By Larry Canale
If you ask me, there’s nothing more entertaining on television than a well-done sports documentary. I’ve seen several memorable ones lately, as I’m sure a lot of you have: a worthy take on the career of the Splendid Splinter (HBO’s “Ted Williams: There Goes the Greatest Hitter That Ever Lived”); a look at the reign of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (“Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals,” also on HBO); and my favorite, a lively five-part review of the old American Football League.
The latter, called “Full Color Football,” debuted on Showtime last fall and appeared on the NFL Network earlier this year. It brought to life something that longtime AFL fans have known for years: the renegade league, which dared to stand up to the National Football League in the turbulent 1960s, was sheer fun. Between the wide-open offenses, the bidding wars for college players, the rebellious personalities and the league’s underdog persona, the AFL truly lit a fire under professional football. Four decades later, it represents a rich and colorful collecting area, and for several reasons.
First of all, the league had a beginning (1960) and an end (1970, when the NFL absorbed its 10 teams), so there’s a finite universe of vintage items. Yet there’s a decent variety of collectibles, from publications to game-worn helmets to jerseys to football cards.
And best of all, prices are reasonable. Sure, collectors with big budgets and a thirst for rarities can hunt down a game-used helmet and spend thousands of dollars. A 1966-67 Joe Namath gamer, with autograph, brought $28,500 at American Memorabilia in a 2004 sale, for example, and a Len Dawson Chiefs helmet sold for $7,100 at Heritage Auction Galleries in 2007. Even obscure players can attract healthy prices. A helmet used by Jim Swink brought $3,100 at Heritage, for example. Considering that Swink, a backup halfback for the 1960 Dallas Texans, gained only 15 yards in his one-season career, that’s a pretty good price. It translates to $207 per yard. On the other hand, I saw a cool Cincinnati Bengals game helmet worn by three different players between 1968 and 1970 sell for a reasonable $600 at American Memorabilia.
Certain AFL cards by Fleer and Topps can get up there in value, but you can collect on the cheap, too. A Namath rookie (1965 Topps) books at $1,800, and even his second-year card is in the $350 neighborhood. Dawson and Lance Alworth rookie cards (1963 Fleer) are around $250, as are Kemp’s first four cards (1960-1964 Fleer), helped by his post-career impact in politics. But overall, you can find masses of AFL cards in dollar bins throughout the hobby, and such sets as Topps’ 1966 issue, with its apropos TV set design, can be fun to build without whacking your wallet too hard.
Game programs can command surprisingly hefty prices; even regular-season examples can sell in the $150-$250 range. An important postseason game program commands even more. On eBay in early March, a top-condition 1963 AFL Championship Game program (Patriots vs. Chargers) brought $360 on 16 bids. But careful surveying of online auctions and sports and paper show aisles will lead you to programs selling at sub-$50 prices. I recently picked up a clean copy of the Bills/Chargers Dec. 18, 1966 game for $35, including shipping.
Dig around for vintage pennants, ticket stubs, yearbooks and media guides and you’ll find you can squirrel away some awesome AFL chestnuts at similarly budget-friendly figures.
Your AFL collection might focus on a single team among the original eight, which included the Patriots, Bills, Oilers and Titans (later Jets) in the Eastern Division and the Texans (Chiefs), Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders in the Western Division. The Bengals and Dolphins would join as new franchises in 1966 and 1968, respectively.
Or you might focus on individual players, whether it’s a top-of-the-line star like Namath, Kemp, Dawson, John Hadl or George Blanda; a yardage-gobbling back like Keith Lincoln, Billy Cannon, Clem Daniels or Cookie Gilchrist; or a should-be Hall of Famer like Johnny Robinson (a ballhawking safety for the Chiefs) or kicker/receiver Gino Cappelletti (the all-time AFL scoring leader).
For me, the most interesting subset of an AFL collection would feature the league’s top wide receivers. The best was Lance Alworth, the skinny San Diego split end who averaged 64 catches, 1,250 yards and 11 TDs between 1963 and 1969. The Jets’ Don Maynard wasn’t far behind; he averaged eight TDs a year between 1960-69. Both are in the Hall of Fame, of course, as is sticky-fingered Fred Biletnikoff of the Raiders. And then there were Lionel Taylor of the Broncos, Charley Hennigan of the Oilers (both of whom had 100-catch seasons), George Sauer of the Jets and Otis Taylor of the Chiefs, among others.
Thanks to those receivers and others, along with the QBs throwing to them, an AFL game usually meant the afternoon air would be filled with footballs. And as the NFL’s evolution during the past 40 years has proven, that’s what the people want.