By Doug Koztoski
Pittsburgh Steelers legend “Mean” Joe Greene limped unattended through the stadium tunnel toward the locker room. A little boy who stood near the same spot offered the ailing defensive lineman words of encouragement and his bottle of Coke.
The Steelers great accepted the boy’s words to a degree but, at first, declined the offer on the cold beverage, then reconsidered and welcomed the glass bottle, quickly consuming the contents as the youngster stared in awe. As the child bid the player farewell and started to walk away, Greene said, “Hey kid, catch!” and tossed him the jersey that had been draped over one side of his shoulder pads.
The little guy caught the jersey, looked on incredulously and said, “Wow, thanks Mean Joe.” Greene smiled, and then we hear the iconic jingle, “Have a Coke and a smile.” That classic TV commercial debuted in 1979 and can still warm the hearts of those who remember it from its initial run or are just seeing it for the first time.
Based on a widespread company promotion, if that bottle of Coke had come out in 1964-1966 there is a good chance that during football season it would have pictured an AFL or NFL football player on the metal cap’s underside. In the mid-1960s Greene was a few seasons away from starting his pro football career, but many era greats did appear on Coke caps.
The 1964 Coke bottle top offering presents a solid mixture of teams from both leagues, either 34 or 35 players per squad, plus there were also 44 “All-Star” caps from each league.
“There were set collectors, a lot of team collectors and a lot of college collectors,” Mike Mosier said, when talking about selling several of the 1960s caps over the past couple decades. “The interest piqued many years ago, but it has come back to a certain extent.”
Mosier, the longtime owner of Columbia City Collectibles, used the basic (non All-Star) Jim Brown cap as an example.
“The regular cap version (Cleveland Browns) would sell for $40-$50 when demand was at its highest, now it brings maybe half that,” Mosier said.
The Indiana-based memorabilia dealer said the chief reason for this shift was collectors introduced to the caps in the 1960s battled for a few years in adulthood to get back some caps they had as kids, then that hobby segment mostly maxed out and prices dropped.
The “All-Star” caps are generally easier to find than the average team versions due to wider distribution. While the Cleveland running back leads the NFL caps for the era, other stars in the set from the league include Johnny Unitas and Mike Ditka ($15 each), with Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Y.A. Tittle heading up those that swap owners at $10 apiece (all cap prices are those in Excellent or better shape).
Mosier said common caps bring a buck or two for several teams, “but the hardest teams to find were the Dallas Cowboys, Houston Oilers, anything on the West Coast and most AFL teams” and some of those common caps are $5 apiece.
Plus, depending on the year, players appearing on caps bottled with Sprite, Fresca, Tab and Fanta “can bring up to 50 percent more than those on Coke caps.” Mosier also noted that some collectors liked to assemble teams “all of one flavor” of their soft drink of choice within the promotion. A team logo often accompanied a franchise’s cap set, as well.
In 1965 New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath entered the pro ranks and his Coke cap attracts the most attention from that year’s set, commonly selling for $40-$50. According to the Standard Catalog of Vintage Football Cards (SCOVFC), the 1965 Coke Jets squad can bring $150 in Near-mint condition.
The ’65 Green Bay Packers, in their heyday of Coach Vince Lombardi’s era, are the only team that surpasses Namath and Co. in the Coke cap issue, listing for $160 in the vintage guide. That Packers set, with 36 caps, the standard that season, features several Hall of Famers including Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, and Bart Starr, all listing for $10-$14 in the SCOVFC.
Third and long
For the third and final Coke football cap set of the period, the 1966 offering is the trio’s biggest. Namath and the Packers dominate much of the issue, again, as do most of the stars from the previous two sets, but Chicago Bears legends Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers also make the highlight reel.
Many of the 1964-66 Coke football caps survived, but expect dings, bends, scratches and at least some rust, most of the time, anyway, since through normal use, wear and time they can be hard enough to locate in better shape. Then again, countless thousands, likely millions, of these caps were affixed to the saver sheets that came one to a carton.
Once the saver sheets were filled, collectors often redeemed them at their local Coke bottling plant for tickets, football gear and other prizes, consequently, finding the sheets today offers a true challenge, especially in above average condition.
“The saver sheets go for $25 to $30 on average,” Mosier said. “More for the real tough teams ($75-$100 and up).”
Clicking through dozens of ’60s football Coke cap listings recently on eBay, it appears the availability and interest for bottle tops remains solid. Mosier believes their popularity will “hold where they are” a decade or more from now. That, of course, bodes well for cap collectors.
So whether you go for team sets, Hall of Famers, a type or two from an issue, or a combination thereof, it might just be worth it for you to check them out, so you can, to paraphrase the classic jingle, “Have some Coke caps, and a smile!”
Doug Koztoski is a longtime contributor to SCD. He welcomes comments related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.