The NFL is ingrained in our sports conscience now, so it’s hard to remember that it once was a league that battled a bitter rival for nearly a decade. The AFL secured a merger with the more established NFL at mid-decade and played the inaugural Super Bowl on Jan. 15, 1967.
The two leagues would merge for the 1970 season, but the merger in football cards already had taken place by 1968. That was the year Topps regained the right to issue NFL cards, wrestling control from the Philadelphia Gum Co., which had marketed NFL cards since 1964.
So 1967 was the last gasp of football card wars until 1989. Topps issued AFL cards 50 years ago, while Philadelphia had the NFL contract. Both sets had some great cards. Here is a look at five of them:
Joe Namath (Topps, No. 98)
This was Joe Namath’s second Topps card, and the most coveted in this 132-card set. Finding Broadway Joe graded in mint or near mint condition is a tall order, but there are plenty of mid-grade cards that can be found. There are five PSA 10 versions of Namath and 44 that grade out at PSA 9.
With nearly 1,000 cards submitted for grading, more than half are PSA 7s and 8s. They are scarcer through the SGC grading system, with one out of 164 submissions grading as high as 96. Four grade at 92.
In 1967, Namath became the first quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 passing yards, totaling 4,007 with the New York Jets.
Jack Kemp (Topps, No. 24)
Quarterbacks were big in the old AFL, and Jack Kemp was one of the marquee players of the decade. He played in all 10 seasons of the AFL’s existence and appeared in seven All-Star games. He played in five AFL title games, winning back-to-back titles for the Buffalo Bills in 1964-1965. The Bills missed out on going to the first Super Bowl when they lost the 1966 title game to the Kansas City Chiefs. Kemp also was the quarterback in the AFL’s first two title games, when the Chargers lost both times to the Houston Oilers.
It’s a tough card to find in high grade. With 540 cards turned into PSA for grading, only 25 have reached PSA 9. Like Namath’s card, more than half of the graded cards are PSA 7s and 8s. SGC also has no gem-mint cards of Kemp, with only one grading as high as 96 and one at 92.
Gale Sayers (Philadelphia, No. 35)
Gale Sayers would finish the 1967 season by leading the NFL in all-purpose yards for the third consecutive season. He was a threat from anywhere on the field, rushing for seven touchdowns, catching a touchdown pass, returning three kickoffs for scores (including one for 103 yards) and adding a touchdown on a punt return. To say that the “Kansas Comet” was electrifying would be an understatement.
There are no graded PSA 10 cards of Sayers, and only 23 out of 434 are 9s. The largest number of PSA-graded cards are 8s, with 108 attaining NM/MT status. Of the 83 cards submitted to SGC, only one graded as high as 96.
Dick Butkus (Philadelphia, No. 28)
What Sayers was to the Bears’ offense, Dick Butkus was the catalyst for the Chicago defense. He was an intimidating presence on defense, and boy, he could hit hard. In addition to his monster hits, Butkus intercepted a pass and recovered three fumbles.
There have been 405 cards sent to PSA for grading, and—this is beginning to be a pattern — none have earned a PSA 10. Only two have been graded as high as PSA 9; the bulk of graded cards for Butkus fall in the PSA 6 and 7 range. The high-graded cards are even scarcer among submissions to SGC: of the 45 cards graded, there is only one that rates as high as an 88, and just five are at 86.
Johnny Unitas (Philadelphia, No. 23)
He might not have the most expensive card in the 1967 Philadelphia set, but Johnny Unitas remained a coveted card throughout his career. In 1967, Unitas would throw for 3,428 yards —the second-highest total of his career. He also tossed 20 touchdown passes as he led the Baltimore Colts to an 11-1-2 record. Incredibly, the Colts missed the NFL playoffs that season. They tied the Rams for the lead in the Coastal Division, but lost the tiebreaker because their lone loss came against Los Angeles in the regular-season finale. Earlier in the season, the two teams played to a 24-24 tie. A 20-20 tie the following week against Minnesota loomed large as the season ended.
Unitas has had 293 cards graded from the Philly set, and while there were no PSA 10s, there are a pair of 9s. There have been 49 cards graded at SGC, and the best condition is an 88; there are two of those, and two that grade at 86.
There is a reason the Philadelphia set lacked gem-mint cards in 1967. Production values were poor, particularly because of the colored borders on the front and back of the card. Chipping also was an issue, as was centering.
And yet, these cards endure among collectors. Star power overcomes condition any day; it’s great to have both, but as a kid 50 years ago, a Namath card in any condition was better than none at all.