Johnny Unitas: A Football Great Remembered

By Rick Snyder

It would be unconscionable for me to go any further in these ceremonies, and not make the flat-out statement that if John Unitas is not the greatest quarterback to play professional football, they're can't be anybody any greater."

Frank Gitschier presenting Johnny Unitas to the Hall of Fame, 1979

Johnny Unitas

No professional football player is as credited with the elevation of the NFL to the status of America's favorite sport than John Constantine Unitas. The Pittsburgh native attended the University of Louisville, playing well enough to be drafted by his home-town Steelers in the ninth round of the 1955 draft. However, the Steelers had too many quarterbacks and released Unitas, but too late for him to hook up with another team for the season. Instead, he played for the Bloomfield Rams, a semi-pro team, at three dollars a game, while also working construction. This was a fairy tale in the making!

On that fateful day in February 1956, the Baltimore Colts contacted Unitas thinking he may be able to help their football team. The Colts had been scouting the semi-pro quarterback and were intrigued by what they had seen. Only two years later, Unitas led the Colts to the NFL title over the New York Giants in what has been called "Pro Football's Greatest Game." Johnny Unitas was now a household name, and his very image became symbolic of 1950s America - the buzz cut and high-tops are everlasting memories for all football fans!

Johnny Unitas

Not only was Johnny "U" a gifted quarterback, it was his courage to perform in a pocket completely surrounded by violence and his ability to read and understand opposing defenses that led to career marks of 40,000 passing yards and 290 touchdowns, staggering totals compared to his contemporaries. Unitas captured three Most Valuable Player awards, three NFL titles, and one Super Bowl victory. A legendary performer under pressure, this was the game's quintessential field general! And his record of throwing at least one touchdown pass in 47 straight games is the equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, a record that may never be broken.

Just as Unitas remains an icon of American football, so too is his standing as one of the most widely and passionately collected players in the hobby, regardless of sport. There are no fewer than nineteen regular issues of the long-time Baltimore Colts quarterback, as well as a few highlight and in-action cards, and several inserts and subsets. Several of his vintage issues have yet to grade PSA MINT 9, and only one of his regular issue cards has ever graded PSA GEM MT 10! Let's take a look at the pasteboard career of this legendary passer with the "Golden Arm."

Johnny Unitas

At the time of its issue, the Topps 1957 football set was the company's most ambitious to date with 154 cards and an unnumbered checklist, requiring two series. The horizontal format with dual-images of each player, a head shot on the left and an action shot on the right, gives the set a visual appeal extremely popular with today's collectors. While Paul Hornung and Bart Starr are also featured as rookies in 1957, it's the first-ever issue of Johnny Unitas that stands alone as the key card to the set. And it's nothing less than a classic! Nestled in the second series as card #138, thankfully it was double-printed, resulting in over 100 copies grading an unqualified NM-MT 8. But, even a population of this size has trouble keeping up with demand as PSA 8s sell for $800 to $1,200, depending on the specific qualities of the NM-MT 8. Plagued with print snow, centering issues, and nearly impossible to find with four Mint corners, only six copies have graded PSA 9 out of 750 total submissions. Which means only one thing: a Unitas rookie card graded PSA 9 is one of the most sought after and valuable football cards in the hobby!

Johnny Unitas

His sophomore issue in 1958 is actually much tougher to find in high grade than his double-printed rookie card with only 23 PSA 8s and four PSA 9s graded to date. A condition-sensitive set with a host of print and production problems, this would be the last Topps issue to include Johnny Unitas and not have him as the #1 card until 1968! Beginning in 1959, on the heels of the historic 1958 championship game, Unitas would start a five-year run as the #1 card in Topps annual football issue. No other athlete in any major sport had or has ever been bestowed this accolade by any card manufacturing company—Unitas was football, and no NFL player was more imitated in school yards, sandlots, and city streets all across the country.

However, as collectors know all-too-well, the #1 card is traditionally condition-sensitive, with precious few high-grade copies left in existence across all vintage sets. This has had a profound impact on the number of high-grade copies that have survived for many of Unitas's earliest issues. Only two copies of this third-year issue from 1959 have graded PSA 9, with 1960 and 1963 still waiting for their first MINT 9 Unitas! And to make matters worse, Topps 1962 and 1963 set featured black and colored borders respectively, resulting in only one MINT 9 ever graded between those two years.

Johnny Unitas

An overlooked and relatively undervalued card from early in Unitas's career is Fleer's 1961 issue, featuring NFL and AFL players. In fact, the one and only PSA 10 of any of his regular issues is a copy of his 1961 Fleer card, and only four others graded as high as PSA 9. Unitas's earliest issues are as tough as the man himself in locating high grade copies.

The Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corp. issued four popular and attractive football sets featuring NFL players from 1964 through 1967, with Topps focusing on the upstart AFL during the mid '60s. All four Philly issues contain the Baltimore Colts superstar quarterback, and the 1964 Philly issue of Unitas is actually one of his easier cards to find in high grade with 89 PSA 8s and seventeen PSA 9s in the current population. The 1965 Philly issue gets tougher with only 23 PSA 8s and six PSA 9s, but 1966 and 1967 are nearly frightening: each set has yielded only five PSA 8s and no PSA 9s, easily the two toughest regular issues when it comes to high-grade copies of Unitas. Philly's last two football issues in 1966 and 1967 are quite condition-sensitive due to poor production standards and the use of colored borders on the front and back of each card. Chipping is prevalent in both sets, with rough cuts so severe you would think they were O-Pee-Chee issues!

Johnny Unitas

In 1968, and for the first time in five years, Topps released an issue that would include both NFL and AFL players. Unitas was back! His final two regular issues of the 1960s feature classic snapshots of the Baltimore Colts quarterback, and are much easier to find in high grade than his previous two Philly issues. Johnny Unitas was also included in several Topps inserts and subsets from 1968 through 1971: posters, four in ones, game cards, supers, and the extremely popular super glossy inserts give collectors plenty of opportunities to add to their collections. These inserts and subsets are much tougher to find in high grade compared to his regular issues, and considering how tough they are in the highest grades, relatively undervalued in the current market.

Kellogg's cereal entered the football and baseball card market in 1970 with their timeless 3-D issues. Susceptible to cracking and curling, the 1970 and 1971 Kellogg's issues of Unitas are condition-sensitive. However, since Kellogg's didn't make their 1971 issue available through a mail-in offer as they did in1970, their second 3-D football issue is extraordinarily difficult to find in high grade. Only one copy of Unitas has ever graded PSA NM-MT 8, compared to the 21 copies graded PSA MINT 9 of his 1970 Kellogg's issue!

Johnny Unitas

The 1970 through 1974 Topps sets featuring the final run of Unitas regular issues are relatively scarce in the highest grades. PSA MINT 9 populations of Unitas found in these five issues range from two to seven, causing demand to greatly exceed supply. Topps would for the sixth and last time have Unitas as the #1 card in their football set in 1971. The colored borders add to the condition-sensitive nature of his 1971 issue, with only two copies graded PSA MINT 9 to date. Topps would then feature two cards of Johnny U in 1972, their most celebrated set of the decade. The Unitas "Pro Action" card of 1972 is a classic, featuring the legendary quarterback following through on a pass against the Dallas Cowboys amidst a collapsing pocket! This would also be the final year Unitas was featured as a member of the Baltimore Colts.

Johnny Unitas

The future Hall of Famer was traded to the San Diego Chargers in January 1973, where he played the final season of his illustrious career. His final two regular issues in 1973 and 1974 feature Unitas as quarterback of the Chargers. Despite the fact lightning bolts didn't seem quite right on his uniform, both of his final regular issues are very tough to find in high grade as Topps production efforts reached an all-time low. The current populations combined for these last two issues are forty-six PSA 8s and nine PSA 9s, not terribly high for mid '70s issues of the greatest field general in the history of the NFL. When you compare these counts to other keys cards in the 1973 and 1974 sets, Unitas is clearly overlooked and undervalued. And compared to the final few issues of baseball icons Hank Aaron and Willie Mays in the 1970s, the current prices of these precious few PSA 9s of Unitas seem incredibly low!

One of the most popular and collected football players in the hobby for a number of years, Johnny U's stature amongst vintage football card collectors is not unlike the mystique Mickey Mantle has over many baseball card collectors. Unitas is the most beloved and recognized player during the "Golden Age" of professional football, and two decades of Topps, Philly, and Fleer issues keep collectors coming back for more. PSA-graded examples in NM-MT 8 or MINT 9 are like the man himself—just about unbeatable!

Rick Snyder's MINT State is one of the hobby's leading dealers of high-end vintage cards, specializing in football, basketball, and baseball rookies (see their page 11 ad).