Every vintage football card collector knows which cards are the most rare and expensive. A raw Joe Namath rookie card in excellent condition may run you upwards of $600 or $700. Which are the rarest autographed American Football League cards? That’s a more interesting question and one that requires a little research.
While supply and demand certainly factor into the cost of any piece of memorabilia, they are not the sole factors in determining value. That same Namath rookie card is plentiful. There are probably a dozen or more, in varying conditions, on eBay at any given time. Once you purchase the card, you simply wait for the next time Namath visits an autograph show or has a private signing, pay his fee, and then happily check that card off your want list of signed cards. He’s been signing them for over 40 years. On the other hand, while an autographed card by a common player who had the misfortune to die at a young age may be in extremely short supply, it will often be overlooked by all but the most specialized of collectors, and therefore sell for a fraction of the price of the Namath.
As collectors we can only theoretically determine the most difficult card in any particular collection, as the most difficult card will invariably be the last one you find for your collection, and is something that would be different for every collector. However, for this exercise, the way to judge scarcity is to determine the length of time that each card could legitimately be autographed. By that I mean the time frame between when the card was issued, and when the athlete died. The cards with the shortest available signing periods should, in theory, be the most difficult to find. The obvious exception may be for an athlete that completely faded from the public eye after retirement, or simply refuses to sign autographs. But again, for simplicity sake, the cards with the shortest possible signing periods should be the most difficult to obtain.
Sadly, there are several AFL players who died within a few years of their last card being issued. Clyde Washington, Jacque MacKinnon, Ross O’Hanley and several others passed away in the 1970’s, in some instances less than a decade after their final card was produced. Signed copies of their football cards are truly difficult to obtain, but assuming that the athlete was not opposed to signing while alive, they can eventually be found. There are, however, two regular-issue AFL trading cards where the window of opportunity for it to have been autographed is roughly two year or less, making them easily the most rare of autographed AFL cards. Those cards are the 1964 Topps Dick Christy, and the 1968 Topps Frank Buncom.
Christy played one season with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers before jumping to the upstart AFL, and finding playing time in the offensive backfield of the Boston Patriots and New York Titans/Jets. Christy rushed for 1,267 yards and nine touchdowns during his five seasons of professional football. He also participated on special teams, and led the AFL in both kick-off and punt return yardage at points in his career.
Christy had been retired for almost three years when he lost control of his car while rounding a turn in 1966, crashed into a pole on an exit ramp and died. He was 31.
Christy’s final football issue was card #111 in the 1964 Topps set. Assuming that the card was released in the summer of 1964, there was roughly a two-year window in which he was able to autograph it. Adding slightly to its rarity is the fact that the card was short-printed, meaning that because 1964 Topps cards were not printed on a standard 132-card sheet, some of the cards were produced in lesser quantities than others.
The rarest of standard, signed AFL cards is the 1968 Topps Frank Buncom, a standout linebacker with the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals from 1962-1968. He played in three AFL All-Star Games as a member of the Chargers before being chosen by the Bengals in the AFL’s 1968 expansion draft. He played that year in Cincinnati and was about to begin a second season with Paul Brown’s squad when he died unexpectedly, the victim of a pulmonary embolism on September 14, 1969. He was only 29 years old.
Frank Buncom’s 1968 Topps card was issued in the first series and is not a short print. Again assuming that the 68′s were released in the summer, he would have had slightly more than a year to autograph the card, which makes it the rarest of regular-issue AFL cards that have been signed.
Buncom was featured in the 1969 Topps set as well. However, his card was in the second series which was released to the public roughly two weeks after his death, making it the only regular-issue AFL card that is impossible to find autographed.
In addition to those mentioned above, there is another card that certainly deserves to be mentioned among the rarest of signed AFL issues. As it is not a standard signed card, I must admit that I had not even thought of its possible existence until stumbling across one quite by surprise in the spring of last year. That card is a 1964 Topps Kansas City Chiefs team card, autographed by former running back Mack Lee Hill.
This particular card actually bears two signatures, Bert Coan and Hill. Coan, a Chargers and Chiefs back who spent seven seasons in the AFL, signed boldly on the left of the card. The Hill signature is a bit fainter, and includes Hill’s nickname, “Truck.” Assuming that Topps cards were available to the public by August of 1964, Hill would have had just 17 months in which he could have signed these cards prior to his death in December the following year. As it would have taken an inspired collector to have Hill sign a team card since he did not have a card of his own, I have to believe that this is one of the few, if not the only, Hill autographed Topps card in existence.
Mack Lee Hill was a free agent rookie running back with the Chiefs in 1964. He made the team and ended up as Kansas City’s second-leading rusher that year with 567 yards and four touchdowns. Hill was wrapping up a second successful season in 1965, when he ruptured a knee ligament in a December game against the Buffalo Bills. His season over, Hill entered Menorah Medical Center on December 14, 1965, to have the knee surgically repaired. Shortly after the operation was concluded, Hill went into convulsions and died in the operating room. The cause of death was a massive embolism. Hill was the second Chiefs running back to die while on the active roster, following Stone Johnson who died after suffering a broken neck in a 1963 exhibition game. In 1966, the Chiefs honored Hill by implementing the Mack Lee Hill Award, which is given annually to the Chiefs rookie of the year. Mike Garrett, Christian Okoye and Derrick Thomas have been among the recipients.
As is to be expected, there is very little Hill memorabilia available. He never had a regular issue card, and is featured solely on a Chiefs team issue. Several years ago I was fortunate to pick up two Hill newspaper photos that had been signed at Balboa Stadium when the Chiefs came to San Diego. The only other piece that I had found is a wire photo of Chiefs head coach, Hank Stram, weeping during a pre-game ceremony honoring Hill the week after his passing.