not particularly relate to the player on the card or his college team. It was evidently too big of a challenge to find interesting photos that related to each of the 100 different subjects.

Each card front also has a small square containing the name and symbol of the player’s alma mater in one of the upper corners and the red, white and blue All-American logo on the opposite corner of the card. The white border is thicker at the bottom of each card to allow room for the man’s name and position. The card backs have two different tones of blue, with black print highlighting the man’s collegiate career and a cartoon containing a piece of football trivia.

Jim Thorpe is in the Hall of Fame of professional football,
college football, the US Olympics, and track & field.
The 1955 Topps All-American set is a Who’s Who of early American football stars. The set features early stars such as: #27 Red Grange, #38 Turk Edwards, #98 Beattie Feathers, #100 Fats Henry and #37 Jim Thorpe – who is also famous for his Olympic heroics. Also included is the first Heisman Trophy winner – #78 Jay Berwanger and legendary coaches #16 Knute Rockne and #38 Alonzo Stagg. Topps was even able to legally sneak in a few former professional stars who were featured on Bowman cards a few years earlier - such as: #12 Otto Graham, #20 Sammy Baugh, #29 Leo Nomellini and #85 Sid Luckman.

The distribution of the 1955 Topps All-American card set was as well done as it’s design. The football season was short and this was a new category for Topps, so they kept the distribution simple to avoid mistakes and problems – one simple 100 card series.

Bowman sales suffered

Now that they had a product, Topps put forth a very aggressive marketing plan. The 1955 All-American “Nickel Pack” contained an unheard of 9 cards – compared to the 7 cards in each Bowman pack. It was clear that Topps primary objective was to disrupt Bowman profits and knock them out of the market - rather than make profits for the company.

Bowman had done very little to innovate their football card design after fully switching to larger card size in 1952. It is clear that the 1955 Bowman football card sales were impacted, as the higher numbered cards are available in smaller numbers.

The DeansCards.com inventory verifies that Bowman clearly reduced production of the 2nd Series in response to softer than expected sales. Currently, the DeansCards.com inventory has 1955 Bowman Football Card has 861 cards for sale online. 649 of those cards (75%) are of numbers 1 to 64 – the first series.

The remaining 101 cards in the 1955 Bowman football set (numbers 65 through 165) - which make up over 60% of the total cards in set - account for only 25% (212 cards) of our inventory.

To clarify, the DeansCards.com inventory has an average of 10 of each card in the 1st Series, and an average of only 2 of each cards in the 2nd series! Usually, each series of the sets that we carry has roughly the same number of cards available for sale in our inventory.

This makes me conclude that Bowman severely felt the impact of the 1955 Topps All-American Football card set. Bowman was forced to reduce production numbers after the first series of cards, due to lower than expected sales. This was a blow that the already weakened Bowman Gum Co. could not absorb.

Although official 1955 sales figures of the Bowman and Topps football card sets do not exist, it is my guess that the companies probably equally split the sales for the category. Today, that also seems to be the case. I looked at current sales of both the 1955 Topps and Bowman sets on DeansCards.com, eBay and a couple of other online market places. Each store seems to sell roughly the same number of cards from each of the two sets.

As a business person, I can not help but admire how Topps attacked and conquered Bowman’s grip on the gum card market from 1952 to 1955. The Topps assault was extremely well planned and executed. The four-year story makes for a very interesting case study.

Topps had an technically inferior subject matter for their 1955 football cards, but they aggressively jumped into the football card market and the public responded to the fresh concept by buying the more colorful and attractive All-American cards. Topps clearly put in the work to be successful on the things that they could control, but they also caught a huge break – even though full impact of their luck was not realized until decades later.

Short Prints and Demand Scarcity

The 100-card Topps All-American football set was printed on press sheets that held 110 cards. As a result, 32 cards in the All-American set were printed in lesser quantities than the others. Topps unintentionally introduced demand scarcity by way of short printing to the hobby – although they were totally unaware of it at the time.

Through the hobby’s vintage years, Topps typically tried to print the same number of each card, for each series that they released. A particular series, such as the “high numbers” of a particular year, may have less total cards printed, but each card in that series was usually produced in the same numbers.

Occasionally, such as with the 1953 Topps Baseball card set, there would be room for more cards on the printing sheet. The difference is that the baseball card market was much bigger and many more total cards were printed. The less printed cards (aka. “Short Prints”) are not truly that scarce, but the more frequently printed cards are considered over-populated and instead were known in the hobby as “Double Prints”.

The football season was shorter in 1955 than is it today. The NFL season had only 12 games and one play-off game. This also shortened the sales window for football cards.

The 1955 Topps All-American was the first Topps set to have short-printed cards scattered throughout the set. The short printed cards included the “Rookie Cards” of: #35 Tom Harmon, #84 Ace Parker, #97 Don Hutson and #100 Fats Henry. The most sought after short print card in the set is that of the1924 Norte Dame backfield #68 The Four Horsemen.

The set collectors of the day were caught completely off guard by the “short print” concept. On first appearance, the 1955 Topps looked like an easy set to complete. Each “Nickel Pack” of All-American cards contained a whopping nine cards. An experienced collector could reasonably expect to spend one single dollar (20 packs = 180 cards) and easily be able to complete the set. Even though he would still be missing a few cards, he knew that he could trade his “doubles” to his buddies for the few cards that he still needed to complete the set.

The 1955 All-American “short prints” made this strategy invalid. I am sure in the fall of 1955, many kids spent “just a one more nickel” in order get those few remaining cards. As they slid the coin across the counter, they probably told themselves that “This is just bad luck. That Four Horsemen
and Don Hutson card I still need is probably waiting for me in the next pack!”

These were the same nickels that would have probably been spent on Bowman football cards - if the All-American set were easier to complete. As a Roman emperor once said, “Fortune favors the bold.” In 1955, Topps definitely caught an lucky break.


Demand Scarcity in the modern card market

Today, card manufacturers purposely “short print cards” to increase sales. Many collectors enjoy the challenge of finding the cards. The fact that Topps did not employ this profitable “Short Print Demand Scarcity” strategy until decades later, tells me that they were completely unaware of what took place in the fall of 1955 until many years later.

Not many collectors figured out the demand scarcity situation either. Even if they did, there was no real way to communicate the discovery. In 1955, card collectors were mostly kids. There was nowhere that collectors could exchange information and learn about the hobby on a large scale. Prices guides, card shows, DeansCards.com, collecting blogs or SCD - did not yet exist.

It is also easy to see why the executives at Topps completely missed the impact that short-printed cards could have on sales. It was much harder to get market information back to the decision makers in those days. Most of the market studies conducted by Topps, consisted of stopping by one or two local dime stores on the way home from work and asking the clerks how the cards were selling.

Over time, the short-printed cards actually helped increase the popularity of the All-American set, by adding a slight degree of difficulty for the collector. Even so, 1955 Topps All-American Football Cards remains a very collectable set.

The 1955 Topps All-American set even has a bit of challenge for the variation collector. The cards of #14 Gaynell Tinsley and #21 of the future Supreme Court Justice “Whizzer” White can be found both with and without the back of the other man’s card. The corrected versions are the more common and affordable cards.

Epilogue

The 1955 Topps All-American football card set was the most innovative, well-designed, strategically produced and marketed vintage card sets of all-time. The All-American card set accomplished its intended purpose and cut into Bowman’s badly needed football card sales.

The All-American set was the final nail in the coffin of the Bowman Gum, Co. Bowman was completely broke and had little choice but to sell out to Topps in January of 1956. The Gum Card War was over.

1956 Topps Nickle Pack
Topps competition was now gone and the gum card monopoly was back in place for the next quarter century. In 1956, Topps nickel packs were reduced the number of cards from seven to six. In 1957, the card size was reduced so that more cards could fit onto a printing sheet and decrease manufacturing costs.

Very little innovation was seen in the hobby, until the 1980’s when the monopoly was broken and competitors started introducing new products. With the professional player’s contracts of both sports in hand, Topps then switched its football card effort to the NFL in 1956.

Today, 1955 Topps All-American remains one of the favorite and most collectible football sets of all-time. The 1955 All-American short-printed cards add just enough difficultly to give the set collectors a challenge. The fact that the All-American concept was abandoned after just one year seems only to add to the set’s unique charm.



Personal Note

Since I began writing these set commentaries for SCD, readers have written me and asked, “How do you come up with all this unique insight about vintage sets?”

My answer is that I have collected cards for over 40 years. This hobby is my passion and profession - but the biggest insight comes from the fact that DeansCards.com sells thousands of vintage cards each week. Sales reports make it is possible for me to access years of sales data to determine which cards are most popular, scarce or priced incorrectly. Sometimes the conclusions are shocking.

The reason that I enjoy writing these articles is that I learn so much more about the vintage sets that I love. Sometimes I can apply what I learn to DeansCards.com, but mostly I do this for fun and the quest of knowledge.

When I sit down to write about a set, I am often shocked to see where the story leads. For example, when I sat down to write the article, I had no idea that the 1955 Topps All-American Football Card Set played such a big part in “The Gum Card War” or was the final spear in Bowman’s chest.

Uncovering these nuggets of card collecting history is my reward for the time I spend writing the articles. I live, eat and breathe this stuff! If I did not sell cards for a living, I would still be playing with cards for fun. I am very humbled that T.S. O’Connell and SCD see it fit to publish these stories and also that some of my fellow collectors spend their valuable free-time reading them.


A short comment on the Topps/Bowman Gum Card War

In recent weeks, I have written articles on the three most important sets of the Topps/Bowman gum card war: 1952 Topps Baseball, 1953 Bowman Baseball and 1955 Topps All-American Football. Being a student of both military history and the history of card collecting, I could not help but notice the similarities between Topps attack on Bowman and the Allies assault on Germany in World War II.

The 1952 Topps Baseball Set (discussed in my article in the August 13, 2010 issue of SCD) is comparable to D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. Both Topps and U.S. Army won invaded their opponent’s territory, won a great victory, and established a foothold that put their adversary on the defensive.

The 1953 Bowman Baseball Card Set (which I will discuss next month in SCD) is similar to the German assault at the Battle of the Bulge. Both the Bowman and German counter-attacks were aggressive attempts to recapture recently lost ground and initially looked as if they might succeed. Both assaults eventually lost momentum and failed - crippling the attacker.

Finally, the 1955 Topps All-American Football Set was comparable to is the U.S. Army’s crossing the Rhine River a decade before. They were both the final battle of the respective conflicts. The U.S. Army marched into the German homeland, while Topps invaded Bowman’s last profitable category – football cards. The end result was that both Bowman and Germany were thoroughly defeated and forced to surrender.