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The Quest to Complete the Legendary 1935 National Chicle Football Set Lands with REA

PJ Kinsella in Consignor Stories

Mar 14 — 5 mins read

by David Seideman

For the past six years, Steve Asch has devoted hundreds upon hundreds of hours assembling one of the country’s most robust 1935 National Chicle Football sets, the first nationally released trading card issue to exclusively feature football players. The Portland, Maine, resident acquired many of the cards in the 36-piece National Chicle set from collectors across the country.

“I can’t help it,” he said on his 83rd birthday. “I’m compulsive and a perfectionist. And I’m a diligent hunter with a lot of perseverance. But the best stuff now gets sold through auctions.”

For that reason, Asch - who spent years in the real estate sector - decided to consign his cards to Robert Edward Auctions for its large Spring 2023 Catalog Auction, opening on April 6. REA will break up his near-complete set into 35 individual lots. The only missing card is the Bronko Nagurski, a “Holy Grail” that can approach, or even exceed, six figures in mid to high grades.

The #7 Ken Strong card

The #7 Ken Strong card

While this will not be the first time that REA has auctioned a 1935 National Chicle Football near-complete set, Asch’s collection is certainly one of the finest it has ever managed. REA has also sold individual pieces within this iconic set, namely the Bronko Nagurski and the Knute Rockne, and previously sold an elusive 1933 R136 National Chicle "Sky Birds" Original Wax Box.

Asch’s collection incorporates an impressive 30 of the 35 cards graded NM-MT 8 or better by PSA or SGC, including two MINT 9 and three NM-MT+ 8.5. Perhaps the most impressive facet of his collection is that none of the cards - despite being nearly ninety years old -  grade lower than NM 7. 

Absent the Nagurski, the key card is Knute Rockne, which grades SGC 8.5. During 13 years as Notre Dame’s head coach, Rockne led the school to an astounding 105 victories, 12 losses, five ties, and three National Championships. The school boasted an impressive five undefeated seasons with Rockne at the helm, and he would finish his career with the highest all-time winning percentage (.881) for a major college football coach.

All of the subjects in the 1935 National Chicle Football set — except for Rockne, who appeared in 1933 Sports Kings issue — are rookies. This includes Hall of Fame players Dutch Clark, Ken Strong, Cliff Battles, Turk Edwards, and Clarke Hinkle. All are highly sought after by collectors.

Dutch Clark, the #1 card in the National Chicle set

Dutch Clark, the #1 card in the National Chicle set

If the significance of the issue and the loaded player selection isn’t enough for collectors, the incredible design and eye appeal rounds out the set’s appeal. “What drove me are the aesthetics more than anything,” Asch says. “The Art Deco [style] is so beautifully painted. The colors are wonderful. That whole era before my time is fantastic.”

On the cards the players are depicted in action, some depicting field or stadium scenes behind them. Others show simulated game-action scenes in the background. National Chicle kept busy during the mid-1930s producing the football series as well as baseball’s multi-year multi-year Diamond Stars set, which is also designed in the Art Deco style. Naturally, Asch collects those, too. 

With so many key cards to choose from, Asch has managed to narrow down his three favorite football cards. Ernie Caddel (#30) barrelling forward, leaving a helpless defender in an orange and gold striped jersey in the dust. Center John Isola (#26) crouches, ready to snap the football to his waiting quarterback with his lineman at his side. And All-Pro tackle Turk Edwards (#11) is in his three-point stance, wearing a Boston Redskins jersey bearing a huge Indian chief.

The #30 Ernie Caddel card

The #30 Ernie Caddel card

This writer’s favorite is the bare-headed “Shipwreck” Kelly (#22) stiff-arming a hapless gold-helmeted defender. “The Brooklyn Dodgers captain is a long-legged, hard running type of back whose high knee action makes him difficult to tackle,” reads his card’s back. “He usually plays without a headguard making his blond thatch of hair a familiar mark for the spectators. Young players are advised to use head guards under all circumstances, thus saving themselves the chance of serious head injury.”

Originally released as a set of 24, National Chicle expanded the issue by another dozen, which were short printed and remain more elusive for set builders. Asch explained that a number of factors inspired him to pursue the set, but it was no easy feat.  “You do the math. [The cards] are 12 years shy of 100 years old. Finding pristine examples isn’t easy. The good news is that it’s a short set. One of the drivers for me was that it was manageable.”

The National Chicle set was issued at a time long before football gained the prominence that it enjoys today. As such, the set was produced in limited quantities, and today’s Population Reports bear that out. To date, Knute Rockne’s card has been graded a total of 337 times, the most in the set, while Stan Kostka (#28) brings up the rear with just 97 graded examples. Compare that to Ken Griffey Jr.'s 1989 Upper Deck rookie, which PSA has seen over 95,000 times during the same timespan!

“Key elements include Clark’s #1 card and #36 Bernie Masterson,” PSA notes. “As the set's opening and concluding subjects, these pieces typically fell victim to rubber banding and exposure to light in higher proportions than other numbers.” Asch’s Clark is a PSA 8 and his Masterson is a 7, exceptional grades for two condition-sensitive cards.

Knute Rockne remains one of the most recognizable cards in the 1935 National Chicle Football set

Knute Rockne remains one of the most recognizable cards in the 1935 National Chicle Football set

Since he began his pursuit of the set six years ago, the set has gone from being overlooked to highly coveted. “The bidding for all these cards is vigorous,” Asch says. It would be a financial challenge for Asch to duplicate his feat again since the availability of these cards has dropped precipitously while the prices have soared. “I did the best I could for a little guy,” says Asch. 

But he wouldn’t trade the new friendships and memories made along the way for anything. He’s excited to pass the torch to other collectors who will have a chance to buy some of his cards and take their turn trying to complete this amazing set.

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