I have spent a good portion of the last week contemplating the order of all things Topps. This rumination will eventually lead to a massive post on the multiple 1951 Baseball Candy issues (a brobdingnagian undertaking if there ever was one) but for now leads us to tonight's topic: The first Topps standalone card issues for the four major North American Sports.
While Topps issued some cards in 1948 and early '49 that included various sports stars and events, they were really part of non sport sets, such as the Magic Photos (I'll be posting on these shortly as I am still trying to suss out what the first actual Topps insert card was).
The collegiate gridiron claims the top honor here as 1950 saw the release of the multi-hued Felt Backs, although some claim a first issue of these in 1949, followed by a full reissue in '50. These tiny cards, similar in size to the Magic Photos and License Plate cards from the year prior, featured 100 top collegiate football players, including Joe Paterno and Jackie Jensen. The fronts are seemingly modeled on 1941 Goudey baseball cards as they use a black and white head shot set against a colored background. The reverses feature a flocked (or "felt") pennant showing the name of the player's college. This cards are exceedingly hard to find, especially in grades above VG. As you can see, beauty is in the eye of the PSA holder:
Technically speaking, these are Varsity Gum cards. There are 100 cards in the set and various background colors were used: Green, Red, Blue Yellow and Brown. Some muted colors are also possible as hues mellowed as print runs developed. Yellow is though to be the scarcest but there is some debate on the matter. Each card only comes in one primary color, except for the browns and yellows. The yellow background was replaced by brown at some point; this would give some credence to the 1949/reissued in 1950 theory but nothing is conclusive. I nabbed the next two scans on the W3, which show how the uncut sheets looked:
Topps would issue two more sets featuring college stars as Bowman looks like they had the NFL locked up pretty good in the early 50's.
1951 would bring the Baseball Candy issues. While it's not 100% certain, I feel the Red Backs came first in '51, particularly those with tan card stock on the backs (much more on tan and other shades in 1951 soon, I promise). Here is a young Duke of Flatbush, on the cusp of greatness:
The first appearance of the Red Backs was probably in the one cent Doubles packs but nickel packs could easily have been first. These came in two card panels-check out the nubs. When the cards were inserted two to a penny pack, they were separated as an unopened pack will reveal both cards laying the same way, trying to get away from what must have been some horrible caramel. Red Backs are prevalent today and went through at least three printings.
After this it was not until the 1954-55 season that Topps expanded their line with hockey cards. I just showed Mr. Timgren recently but he's the only example I have from this set. While not as tough as the Football Felt Backs, these are not the easiest cards to find as they were only issued in Canada. There are 60 golden age sized cards in the set, which could be found in penny and nickel packs.
Last but not least, we have the 1957-58 Topps basketball set, 80 cards in number.
That Nats uniform is snazzy! They became the Philadelphia 76'ers by the way. These cards were sold in nickel packs, both in the US and Canada (OPC licensed) and are standard sized. It's unlikely penny packs were used for basketball but it is not impossible. A penny wrapper or pack would be a holy grail type of collectible.