Interview with Todd Tobias: Author, Collector & Scholar at Tales from the American Football League

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Todd Tobias is the author of seminal American Football League works on the Los Angeles / San Diego Chargers, "Charging Through the AFL: Los Angeles" and "San Diego Chargers' Football in the 1960s and Bombs Away! Air Coryell and the San Diego Chargers." He is also the creator and host of the truly outstanding online resource, "Tales from the American Football League." Below is a recent interview I conducted with him and is, what I intend to be, the first of a series of interviews with this Chargers scholar and collector.

I first discovered Todd Tobias through his book, Charging Through the AFL: Los Angeles and San Diego Chargers' Football in the 1960s. Being a bibliophile and a collector, the book was out-of-print (as it remains, sadly) and quite expensive: both adding to the necessary "hunt" to find my own copy, which I eventually did. After pouring over the book, I began to research the author and, lo and behold! Todd runs the seminal website on all things related to the American Football League, Tales from the American Football League.

Having recently launched my own blog where I was sharing my passion for collecting things related to the Chargers (and Padres), I reached out and introduced myself to Todd, requesting his advice and general input related to a few questions about the early AFL regarding a post I was working on at the time. To my surprise, he responded and since then I've been hoping to interview him as he's a rare resource in the world of AFL-specific knowledge, as well as the earlier eras of football in general, let alone collecting the memorabilia of the time.

What follows is what I hope to be my first interview with Todd Tobias for our San Diego Chargers-specific Bolts from the Blue site. Below, in this first interview, I'm asking Todd those questions which may serve as an introduction to those of you yet to come across his site, Tales from the American Football League and his phenomenal books, Charging Through the AFL and Bombs Away! Air Coryell and the San Diego Chargers. It is my hope and intention, through the next interview, to ask Todd questions specifically related to the formation of his master's thesis on Sid Gillman and his first book related to the early years of Chargers football.

Following the interview, I strongly encourage you to head to his site, Tales from the American Football League, and dig in as there's seemingly no end to the phenomenal information for those of us interested in such history of our game. Then, get his books as fast as you can. Trust me, you'll be thankful you did, educating yourself further as Chargers fan.

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Zach Malone: Hi Todd! As you know, I've really been looking forward to interviewing you. Not only have you the two most important books aspects on two of the most important eras of the San Diego Chargers history, you're also one of the biggest football memorabilia collectors out there...

Firstly, growing up in La Mesa, CA, how did you get interested in football and, especially, the Los Angeles / San Diego Chargers?

Todd Tobias: Hi Zach. Thanks for the kind words. Those questions actually encompass two separate periods of my life. First, I grew up in La Mesa during the heyday of Air Coryell. It was a great time to be a kid and a Chargers fan. It seemed that all of San Diego almost shut down whenever a Chargers game was being played. As a sports-loving kid, I took to football and the Chargers right away. They have pretty much been my team ever since.

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1964 - 1966 Balboa Stadium Ticket Sign

As for liking the Los Angeles / San Diego Chargers, assuming that you mean the AFL period, I wrote my master's thesis on Sid Gillman, the Chargers first head coach. As I learned more about the early Chargers and the AFL in general, my interest in the league grew. After my thesis was complete, I began writing my first book, Charging Through the AFL.

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That only expanded my knowledge and appreciation for all things AFL, which eventually bled into my collecting, and ultimately my site, Tales from the American Football League.

ZM: You've mentioned that once you realized your dream to be a professional athlete, would not come true, you started engaging the sports more studiously, but also as a collector. Did the two start hand-in-hand for you? When was this?

TT: I say that mostly as a joke, because I was never really on the professional athlete track. But collecting has been a part of my life since I got my first box of baseball cards when I was five years old. My dad is an antiques dealer, so as a kid, I went to every garage sale, swap meet, estate sale and junk shop that we came across. As my dad looked for his things, I always looked for sports stuff. Really, collecting seems to almost be a part of my DNA.

I first began asking teachers if I could write papers about sports-related subjects back in the fourth grade. Since then, whenever my teachers or professors would allow it, I chose to research and write about sports. The majority of my teachers were not necessarily sports fans, but they were open-minded, and challenged me to do something more than just regurgitate team histories and statistics. That helped me to understand what sports mean as a bigger picture, and how they influence people.

You could say that I often tied sports writing and collecting together, because I invariably began collecting items pertaining to the subjects that I studied. That is how my AFL collection came to be.

ZM: What first got you into collecting sports memorabilia; was it baseball and football cards? Media guides? Autographed baseballs, bats, footballs and helmets?

TT: Frankly, it was an unopened box of 1978 Topps baseball cards. My family took a motorhome trip from San Diego to Montana when I was five years old. In an effort to keep us quiet, my dad bought my cousin and I each a box of 1978 Topps cards.

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1978 Topps Baseball - wax pack

We opened them, chewed the gum, and traded the cards back and forth. My cousin lost interest in the cards pretty quickly, but for some unknown reason they fascinated me. I still recall the first card that I saw in the first pack that I opened was of Ed Ott, a Pittsburgh Pirates catcher.

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1978 Topps #28 - Ed Ott

From there, I gradually began collecting pennants, game programs, baseball gloves, bats, and lots more. I stopped collecting baseball in about 1998, when I began writing my masters thesis on Sid Gillman, but immediately started collecting football. Since then I have sold off 95% of my baseball collection, but added back almost as much vintage football material.

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1963 Chargers Banner - Formerly Hung at Balboa Stadium


ZM: I know now you're principally collecting the early American Football League football card sets...aren't you attempting to build complete Fleer and Topps sets of the early 1960's, but of each card being autographed?

TT: Yes. In a way, I guess that this collection takes me back to my roots, because I can remember getting bubble gum cards autographed by Chargers players as a kid. The main difference now is that these cards are much older, and several of the players are deceased, so in many instances I have to find vintage signed examples. This causes me to reach out to dealers and collectors all over the country.

ZM: That you're going after complete autographed sets presents immediate problems...are there any players and cards that you've had to settle on "just" the card with no autograph?

TT: Well...no. I have all of the cards already, either signed or unsigned, so in that sense the "sets" are complete. As for building autographed sets, roughly 97% of my AFL cards are not autographed. There are 1,278 cards possible in the collection that I am building, and I currently have 1,241 of them in autographed form. I am missing just two signed cards of players that are still alive; the rest are deceased. I feel confident that I will eventually track down the remaining 30+ cards to complete all of the sets. It may take me another 10 years, but I will get it done.

ZM: Just two?! So, what are the two signed cards of living players you're missing?

TT: Well, wouldn't you know it, but they are both Raiders! The first one in James "Jetstream" Smith, who is shown on a 1961 Fleer card. He is now around 80 years old, and lives in a small town in Massachusetts. We have spoken on the phone a couple of times, and he has told me that he would sign for me, but he has had my card for about nine months now.

The other is George Fleming who, ironically, replaced "Jetstream" on the Raiders roster the next year. Fleming has a card in the 1962 Fleer set. He is a former politician in the State of Washington. I have called him to do an interview for my site, but he hasn't returned my call.

I could keep pressing them both, but I am hesitant to do so because I believe that autograph collectors often overstep the boundaries of common courtesy in their efforts to expand their collections. I never want to be confused with that collector.

ZM: Related, is there a particular card from a particular set that has proven most challenging and rewarding to chase after?

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TT: That is a really tough question because there are many different ways that obtaining a signed card can be a rewarding experience. In some instances a player may be long-deceased, and his signed cards can be very difficult to find. Former Chargers linebacker, Frank Buncom, who died in 1969, is a great example.

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1966 Topps #120 - Frank Buncom

Buncom was a very willing signer, and I have his autographs on lots of different items, like game programs, photos, 3x5s, and cards.

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However, when you are looking for a signature on a specific card of a man that died more than 40 years ago, that can be a tough search. Getting each one of his signed cards is very rewarding.

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1967 Topps #130 - Frank Buncom

I have also had the exact opposite experience. I once needed a couple of cards signed by former Raiders defensive lineman, Tom Keating.

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1968 Topps #116 - Tom Keating

I had mentioned this to Ben Davidson, who was one of Keating's teammates, and happened to live about two miles from me.The next time Keating was in town, Ben invited me to come to his house to get my cards signed. Davidson, Keating and I sat down for a couple of hours and looked through my entire collection. They loved remembering the players, and told stories about the guys whose cards that saw. That was particularly rewarding as well.

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1965 Topps #137 - Ben Davidson

I can say that there are many players whose signed cards are extremely difficult to find, and getting each and every one feels like a significant accomplishment. Guys like Cookie Gilchrist, Frank Buncom, Butch Songin, Ross O'Hanley, Dick Christy and many more, fall into that category.

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1963 Fleer #23 - Cookie Gilchrist

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1962 Fleer #63 - Ed Songin

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1961 Topps #178 - Ross O'Hanley

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1964 Topps #111 - Dick Christy

ZM: Thus far in my life, growing up when chasing the 1998 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. card was the card to have, I've seen the collecting hobby shift dramatically; I'm sure this is even more so for you. What have been the biggest changes you've witnessed and what inspires you about collecting today as well as when you look forward?

TT: There have been a lot of changes during my time in the hobby. I would have to say that the ever-changing quantity and types of sets has been one of the biggest changes. With the exception of adding an autographed Topps Chargers team set to an ongoing collection each season, I haven't collected new cards with any regularity since the brand explosions in about 1991-1992. It just got to be too difficult to keep up with everything, so I completely backed out of contemporary cards and went with vintage cards and memorabilia.

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Paul Lowe 1960 Los Angeles Chargers Best Offensive Back Award

Truthfully, although I have been in the hobby for roughly 35 years, it wasn't until I began building my signed AFL sets that I really felt like I had found my personal collecting niche. I used to be more of an "accumulator" than a "collector," if that makes sense. I used to try and pick up anything that caught my eye. Now I am much more specific with the things that I acquire. The combination of researching and writing about the AFL, getting to know many of the players, and then collecting the signed cards, has developed into a very enjoyable part of my life.

I am not exactly sure what the future holds for me as a collector. My signed sets are nearly complete, though likely won't be 100% for several more years. So I will continue to work with them. I am hesitant to begin a new project because I don't know what could capture my interest like the sets. Whatever it is, I am sure it will be AFL-related, and it will force me to broaden my knowledge of the league, instead of simply adding something new to my collection.

ZM: Returning to your past, in graduate school at the University of San Diego, you wrote your master's thesis on formers Chargers head coach, and a man who changed the game forever, Sid Gillman. I imagine you got to know both Mr. Gillman as well as numerous players and personnel formerly associated with the team. What was this like?

TT: Well, this was the basis from which all of my AFL work has been built. Meeting Sid, and his wife, Esther, was a great experience for me. I got to know them in their last few years in San Diego, and I visited with them many times. I was amazed that even into his 90s, five different NFL teams send their game films to Sid on a weekly basis, simply to get his thoughts on their offenses.

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Todd Tobias & Sid Gillman

He had one room upstairs that was full of video equipment and game films. His knowledge of the game, offense in particular, was just so vast. I don't know that I have ever known anyone that was more of an expert in his or her respective field than Sid Gillman was in football. He began as an assistant coach in 1934, and was reviewing game film until 2002. That is nearly 70 years dedication to learning and teaching the game. There are not many people that can claim that kind of longevity in anything.

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Sid Gillman's 1963 championship bracelet


ZM: You seem to have a special relationship with various Chargers, especially Lance Alworth. How did this friendship develop?

TT: I first met Lance when I began the research for my thesis in 1998. I got to know him a bit better when I was writing Charging Through the AFL, and from there our friendship just sort of developed. Knowing that I have a sports museum background, when Lance wanted all of his football memorabilia to be properly archived and stored, he hired me for the job. We have worked on other projects together as well, including a thus-far unsuccessful campaign for John Hadl's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I have found Lance to simply be a good guy, and very generous. My kids love him as well. Every time they leave "Mr. Lance's" office, they have big bags of candy and smiles on their faces.

ZM: Lastly, for those who may be new to collecting --- or, even for those who have collected in the past, but are interested in re-engaging the hobby --- what advice or words of wisdom would you like to pass on?

TT: I think that the greatest advice that can be given is to collect what brings you pleasure, and not what you think will be valuable in 10 years. Whether you collect new, shiny cards, or vintage material, do it because you enjoy it, and not because you think that you will be able to sell it in 20 years and make a fortune. I saw dozens of people acting as investor-collectors in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were spending a ton of money on new product that they were sure would be worth a fortune in the future. Now, some 25 years later, all of that 1980s and 1990s material is a struggle to sell at pennies on the dollar. As long as you collect what you enjoy, and stay within your financial means, you will never be hurt by this hobby.

ZM: Now, I've got to ask: any favorite Chargers this year? Would you care to share with the Bolts from the Blue readers, from your educated vantage point, what you're most looking forward to this year with the Chargers as they rebuild the franchise?

TT: I think that a large, grey cloud has hung over that organization for the last several seasons. A lot of things contributed to it, and it made for uncomfortable football seasons around Chargers Park. I am looking forward to Tom Telesco and Mike McCoy bringing in a new attitude, and fresh spirit to the team. I am looking forward to Chargers football becoming fun again, because I don't really think it has been for the past few years.

ZM: In closing our first interview --- what I hope to be a series of interviews with you --- Todd, is there anything else you'd like to add?

TT: Not really. If we are doing three more of these interviews, I am sure that you will get it all out of me eventually anyway. I appreciate your interest in my work and collection, and hope that your readers enjoy my site, Tales from the American Football League (www.talesfromtheamericanfootballleague.com).

ZM: Thank you so much for sharing your time and unique perspective with us, Todd! I hope to speak with you again soon.

TT: Thank you for your time and interest in my collection. We will do it again for sure!

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