As a collector of autographed AFL cards, I am occasionally asked what is the most valuable card in my collection. It is a silly question, really. In the grand scope of the trading card hobby, the cards that I collect, individually, are not terribly valuable. In the realm of raw, unsigned cards, the 1965 Topps Joe Namath is the most valuable card in the decade of AFL cards. A raw Namath rookie card in excellent condition may run you upwards of $600 or $700. Not peanuts, for sure, but nowhere near the upper echelon of valuable trading cards.
A question that I am seldom asked, but one that I find far more interesting is this… What is the most difficult autographed card to find for your collection? While supply and demand certainly factors into the cost of any piece of memorabilia, it is not the sole factor in determining value. That same Joe Namath rookie card is in plentiful supply. 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 Namath to do a signing, pay his fee, and then happily check that card off your want list. 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 focused 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, I think that a simple formula for difficulty would be to determine the length of the period that each card could legitimately be autographed. By that I mean the difference (in time) between when the card was issued, and when the athlete died. The cards with the shortest available signing periods should 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 many former AFL players that died young. Clyde Washington, Jacque MacKinnon, Ross O’Hanley and several others passed away in the 1970s, in some instances less than a decade after their final card was produced. Autographed examples of their cards are truly difficult to obtain, but assuming that the athlete was not opposed to signing while alive, their cards can eventually be found. There are, however, two regular-issue AFL trading cards whose window of opportunity to be autographed is roughly two years, or less, making them easily the most theoretically rare of autographed AFL cards. Those cards are the 1964 Topps Dick Christy, and the 1968 Topps Frank Buncom.
Dick Christy spent one season with the Pittsburgh Steelers before jumping to the 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 the special teams, and led the AFL in both kick-off and punt return yardage at points in his career.
Dick Christy had been out of football for almost three years when he lost his life in a 1966 automobile accident. Christy lost control of his car while rounding a turn, and crashed into a pole on an exit ramp. He was just 31 years old.
Dick Christy’s final football card was a 1964 Topps card, #111. Assuming that the card was released in the Summer of 1964, there was roughly a two-year window in which Christy could have autographed the card. Adding slightly to its rarity is the fact that the 1964 Topps Dick Christy 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 most rare of signed AFL cards is the 1968 Topps Frank Buncom. Buncom was a stand-out linebacker with the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals from 1962-1968. Buncom played in three AFL All-Star Games as a member of the Chargers, before going to the Bengals in the AFL’s 1968 expansion draft. Buncom played all of 1968 with the Bengals, and was about to begin the 1969 season when he died unexpectedly, the victim of a pulmonary embolism on September 14, 1969. He was 29 years old.
Frank Buncom’s 1968 Topps card was a first-series card, and not a short print. Again assuming that the 68’s were released in the summer, Frank Buncom would have had slightly more than a year to autograph his 1968 Topps card, which makes it the rarest of regular-issue AFL cards to find in an autographed format.
Related to this, Frank Buncom was featured in the 1969 Topps set as well. However, Buncom’s second-series card was released to the public roughly two weeks after his death. This makes the 1969 Topps Frank Buncom card the only regular-issue AFL card that is impossible to find autographed.