Colts memorabilia bring stampede

Sun Staff

Baltimore sports fans raided their closets, sock drawers and shoe boxes yesterday to dig up their mementos of John Unitas - then rushed to sports stores and the Internet to snap up some more.

The Gallery of Sports Art at Camden Yards sold out of Unitas helmets, footballs and photos within an hour of opening yesterday. The Dugoutzone in Ellicott City raised prices on Unitas items by $30 to $40 - and no one seemed to mind. And the number of Unitas offerings on eBay, the Internet auction site, almost doubled in a matter of hours.

"People are using eBay, in a way, to pay tribute by buying or selling merchandise associated with Unitas," said Kevin Pursglove, senior director of communications for the site. Others, he said, were posting their memories of Unitas and his collectibles on eBay message boards.

The Alex Cooper auction house in Towson has been planning for months for an auction Sept. 21 at 1 p.m. of sports memorabilia. Unitas' death Wednesday will affect the value of items associated with his career.

"We wouldn't want it this way, but yeah, it will all go up in value," said Joe Cooper, president of the auction house on York Road.

The memorabilia includes a Unitas game-worn jersey and a football from the classic 1958 championship game. Balls signed by the 1961, 1964 and 1968 Colts, including Unitas, will also be auctioned. Their value will surely rise, Cooper said.

"We just feel sick about it," he said, adding that he attended the 1958 game with his wife. The ever-gracious Unitas had agreed to show up next Tuesday for the auction preview. Cooper was looking forward to seeing him.

"I feel like I lost somebody in my family," he said.

When Essex resident Leonard Banack heard of Unitas' death Wednesday, he dug out his Unitas trading cards - one for every season he played - along with the program from a 1959 primary school bowling banquet, where he got his first Unitas signature.

Banack, 54, doesn't remember what the Colts legend said that night, only that he was generous with his autograph and was "probably one of the cleanest-cut guys I ever saw." Over the years, Banack would get several more Unitas autographs, and he wouldn't think of parting with a single one now.

"They mean more to me than they would to anybody else because I got them myself," Banack said. "To watch him play, it was special to us."

Others, though, were hoping to cash in on their Unitas collectibles. EBay listed 28 pages of Unitas items for sale yesterday afternoon, up from about 16 pages the day before.

A Unitas-signed football was going for $375 and a full-sized, signed Colts helmet for $405. Even a Unitas signature on a plain white index card was bid up to $30.

At the Dugoutzone in Ellicott City, fans poured in all day to buy whatever Unitas items they could find. The store raised the price of a Unitas-signed football from $139 to $179, and a signed Colts helmet from $129 to $169. Even unsigned Unitas photos were selling well, said owner Dianne Hubata.

"People just want something with his face on it," she said.

Banack got a large, framed photo of Unitas for his birthday last year. The photo has a copy of Unitas' signature, but the Essex resident wanted the real thing.

"Just last week, I told my son I would take him to meet Johnny Unitas and get him to really sign the picture," Banack said. "Of course, I never got the chance."

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