It would probably come as a great shock to most football fans of today to discover that at one time during the last century the CFL directly competed for individual player talent with the NFL and later the upstart AFL on a fairly even footing.
|Canadian Football News|
August 25, 1951 : NFL commissioner's statements on the ongoing player raiding &
April, 1956 : Detroit Lions legal action to bar Tom Dublinski from playing for the Argos
NFL commissioner Bert Bell is quoted in the 1951 article (from a Philadelphia Inquirer interview) expressing concern about the attempts to break player's contracts and undermine the legal structures in place but also surprisingly stating that "in time there may be such a similarity between the two games that could make a World Series of football an actuality". Ex 1953 Calgary Stampeder coach Bob Snyder would subsequently be engaged by Bell to focus on preventing the player raiding. Snyder had confided to close associates that Bell considered the loss of players to the Canadian teams as a major threat to the business.
|Street & Smith Football Yearbooks from 1954 and 1962 showing that reporting on Canadian League activities was at least important enough to rate a mention on the covers|
As early as 1953 US based football prognosticator publications were taking some notice of what went on north of the border in terms of professional football. These are interesting historical artifacts although I believe (but have not explicitly verified) that the Canadian content printed in these magazines was just reprinted from material that had already been written for Canadian preseason sport publications.
|Canadian Football News|
June, 1956 : Player raiding went both ways as Cardinals pursue Sam Etcheverry &
August 13, 1960 : AFL arrival on the pro football scene changes player acquisition dynamics
From 1953 - 1959 the NFL had only twelve franchises, just 3 more than the CFL's 9 with an American population somewhere around ten times as large as Canada's. The NFL would slowly expand to 16 teams over the course of the next decade as they attempted to prevent the rival American Football League (formed in 1960 with 8 teams, expanding to 10 by 1967) from capturing too many valuable markets.
The eight new AFL franchises meant there were over 300 new jobs for players in professional football starting in 1960. And while the AFL eventually grew strong enough to challenge and then merge with the NFL, initially their rosters contained many players who were unable to crack late fifties CFL rosters. A prime example being Jack Kemp who eventually was a multiple season All-Star and two time AFL champion quarterback for the Buffalo Bills but failed to beat out rookie Joe Kapp for 2nd string QB in Calgary at the 1959 training camp.
|August 5, 1959 Toronto Argonauts vs Chicago Cardinals exhibition program &|
CFN : August 20, 1960 : CFL vs NFL inequality makes further exhibitions unlikely
So while it was clear that there were many top caliber players in the CFL during this time period, collectively the teams were less than competitive with the National League squads as all of the NFL vs CFL exhibitions resulted in lopsided NFL wins. On the other hand the Buffalo Bills of the AFL were soundly defeated by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (and fans who were at the game indicated Hamilton coach Jim Trimble substituted 2nd stringers freely in the second half).
The most commonly seen combined CFL/ NFL or AFL collectibles from this era are the game programs themselves from the exhibition matches. They are rare but do come up for auction from time to time. Much less frequently encountered are ticket stubs from the games.
|November 1965 Complete Sports & 1973 Sports Review Football Magazines|
showing that Canadian football was still of interest to some segment of the readership
Eventually the 1970 merger of the AFL and the NFL created a juggernaut of 26 teams that would gradually expand in influence and prominence to the point where the CFL was for the most part unable to compete economically for player services. Although the odd Heisman Trophy winner or runner-up like Johnny Rodgers or Joe Theismann would still have great success playing north of the border, at least for part of their careers.
|This 1969 unique Dodge Chrysler advertising piece contained the rosters of each CFL team on rotating wheels on one side and the rosters of the pre-merger NFL teams on the other|
Despite the growing disparity in league statuses during the decade of the seventies, it appears it was the richest decade for shared collectibles. From automotive themed ephemera to instructional booklets and charity flag football games there seems to be more cross league memorabilia to collect for this time period than any other.
|1971 combined CFL/NFL schedule above & |
Early 70's Manpower instructional booklet below
In May of 1976 the Christian Athletes in Action organization sponsored a Flag Football game in Toronto with NFL stars versus CFL stars. Some limited google searching failed to uncover who won the game.
|1976 Athletes in Action News Release and Flag Football Exhibition Game Program|
Football preview magazines from Street & Smith continued to advertise the Canadian content on the cover up to 1983, although in subsequent years there was still CFL coverage inside, for how many more years is unknown. The Game Plan magazine below must be of Canadian origin since it highlights the CFL content over the NFL content and shows the Argo's Condredge Holloway on the cover.
|Street & Smith 1983 Football Yearbook &|
1985 Game Plan Pro Football
As the eighties and nineties progressed the NFL became ever more dominant and powerful and the CFL (that once competed for players with the NFL), became ever more insignificant by comparison with real concerns that the league would not survive during the nineties. High level defections from American football still occurred (Rocket Ismail, Doug Flutie) but the high salaries of these stars was one reason the CFL came close to folding.
|1992 Arena Super Star Holograms Display Box, |
1998 Collector's Edge Jeff Garcia Red Foil Millennium Collection Variant &
NFL/CFL lapel pin
One might expect that during the trading card boom of the 90's that there would have been a fair number of cross league items produced, however this does not seem to be the case. The 1992 Arena Grey Cup hologram card was in packs in the box shown above along with NFL superstar Joe Montana and other sports hologram cards, but they did not have an NFL license so no mention of it on the packaging. The box says a CFL card in each pack, which does not seem to correlate with the number of Grey Cup Hologram cards that were available at the time (not super rare, but not one per pack either as it was the only CFL card Arena ever made).
There were a handful of crossover cards with players shown in CFL uniforms on NFL cards, but not many and the known items are written up in Collecting Canadian Football Volume II. The Jeff Garcia variation card shown above was one. Occasionally a novelty or souvenir item such as a pin was also produced.
|Combined Super Bowl XL (40th) and Grey Cup 2005 (93rd) Advertising piece|
The CFL has stabilized somewhat during this century but is still dwarfed by the American football colossus that is the NFL, so I was quite surprised to come across the advertising piece above (Canadian obviously). It promoted a contest to win tickets to both league's championship games, and features a combined graphic with the Dallas Cowboys defence lining up against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats offence. So even in this century the odd shared bit of memorabilia was occasionally produced.
|Autobiographies of Cookie Gilchrist and Warren Moon|
Of course within the most accessible category of cross league items are autobiographies of great players who excelled on both side of the border. Case in point is Warren Moon, as noted on the cover he is the only player enshrined in both Hall of Fames. Chester "Cookie" Gilchrist should be in the CFL Hall of Fame (there is some dispute as to how he was passed over) and he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton for his AFL exploits as well.
There are no doubt other examples of memorabilia that references both Canadian & American football out there waiting to be discovered.