It has taken awhile, but sports memorabilia collectors who once thought of only one sport, are now thinking twice about football.
The stuff of Notre Dame, Johnny Unitas, the Dallas Cowboys, and most anything related to football in the 1940s, is steadily being sought out.
Football got a start on the college campus shortly after the Civil War but didn’t reach a fully professional level until the 20th century.
Fans new it was here to stay in 1897 when Rev. John Bigham wrote in the De Pauw University newspaper that football was a “game of so much service as to render it legitimate, valuable and necessary equipment in all our higher institutions.”
The literary works of 19th century football coach and journalist Walter Camp are highly prized today. Camp, who played on the 1876 Yale team, eventually authored a number of books including Walter Camp’s Book of College Sports in 1889, American Football in 1891, and Football Facts and Figures, 1894. All are highly collectible.
College football was so popular in the 1890s that several companies produced board games in the name of the pastime. The George Childs Company offered The Game of Football complete with wooden bench, team cards, and spinner.
The McLoughlin Brothers Company meanwhile sold the Yale-Princeton Football Game, which was similarly designed.
Unlike some collectibles, “the age of an item has less effect on value than its history,” notes William Ketchum the author of Sports Collectibles. for Fun and Profit. “A 19th century helmet of unknown origin is not nearly as valuable as a more recent one worn by Jim Brown.”
“Generally, the quantities and types of football memorabilia are more limited than baseball,” adds Ketchum, “with the exception of equipment.”
Like baseball, the major manufacturers of football equipment in the past included Wilson, Rawlings, and Spalding. Spalding even produced a pocket-sized football guidebook from the 1880s to the 1930s, a collectible now.
Unlike baseball, football cards did not emerge until the 1930s. In 1933, Goudey issued Sports Kings, which included football greats Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, and Knute Rockne, but also featured other sports figures.
National Chicle offered the first full major football set in 1935. Currently, a full Chicle set would be worth thousands. Individuals whose cards are highly sought include Bobby Layne, Johnny Unitas, and Joe Namath.
A full 1965 Topps set, which also includes the card of player-turned White House cabinet member, Jack Kemp, could bring more than $2,000, depending on condition.
Paper items can have strong appeal in the area of football collectibles. A 1912 Notre Dame yearbook, including pictures from Knute Rockne’s sophomore year, brought nearly $1,500 at a major auction in recent years.
At the same auctions, a color-tinted photograph used in Sports History Magazine of the 1939 Iowa Hawkeyes brought $350. It was framed, matted, and signed by artist Brenda Cole.
Regular football game programs, guides, and annuals of both college and professional teams of the 1920s and 1930s are at a premium today.
Likewise, tickets, newspapers, and pennants prior to the 1950s are in demand, especially if they are related to a major football event such as a professional championship or the Rose Bowl.
Old pin-back football buttons are nice too, but may be hard to find.
“Football players did not enjoy the same button popularity as their baseball counterparts in the early days,” according to Ted Hake and Russ King, the co-authors of Collectible Pin-Back Buttons. However, “football series buttons have increased in recent decades with the growth of televised professional football. Early football buttons picturing an individual player at any level of competition are quite scarce.”
There is a hold field of souvenirs associated with the professional teams and some of it can be of major interest to collectors.
From a 1967 nodder depicting a Green Bay Packer to a Celluloid football doll, originally attached to a stick all sold before games and during halftime in the 1940s.
A general rule on football uniforms and other equipment is that pre-1960s material sought, and more recent material has value if it connected directly to a player.
Recently, a New York City auction gallery sold the 1984 Seattle Seahawks jersey of Franco Harris for more than $500.
In 1990, Business Week Magazine observed that major auction galleries, such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s “had greatly stepped up offerings of sports memorabilia.”
Smaller auction firms, such as Guernsey’s and Leland’s have long conducted extensive auctions of sports material.
Football collectibles made up well less than 10 percent of sports memorabilia market, according to Business Week.
It’s an investment field that has been rather limited,” they consented. “Reliable price information has been scarce, and doubts about authenticity have been difficult to resolve. But as major auction houses get into the market, that’s beginning to change.”