His rookie card is one of the most coveted among football collectors, and his career was even more magnificent. You never had to say his full name, either. Just “Johnny U,” and football fans knew who you meant.
He threw for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns in an era when the National Football League was ground-oriented. That included 47 straight games in which he threw at least one touchdown pass, and 26 games where he passed for 300 or more yards.
His career didn’t exactly get off to a flying start. A ninth round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Unitas was cut and had begun working construction and playing semi-pro football on weekends. After borrowing gas money to drive to Baltimore for a tryout, Unitas was signed by the Colts. He became the starter partway through the 1956 season after George Shaw broke his leg and that injury is likely the only reason Unitas has a football card in the 1957 set.
Unitas helped put pro football on the fans’ radar in 1958 when he led the Baltimore Colts to the NFL title with a nationally televised, 23-17 overtime victory against the New York Giants. Unitas was a three-time league MVP and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
His rookie card in the 1957 Topps football is the most valuable card in the set and on a short list of the best vintage quarterback rookie cards ever made. And collecting card No.138 in high grade has become very expensive. In August, a PSA 9 version of the Unitas rookie sold for $144,000 at Heritage Auctions. Of the nearly 2,600 cards sent to PSA for grading, only eight have attained PSA 9 status. That PSA 9 Unitas sold this summer actually went for more in a November 2016 auction held by Heritage, fetching $167,300 with only three bids made. In May 2016, it took 103 bids before a PSA 9 Unitas rookie (different from the Heritage Auctions version) sold for $151,200 in Memory Lane’s Spring Classic Rarities Auction.
There are 178 Unitas rookies that have graded out at PSA 8, but only two have made it to PSA 8.5. There was an eBay auction this past Aug. 23 that pulled in a winning bid of $25,300, and on June 29, the other PSA 8.5 Unitas rookie sold through Heritage for $40,800.
Currently, there are more than 50 PSA-graded Unitas rookies that can be found on eBay, ranging from cards graded Poor to NM/MT.
At SGC, 534 Unitas rookies have been submitted. Only two have been given a 96 (mint 9) grade. One of those is currently listed on eBay. Six Unitas rookies have been rated 92 (NMMT+) by SGC.
Beckett has graded only one Unitas as high as a 9. That card, too, is on eBay, with a six-figure asking price.
The reason for the high prices for such a coveted card can be traced to the 1957 Topps set itself. The double photo, horizontal layout was prone for poor centering, miscut cards and wear and tear that one might expect on a 60-year-old card. 1957 Topps cards are also prone to scuffing on the front. The ’57 set was the second Topps set to have all professional players — previous sets, like the 1950 Felt Backs, the 1951 Magic set and the 1955 All-American set, also included college players.
With 154 cards and an unnumbered checklist, the 1957 Topps football set was loaded with rookie cards, including Paul Hornung, Bart Starr, Raymond Berry, Dick “Night Train” Lane and Earl Morrall. But just as he was during his playing days, Unitas remains a cut above the rest — on the field and in the marketplace.