I'll admit it. While growing up in the '60s, I played with dolls. I carefully dressed them, posed them, lined them up on the green carpet in my parent's living room...and smashed them into each other. It wasn't Barbie and Ken or even an army of G.I. Joes that ended up in a heap on the floor. Usually it was the Chicago Bears' Dick Butkus lying next to an unnamed New York Giants defender as my Philadelphia Eagles hero, Pete Retzlaff, ran over them on his way to a touchdown.
My imagination was hyperactive, but I had a lot of help. I was playing with Johnny Hero—"The All American Athlete."
Technically, Johnny Hero was an action figure (a boy's doll). His blue eyes, crew cut and stoic expression were unveiled in the 1965 Sears Christmas catalog, in which he was offered at $2.97, as the "6-foot-6 hero of your favorite sport." Standing 13 inches tall (one inch taller than G.I. Joe!), with a foam latex body molded over a bendable wire frame, Johnny was quite impressive. Even more impressive were his accessories: 39 officially licensed and authentically detailed uniforms of teams from the NFL, the AFL and Major League Baseball.
"Johnny Hero was made by Rosko-Steele, Inc., of New York City," says Roger Atkin, vice president of retail sales at NFL Properties. Atkin began his career with the NFL in 1969 and is the only person remaining at NFL Properties who remembers Johnny. "He's pictured in the 1965 NFL merchandising catalog with a detailed description of his uniforms."
Unfortunately, Johnny's career as the first mass-marketed action figure with professional sports licensing was brief (about 1965-68), but his legacy lives on.
"Johnny Hero opened the door for sports-figure merchandising," says John Marshall, author of G.I. Joe and Other Backyard Heroes (1970-1979). Marshall, now working on a book on '60s action figures that includes a chapter on Johnny Hero, thinks Johnny was ahead of his time. "He has influenced every sports action figure made since 1965," Marshall says, "from the Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali and Dr. J figures of the '70s to the Starting Lineup and Space Jam figures of the '90s."
John Koenig, editor and publisher of Toy Trader magazine, says Johnny Hero's ability to assume many identities, to change from baseball player to football player, links him to a modern superstar. "He's really the action figure equivalent of Deion Sanders," he says.
Marshall considers Johnny Hero one of the seminal action figures. "He was there in the beginning," says Marshall, referring to the fact that Johnny appeared just a year after G.I. Joe. "He's been long overlooked by both toy and sports collectors."
Chuck Eckles of Pasadena, Md., hasn't overlooked Johnny Hero. Eckles, who first saw Johnny in 1990 at an antiques show, now owns one of the largest collections of Johnnys in the country, with a floor-to-ceiling display of 30 figures and all but two of the uniforms ever made.
"The first figure I saw had an authentic old-time [ Baltimore] Orioles uniform on," says Eckles. "I said, 'Wow, what is that?' " While Eckles missed his chance to buy that Johnny Hero, he's more than made up for it over the last seven years, paying from $10 to $60 for each. But it hasn't been easy. Most collectibles dealers don't even know who Johnny is.