Did Joe Namath Pose for His Topps Rookie Card While Still in the Hospital?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about football and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the football urban legends featured so far.

FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: Joe Namath posed for his Topps rookie card while still in the hospital.

One of the notable differences in the world of sports cards nowadays as opposed to the early days of Topps sports cards is the pictures on the fronts of the cards. Today, you routinely get detailed shots of the players in action – hitting home runs, dunking the basketball, throwing a touchdown pass, shooting the puck and more. Early on, though, almost all cards were just simple head shots of a player or, for variety’s sake, players posed in a few different standard “action” shots (like a player crouched over as if they were fielding a ball). Heck, sometimes Topps even re-used the photos for some players in multiple years! While it did not always make for the most interesting looking cards, it was at least very simple to get the necessary shots for the cards. In fact, since they often used a blank background, you could get a shot for a card pretty much anywhere – it did not have to come on the actual field and/or court. Never was this more evident than with the 1965 Topps rookie card of Joe Namath – a card posed for by Namath while he was in the hospital!


Read on to see how this strange event came about…

Few players in sports history have begun their careers with as much hype as Joe Namath did when he signed with the New York Jets in December of 1964. Namath had suffered a serious knee injury in his senior season at Alabama, but he was so acclaimed as a prospect that he was still drafted in the first round of both the National Football League and their upstart rival, the American Football League (they both held their drafts at the end of November). The NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals took him with the 12th overall pick while the AFL’S New York Jets took him with the first overall pick. At the time, the NFL and the AFL were locked in a war to sign the best players out of colleges (one of the major reasons for the merger of the two leagues was to avoid the bidding war that was routinely happening over young star players) and the Jets saw Namath as a future superstar. As a result, New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin blew Namath away with a salary of $427,000 (at the time the largest contract signed by a pro football player – although that included a lot of incidentals, including a Lincoln Continental valued at $37,000 – Namath’s yearly salary was $25,000 a year) and Namath signed with the Jets.

Less than a month after signing with the Jets, Namath had the first operation on his knee. Famed sport surgeon, the late Dr. James Nicholas, removed cartilage on the inside of Namath’s injured right knee. Less than a year later, after Namath had won the Rookie of the Year in the AFL, Nicholas once again operated on Namath’s knee, this time removing cartilage on the outside of Namath’s knee (he would have one more before the Jets famously won Super Bowl III in 1969). The first operation threw Namath for a loop. He was in the hospital for over a week and he lost over 25 pounds.

However bad shape Namath was in at the time, he had to understand (and to his credit, he did understand) that part of the reason that Werblin had invested so much money in him was because he was to be Werblin’s star. Werblin (as part of an investor group) had purchased the Jets (then called the New York Titans) after a long and storied career as a talent agent for Music Corporation of America (MCA, Inc.). Werblin knew just how well that sports could work as entertainment, and he very early on solidified the Jets’ purchasing power (and the stability of the AFL as a whole) by brokering a national TV deal with NBC-TV. For all the outcry over the money Werblin was spending, Jets’ season ticket sales tripled from 1964 to 1965. Werblin knew how to sell the public stars and he knew what he had to do to sell Namath, and it involved Namath being the public face of the Jets, even if he had to do it from a hospital bed, which is just what Namath did.

Routinely, Namath would be roused out of bed by the Jets’ media director. He would be given a Jets uniform, pads and a football and Namath would pose for various photos. One of these photos was for his 1965 Topps Rookie Card. With its blank yellow background, you would never know that it was taken in Lenox Hill Hospital (in an area of the hospital now named the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma).

The legend is…


Thanks to Ryan Cracknell of the Cardboard Connection for a neat article on the subject. And thanks, of course, to Joe Namath, who discussed the story on the Late Show With David Letterman a couple years back.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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