Harvard-Yale Rivalry Led to Early Pre-War Football Cards
Numerous early football cards were created surrounding the longtime rivalry
The first American football game is usually viewed as a Princeton-Rutgers contest in 1869. But if you study early pre-war football issues, you might be inclined to think the game’s origins stem from the Harvard-Yale rivalry.
The foes are well known as Ivy League schools today. But the Ivy League name wasn’t even around in pre-war times. In fact, the actual Ivy League Conference wasn’t even formed until 1954, despite the schools being in it having been around much longer.
All eight Ivy League schools (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale) are all well known. But when it comes to football rivalries among the group, none is bigger than Harvard-Yale.
The first Harvard-Yale football game took place way back in 1875. And the two quickly became rivals if you follow the bread crumbs left by pre-war cards.
The football teams were first seen on trade cards. These trade cards, like this one, did not generally feature real players. But they featured unnamed subjects wearing Harvard or Yale attire.
The card shown here is one of the more common early Harvard trade cards. The card features an unnamed boy wearing a Harvard uniform while toting a football. Some collectors may notice the size of the ball and insist this is a rugby card. But it is clearly a Harvard football issue and the size of early footballs was a larger one like this. You can often get this card for around $10-$20.
And while there were earlier trade cards such as these, the card that is usually recognized as the first true football card is one from the N162 Goodwin Champions set featuring Yale captain Harry Beecher.
The interesting thing about Beecher’s card shown here is that it is for Yale but has a red theme instead of the blue colors, which we know them by today.
Beecher was the team’s captain and his was the only football card in the entire set that featured champion athletes. As I wrote here, Beecher has gone down as one of the school’s all-time great players. The card is a desirable one today and, even in bad condition, still usually sells for more than $1,000.
Beecher’s name, of course, is not a household one. That has less to do with his talent, which was considerable, and more to do with the fact that he did not play professionally and suited up well over 100 years ago. But the card’s value is driven by the fact that it is seen as the first football card. It is one of the most valuable cards in the set, surpassed perhaps by only the legendary baseball player, Cap Anson.
Real Harvard and Yale players were also seen in the 1895 Mayo set that appeared a few years later. That 19th century tobacco issue is often called the first football set.
The schools continued to be seen into the 20th century on later tobacco issues as well. One of the better cards that features the two is from the T51 Murad College Sports set.
The T51 Murad set features many schools with all sorts of generic athlete depictions. Now, technically, the card was for Harvard’s football team. But this is generally considered to be a Harvard-Yale card as we see Yale’s familiar blue uniforms.
A larger, rarer (and yes, more expensive) version of this card is also found in the T6 set. The T6 cards were premiums issued by Murad and, as I document here, the image on the Harvard-Yale card varies slightly from the image on the T51s.
This (the T51 card, that is) is probably one of the better, more affordable Harvard-Yale cards that can be bought. in low-grade, you can get it for about $10-$20.
As we got into the early 1900s, postcards really started to take off. Collectors often talk about tobacco and caramel cards when referring to sports issues from this era. But postcards were among the most plentiful sports cards around. And if you’re looking for the cheapest Harvard-Yale cards out there, that’s probably the best place to start.
All sorts of postcards featuring the two schools were printed with football as the primary focus.
Many of the early college football postcards centered more around fans than actual players. These postcards typically featured women as fans or as ‘faux’ players, carrying a ball or waving a pennant. While there are plenty of those types of issues with no team affiliations, there are also a good many that do specifically depict both Harvard and Yale. In addition to women, children were a popular subject, too.
Here are a couple examples of those. The Harvard woman is part of a set of six postcards featuring collegiate teams while the one picturing a child in a Yale football sweater is found in a different set.
Postcards like these range dramatically in price but you can find similar types of postcards often starting around $10.
Some postcards focused more on the athletes, though.
For example, this one shown here with a cartoon Yale player is part of a set of eight postcards in an Ullman series. Ullman was a popular postcard producer and, in fact, was the producer of that set I mentioned above featuring babies/young children above.
This Ullman set focused on baseball and football with a Yale football player included in it. These are a bit more popular since they depict athletes, even though they are generic ones. You can expect to pay about $15-$20 for these postcards — sometimes more.
Additionally, some sets featured real Yale football players, though they are rare. The 1909 Birch Yale postcards set has actual players on them and are difficult to find. Other postcards are also known depicting Harvard and Yale in actual games.
Prices on these sorts of postcards with real players are all over the board. But for ones featuring individual players, especially, you can expect to pay significantly more for.
As the century continued towards World War I and World War II, other Harvard/Yale collectibles were also printed. They are not as numerous as the postcards but are still notable nonetheless.
One of those was part of a set of stamps issued in 1915 by Hinds Cream. This multi-sport set included a football stamp and you don’t have to look far to see that it’s probably a Harvard/Yale issue.
Shown here, the stamp pictures a Yale ball carrier and while the Yale name does not appear, the big ‘Y’ on his sweater is a good indication. Similarly, the defender is shown in Harvard’s traditional red color.
The stamp is not usually overly expensive but it is somewhat difficult to find. If you can get it, it will often cost between $10-$20.
A more definitive Harvard-Yale collectible is seen as part of the massive 1930s Diamond Matchbook sets. Diamond produced a large number of matchbooks featuring real players on them. They also issued a football series featuring certain rivalries and you’ll find Harvard-Yale in it.
A couple of different Harvard-Yale matchbooks are actually known. The one shown here is the black version and a different one features a player with a tan background/border. Both often start in the $10-$20 range, though you can sometimes find low-grade ones for less.
The Harvard-Yale rivalry goes back to the origins of American football itself. And pre-war cards for the teams were around since virtually the beginning.