There I was… IN THE JUNGLE.
OK, it’s not the jungle but it is Brazil, Rio de Janeiro to be specific, a twelve hour flight from Los Angeles and I’m on a mission of sorts to discover the great Pele’s rookie card.
Where better to start than the land of Pele’, a.k.a. O Rei, The Black Pearl, Santos, Edwin de Nascimento, the greatest soccer player to ever lace ‘em up? An international superstar, least of all in the United States, but even in the U.S. a one-word celebrity like Elvis or Madonna. His name synonymous with soccer, any child on the continent who has ever sent one to the back of the net on a Saturday has undoubtedly heard the calls of “Nice shot, Pele,” the same way a sweet high school jump shot or gravity defying dunk invokes the name “Jordan.”
But as soccer never gained a foothold in the states until long after Pele’s reign, I knew that I was wasting my time looking for early Pele’ cards here in the U.S. Were there regional issues of Pele’ in his native Brazil where the legend was born before starring for the three time World Cup champions? Surely, the God-like popularity of Pele’ in his homeland had resulted in some sort of card, some commemorative of this unparalleled soccer superstar.
We land in Rio around 9:00 a.m. The city is a teeming bundle of buildings large and small clinging to rolling green hills dotting the landscape like a giant dragon’s back leading out to the Atlantic. High above, the Christ statue of Cordova basks in the 75 degree sun and Brazilians go about the business of their daily lives.
As I sit in my hotel room overlooking Copacabana Beach… where was I again… I dial up eBay and enter the search terms “Pele’ Card”. Usually, I get a strange return of Tori Amos CD’s and handbills from Pele’ matches but today I finally get something, something I had overlooked.
Listed for sale is a 1966-67 Panini Pele’ from the “Campioni Dello Sport”, a set I had reviewed during my research for early Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali issues. In my zeal to locate Ali I had disregarded much of the remainder of the Panini set, writing them off as Italian soccer stars in whom I had no interest. Lost in that shuffle was Pele’, the small white bordered card framing the youthful portrait of No. 10 in his green and yellow jersey from powerhouse Brazil. At last I had a landmark. Whatever I was to find in Brazil would have to trump the 66-67 Panini as Pele’s RC.
I decided to start asking any English speaking Brazilians about Pele’ cards, hoping to gain some insight. My first interview would be Sergio, our guide and a self-proclaimed expert on all things Brazilian.
So I ask, “I’m looking for ANY cards of Pele’. Can you tell me if you recall any ever being made?” I realize I’m talking loudly for no apparent reason. Sergio offers only a condescending little giggle and then nothing.
“What’s so funny?” I ask, growing a little annoyed with Sergio, a small weasel-faced fellow whose outward disposition neither is representative of the incredibly friendly people of Rio nor well suited for tour guide work.
“You Americans are so funny… you collect things of famous peoples. We do not do this in Brazil. We are more practical,” Sergio stated matter-of-factly.
Not wanting to have a sociological debate with the only person I knew in Rio, I ignored the American disparagement. I guess asking Sergio about Pele’ memorabilia was sort of like asking an American about velvet Elvis paintings.
Sergio then informed me that all he could recall other than standard autographs were post cards of Pele’ and the national team. I recalled from discussions with Italian collectors that postcards were commonly used internationally as mementos of popular soccer figures. Nonetheless, a postcard made for mailing won’t meet my definition of a rookie card.
Checking my email once more that evening, I receive an email from a collector friend in Great Britain who felt as though he had found Pele’s earliest card, a black and white card slightly oversized and featuring Pele’, another soccer player and a cricket star in a fashion similar to the famous Bird/Magic rookie with Dr. J. This card was produced in 1962 and distributed in Rover comic books as a premium, a 12 card set titled “Cup-Tie Stars of All Nations”.
This certainly supplants the 66-67 Panini Pele’ and also appears to be much tougher to find. Is this it? Could this be the first card of the star of the 1958 World Cup won by Brazil and their new star?
But I’m here in Brazil and one would assume they knew of Pele’s greatness first. I decide to try looking into some antique stores and liverias, the bookstores. While I could find ephemera from the old national team and a fairly common stamp commemorating Pele’s 1,000th goal, I couldn’t locate a single card type item that featured Pele’. Moreover, the local dealers at the aforementioned stores told me they couldn’t recall any cards of Pele’ ever circulating. In fact, they couldn’t recall ANY cards being circulated in Brazil at all. It just doesn’t seem to be a part of their culture.
Before I left the U.S., I contacted a few Italian card dealers with whom I regularly consult asking for a list of soccer players that I could get for them. They did supply a list but both vendors stated they were doubtful any such cards existed, that Brazil had never produced any cards to the best of their extensive knowledge and that my trip would prove fruitless. (I somehow forgot to inform my editor of that information. I mean, really, they’re all the way in Italy. How could they know for sure?)
At this point, I tended to agree. I had asked just about everyone who understood English and no one had ever seen, heard or even wanted anything like a card of their hero, Pele’.
Instead, they packed in Sao Paulo’s stadium or leaned into their radios, imagining his every move. Yellow national jerseys bearing Number 10 are and have been a staple of Brazilian sportswear for over forty years.
I leave Brazil unsuccessful in my pursuit but no less infatuated with this amazing country. Arriving home, I find that an international card expert in Florida to whom I had issued a challenge to find the true Pele’ rookie card, had struck cardboard gold during my absence.
My expert, thinking as did I that the ‘62 Rover would hold the title of Pele’s rookie card, had begun to scour European auctions, using translators and sources to ferret out anything paper and Pele’. Amazingly, he found a German based, German language auction with a large set of sports cards featuring international stars and several Pele cards. The set: Heinerle Sammelbilder, circa 1959.
At this point, I believe that we’ve identified the Pele’ rookie card or at the very least, a card that will no less than share that title should another of the same year surface elsewhere. That may, however, be unlikely given the fact that Pele’ only became known following his success in the ‘58 World Cup played in the middle of the year, leaving little time for 1958 production. Also, keep in mind that European cards are often dated with the year following production (like American automobiles) probably in an effort to make them seem new longer.
The card itself is an elegant full bleed photo of Pele, a colorful 1950’s quality picture applied to fairly thick stock and reportedly distributed in packs of chocolate. What little we know indicates it is from a large set and rare even in Germany though Heinerle is a known name as is Panini in Italy or Topps in the United States.
It is, by all practical standards, the Pele’ rookie card, the first known tribute to inarguably the most revered athlete on the planet.
Update: Much has changed since this was initially published nearly ten years ago. A new entry has emerged.
Some will argue that the Rekord Magazine Pele cut-out should be considered among the legend’s rookie cards but it’s hard to get past the fact that the card is a 2up on the front of a magazine and must be cut out today, in the after-market. How leading graders can assess an edge valuation for a card made in the last 1950s and cut in 2010 is hard to grasp.
More importantly, a Brazilian made ‘card’ has made it to the market. The 1958-59 Quigol. As seen in the picture, it is a very small card on paper-thin stock and part of a larger set featuring soccer/football players. The card seems to be more rare than the Heinerle though more could appear as awareness grows. Of course, the Heinerle’s traditional size creates increased favor with collectors