I can’t possibly be objective about the 1959 Topps Football set, so why even bother trying? From the first of more than a half-dozen Johnny Unitas cards that would grace the No. 1 card slot in Topps sets to the final card of Tom Tracy (No. 176) with crew cut to match Johnny U, the issue is a classic offering with a marvelous mixture of portraits and the deliciously oxymoronic posed-action shots.
The result is a card set that perfectly mirrored the times and the NFL game, an uproariously chaotic convergence of the ethnic flavor and innocence of a professional game on the verge of going big time. All this and the greatest ladling of the color pink into a sports card background ever undertaken. Competing with a comic mix of quarterbacks pretending to throw a football, running backs with a stiff arm extended or a wide receiver holding a football in front of him in an odd fashion suggesting he could be examining it for imperfections, the portraits in this issue hold up their end of the deal quite well.
Check out the card of Detroit Lions Hall-of-Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt shown on the facing page in color. Is that just about the nicest portrait card you’ve
ever seen? His mother must have loved it. For some reason, the Lions fared really well with their 1959 Topps cards; the Hopalong Cassady card alongside it is even better than the Schmidt card, and the cards of Yale Lary and Bobby Layne aren’t too shabby, either.
I know, technically Layne wasn’t a Lion anymore, having been traded to the Steelers, but any football fan from that era (and outside the Pittsburgh environs) thinks of the legendary quarterback as a Lion. Besides, he’s wearing a Lions jersey in the photo.
For kids used to seeing their NFL heroes only in fuzzy black-and-white television reception, early Topps football cards provided an opportunity to see what those ruffians actually looked like. In keeping with that goal, Topps disdained the use of the cumbersome helmet in 1959; there are only a handful to be found, occasionally to good effect, as in the case of another HOF passer, Y.A. Tittle.
Though I could hardly have articulated it at the time, I was taken by the ethnic quality of so many of the portraits, with Topps providing wonderful images of guys who would appear to have been plucked right out of central casting for any number of Hollywood roles.
If what you wanted was a leading man, the NFL had a flock of them, from the obvious ones like Cassady, Frank Gifford and Kyle Rote to lesser lights like Preston Carpenter or L.G. Dupre. Me, I just thought the initials thing was cool (Y.A. Tittle, R.C. Owens, M.C. Hammer, er, Reynolds), and no, that’s not where I came up with the idea for myself. The “T.S.” appellation is a nod to my father, who always used initials throughout his life.
Westerns were atop the public’s list for both television and in feature films, and Harlon Hill and Bill McColl could have fit into that genre nicely. It’s probably no more than coincidence that they were Chicago Bears.
The Godfatherflicks were still more than a decade away, but Andy Robustelli and Rick Casares would have been easy calls for any of those films as well. But mostly if you wanted to generalize about what NFL guys looked like, you might come away with little more to offer than they looked like a generation of young Americans from across ethnic lines and linked primarily by a rugged, rough-hewn look, with the possible exception of a couple of dozen guys who looked like bankers, accountants or hairdressers. But really tough hairdressers.
Speaking of the grooming, Johnny Unitas had the most recognizable crew cut in America, but he was not alone on the gridiron with that particular fashion pronouncement in 1959. The Beatles hadn’t yet turned up on the scene, so there was no long hair to speak of and wouldn’t be for quite some time.