By Doug Koztoski
Johnny Unitas to Raymond Berry. That Baltimore Colts’ quarterback to receiver combo successfully completed passes for several seasons in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps their best day as a team took place in the 1958 NFL Championship contest, known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” That day the Colts beat the New York Giants in overtime and for many fans that matchup sparked pro football getting into the fast lane of U.S. sports popularity. In the thriller, Johnny U and his favorite pass catcher hooked up a dozen times.
With the Unitas to Berry duo intact in 1962, the Colts remained a strong club.
Collectors that season received the pair of future Hall of Famers in the regular 1962 Topps issue, a normally unforgiving black-bordered set in the condition category, and in the 48-piece dollar-bill themed pack inserts, too: Unitas at #24 and Berry immediately after.
So not only were several NFL types “on the money” with the ’62 pack premiums, since the NFL signed a big television deal with the league that season, the players were starting to get “in the money,” as in bigger contracts, as well. Earlier that year, by the way, Topps distributed a Baseball Bucks test issue—more on that offering shortly.
“The Football Bucks have always been a popular set,” longtime sports memorabilia dealer Mike Mosier said. Mosier, known for his largely oddball inventory, noted that “miscuts are a problem” for any Bucks issue. Additionally, when you factor in that the gridiron Bucks came folded in the card packs and are made of flimsier paper (not cardboard), finding premium samples is about as easy as placing an actual wrinkly dollar bill in a vending machine and having it consistently accepted.
Jim Herlihy collected Topps Bucks in two distinct phases: when they debuted during his childhood and when he reentered the hobby as an adult.
“It took me 20-plus years to put together both sets (football and baseball) and finally get them graded by PSA,” Herlihy said.
He retired both sets from atop the PSA Set Registry in the past couple of years.
About half of the Football Bucks picture a Hall of Famer, so a collector can get more bang for his buck in that respect compared to many sets, insert, test, or regular.
Some of Herlihy’s favorite gridiron Bucks stars?
“Unitas, as a Colts fan, along with Jimmy Brown and Bart Starr,” he noted. “Although I loved that (Fran) Tarkenton and (Mike) Ditka appeared in the set as rookies.”
Brown and Tarkenton both lead the set at around $60 apiece in the Standard Catalog of Vintage Football Cards, while Unitas and Starr are about half that.
The Football Bucks possess an odd size to them, about half as wide as a regular trading card and slightly longer, but their shape and more delicate nature do come with an otherwise redeeming design: a close up player photo on the fronts flanked by a career highlight and an aerial drawing of his home stadium; backs include the player’s team and NFL logos.
“I loved the (Bucks) design, very unique and creative,” Herlihy said. “And I was always a bigger fan of the Topps inserts: coins, Bucks, rub-offs, decals, embossed, stamps…, than the standard cards,” he added.
A complete Football Bucks set in top raw shape lists for $400 in the big guide.
Commons, such as J.D. Smith, the set-starter, Don Perkins and Milt Plum book for just a couple dollars in average shape.
Common Football Bucks are fairly hard to find in decent condition and professionally graded, with many in the PSA Population Report falling in the 15 to 25 sample range (all Pop Report numbers are for Bucks with no qualifiers).
Brown leads in the stars department, no surprise there, with 57 in PSA slabs, followed by Starr (48).
About 1,500 Football Bucks have landed in PSA holders, now with 39 PSA 9s and a quartet of PSA 10s. Herlihy had a difficult time locating sharp samples of Sonny Jurgensen and Tommy McDonald.
Herlihy had fun assembling the 96-piece Baseball Bucks test offering, as well, partly because Bob (Roberto) Clemente, Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax lead his, and other collector’s top picks in the issue.
“Although,” he noted, “growing up a White Sox fan I was always fond of Nellie Fox,” who also appears in the set. Evasive high-end Baseball commons for Herlihy include Joey Jay and Felix Mantilla.
The Baseball Bucks, with about 2,000 in PSA holders, have around the same amount of PSA 9s and 10s as the Football set. But, some of the slabbed Baseball commons often appear even less frequently than their “currency cousins.”
Meanwhile, the most prevalent diamond stars, and there are many, are Mantle (77) and Clemente (59).
“While the Baseball set is larger, I found the Football Bucks set tougher because it seems that not as many people saved them,” Herlihy said.
In the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards, a raw Bucks set in Near-mint lists for $2,000, with Mantle ($350) and Clemente ($200) heading the issue. Commons go for just a few dollars.
Mosier added that he has always had better luck selling the Baseball Bucks than their Football counterparts.
“But don’t forget the Hockey Bucks,” Mosier cautioned, which came in the 1962-63 Topps/O-Pee-Chee packs, 24 in the insert set. “The Hockey Bucks are very tough to find and are in high demand.”
By selling them a couple years ago Herlihy turned his small Bucks sets into big bucks. Around this time he received the equivalent of a baseball blooped down the foul line that just nicks the chalk for a hit during a clutch moment.
“I was always frustrated that I could not find a Nellie Fox in top condition, until I agreed to sell my Baseball (Bucks) set. Then I found him in an auction, a PSA 10. Today he’s the only Topps Buck I have left—one of only five Baseball Bucks graded PSA 10.”
Succinctly summing up Herlihy’s Bucks sets general assessment: “They were and are underappreciated.” Even so, it appears both sets will enjoy decent enough popularity for years to come, a trend most imagine will not be bucked. On that you can bet your bottom dollar, much like Unitas to Berry.
Doug Koztoski is a longtime Sports Collectors Digest contributor. He welcomes comments on this article at email@example.com.