Unitas helmet, contract among mementos up for bid
BALTIMORE -- Johnny Unitas was in the midst of a Hall of Fame career when he walked off the field and handed his helmet to a young member of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band.
The white helmet, with a blue horseshoe on each side and the numbers 1 and 9 on the back separated by a blue stripe, became a treasured item in John Ziemann's personal memorabilia collection.
And now, it's gone.
The helmet will go to the highest bidder at a sports memorabilia auction in Exton, Pa. on Friday and Saturday. Also up for auction: The first contract Unitas signed with the Colts, a sterling silver tea service presented to the quarterback after the Colts won the 1959 world championship, and the belts Unitas received in 1959 and 1964 as a finalist for the S. Rae Hickok Professional Athlete of the Year Award.
But the prized piece is the helmet, a relic from the 1960s which could fetch between $20,000 and $30,000.
Ziemann, now 59, was a teenager when he got the helmet. He can't remember the exact year, but will never forget the moment.
"Back in those days, the players and the band made appearances together. Everybody knew each other," Ziemann recalled. "After the last game that year, Johnny told me they were getting new helmets next season, so he gave me that one."
Ziemann never treated the helmet as a valuable commodity. It was a gift from a friend. And so, it was with great reluctance and much regret that he sold the helmet to a private collector.
"Believe me, it was tough. It was agonizing," Ziemann said. "It saddened me to sell it, but I'm not a rich person and a charity needed money. I made a choice. It had to be done."
Ziemann figured the helmet's new owner would cherish the keepsake. It has instead been put up for auction, and will probably receive a bid equivalent to the price of a new car.
"I didn't get nearly that much," Ziemann lamented.
Unitas retired in 1973 and died of a heart attack in 2002 at age 69. Memorabilia associated with the old-school quarterback becomes more valuable with each passing year. So David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions in Exton, Pa., expects some impressive bids this weekend.
Unitas' rookie contract should draw at least $5,000. It might even fetch what Unitas earned that season: $7,500.
The four-page contract, an original copy signed by Unitas and his mother on Jan. 31, 1956, is being sold by the family of the late Don Kellett, then the Colts' general manager who kept it in his files.
"The contract is unique. It's like a historical document," Hunt said.
But the helmet, which has the original two-bar faceguard securely in place, is expected to receive far more attention.
"Because it's game-used, it's of interest to collectors and historians. Those are the kind of things you just can't get easily," Hunt said. "The rarity is significant."
Some people collect memorabilia to make a profit. Others are like Ziemann.
"There are times when the original owners have tears in their eyes when putting items up for auction," Hunt said. "Some collectors, the object takes them back to a place where they were in the past. There is no right or wrong. But almost always, people who buy these things cherish them."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press