The ball belongs to a sports memorabilia collector in Chicago, who bought it in 2003 from Berry, the Hall of Fame receiver and star of the Colts' 23-17 sudden-death overtime victory over the New York Giants. Berry caught a then-championship-record 12 passes that day in what has been called "The Greatest Game Ever Played."
"The ball is one of the top five items we've ever auctioned [in 37 years]," said Bill Huggins of Silver Spring, president of Huggins and Scott Auctions. "I'd rank it with a baseball signed by Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson ($161,000) and a couple of balls flawlessly autographed by Babe Ruth ($50,000 each)."
The football's authenticity is well documented, having passed through several hands in the 58 years since the title game. Then, with Baltimore leading, 7-3 in the second quarter, Unitas drove his team 86 yards for a touchdown, capped by a 15-yard pass to Berry in the end zone. The Colts' Steve Myhra kicked the extra point, which sailed into the stands at Yankee Stadium and was caught by Robert "Lanky" Bilbrough, an Eastern Shore grocer who was determined to keep it.
"My dad was 6 feet 7, 250 pounds and a World War II veteran who knew how to take care of himself," said his son, Bob Bilbrough, of Gainesville, Ga. "When someone behind him spun him around to try and take the ball, dad held up his fist, which was as big as my head. The other guy just tucked his chin and sat down."
For years, the ball sat in a closet in Bilbrough's home in Ridgely (Caroline County). On occasion, his children would take it outside and play catch. Eventually, Lanky Bilbrough sent the ball to John Steadman, a Baltimore sportswriter, and asked that he give it to Berry. Steadman did so in 1986, with a letter detailing its provenance.
"Imagine what [Bilbrough] would have gotten for this [ball] in a sports auction. But, no, he wanted you to have it," Steadman wrote to Berry. Seventeen years later, Berry sold it for an unknown sum. The ball's owner asked not to be identified.
Now 82 and living in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Berry said he doesn't recall the transaction, but that he's "surprised" by the ball's alleged worth.
"What's peanuts to one person may be worth a whole lot to somebody else," he said, adding wryly, "When the ball is sold, I assume they'll send me the proceeds."
In an unrelated event, other Colts keepsakes will go on the market Saturday, Feb. 6 in live bidding in San Francisco through Hunt Auctions. Items include game jerseys of Unitas and Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, the Colts' All-Pro defensive tackle who played on Baltimore's championship teams of 1958 and 1959.