By Douglas R. Kelly
If you were roaming the earth in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s, you most likely spent at least a little time rummaging through cereal boxes or packs of hot dogs in search of sports giveaways – or you knew someone who did. Those baseball cards and hockey coins showed your favorite players doing their thing, and best of all, they were free.
Wait … were they free? Well … yes, if you ignore the fact that they came on the back of candy boxes and in jars of peanut butter – which you (or Mom and Dad) had to buy to get the coveted prize. But even that didn’t slow kids down much because the products to be purchased often were things such as six-packs of soda pop or boxes of sugary sweet cereal, which hit the spot nicely as you enjoyed your new Catfish Hunter or Gordie Howe card.
Collectors and dealers call these items by various names: promos, giveaways, oddballs, premiums, and so forth. What ties them all together is that they weren’t available for purchase individually – one needed to cough up the cash for the item that the giveaway came with, or was attached to, or was inside of. This business of getting consumers to buy a product by offering a free prize goes back more than 100 years, and includes such items as the cards that came in packs of cigarettes in the early 20th century. One of the most famous of these is the
T-206 Honus Wagner baseball card, produced in 1909 by the American Tobacco Company. It’s generally thought that only about 50 of them exist, and when one changes hands, the numbers tend to boggle the mind. Last year, an example graded 2 (on a scale of 1 to 10) by a card grading/certification company sold in a private sale for more than $7 million.
Not bad for a freebie.
Below the Radar
Compared to regular-issue sports collectibles, such as cards, giveaways, and promo items generally are more difficult to find. They also tend not to be on most collectors’ radar screens. “It probably is a neglected area … most collectors go for the major sets, the things that are more prevalent,” says South Carolina collector Tony Greco. “Packs of baseball cards or complete sets, those kinds of things. I think giveaways and premiums were often set aside, or just thrown out because they [weren’t seen as being] as important. And of course, they weren’t produced in mass quantities like the [mainstream] cards were … they’re harder to find. So I’d say they’re a more neglected part of the collecting world.”
Greco has been at this for quite a while. “I’ve been collecting since I was a child, I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the 1960s. I started expanding my collecting by looking for more than just the regular issue Topps cards … I started looking for the food issue cards, and other things that were giveaways with other products. It just became an obsession with me.”
Along with being paired with consumer products, sports items also have been given out free at sporting events for generations. Around the same time that the T-206 Wagner card was produced, the Sen-Sen gum company produced a cardboard “counter” that likely was handed out at baseball games. At two inches wide, it fit into the palm of the hand perfectly and allowed fans to keep close track of the action on the field by moving little dials for runs, hits, and errors. It also enabled Sen-Sen to hawk its gum, showing the product name on the front and a pack of the stuff on the back.
Other items were produced that were miniatures of sports equipment, which would be given out as samples by sporting goods salesmen to customers and prospects. During the 1950s and ‘60s, the Manhattan Rubber company promoted its line of bowling balls with a two-inch wide plastic miniature, complete with the little finger and thumb holes drilled out. It came with a small plastic display ring, all placed inside a box that touted the ball’s features. The top of the box, interestingly, had “To” and “From” printed on it, along with blank lines that presumably enabled a salesman to write his name for the prospective customer; a sort of three-dimensional business card. The example shown here, complete and in original condition, was obtained by the author at a North Carolina antique show for just $5.
Cracker Jack, of course, is famous for its “Toy Prize Inside!” boxes of its product, but for sports collectors, the company’s 1914-1915 giveaways are head and shoulders above the rest. In 1912, the producers of the confection began putting toy prizes in the boxes to appeal to children, and a couple of years later, added cards of baseball players to the mix. These 2.25-inch wide cards are now highly prized by collectors, as they included such legends as Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, and Christy Mathewson. Even battered, worn examples often sell for thousands of dollars, and high-grade cards can run into the six figures. Adding to the challenge is the fact that many examples are stained from being inside the boxes with the caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts.
Much more reasonably priced (and far easier to find) is the reprint set that Cracker Jack put out in 1993 as part of the brand’s 100th anniversary. The reprint cards were smaller—just 1.25 inches wide—and came in a set of 24 that included many of the stars from the
original set. Cracker Jack also offered an embossed collector album to hold the cards, along with a fact booklet on the cards.
Everything from bread to Jell-O to snack cakes have been used with sports giveaways, and manufacturers sometimes had to come up with creative ways to include the giveaway. In the early 1960s, York Peanut Butter inserted octagonal cards of National Hockey League (NHL) players in its jars, tucking the prizes up inside the lid of the jar. Fortunately for collectors, they placed a liner over the cards to protect them from peanut butter damage. The cards also were inserted into packages of the company’s salted peanuts.
Armour hot dog coins made their debut in 1955, and being plastic were able to withstand being in food packaging better than cardboard items. The coins were 1.5 inches in diameter, and they depicted Major Lague Baseball (MLB) players in a wide variety of colors that collectors today love to hunt down.
The award for the scarcest sports giveaway in a national food product just might go to a series of baseball cards that Chicago-based M.J. Holloway & Co. produced for its 5-cent Milk Duds candy product in 1971. Holloway printed the cards on the back of the Milk Duds boxes, which led to kids around the country taking scissors to the boxes to cut out their cards. As a result, finding complete and intact Milk Duds boxes with the cards is a real challenge. “Because most of those cards were cut out of the boxes, an uncut complete box will bring a premium price,” says Oregon-based giveaways collector Ray Berg. “I remember buying those in 1971. I wish I’d held onto them all those years ago!”
Berg has made up for letting go of his original Milk Duds boxes by since putting together a complete set of the boxes, and he’s not done yet. “My Milk Duds set is my most treasured part of my collection. Now I just want to upgrade the ones I have to a higher grade. In fact, earlier today, a Roberto Clemente Milk Duds box, graded a 9 by [grading/certification company] PSA, came on eBay. I have a 5 in my set, so that’s one that I really want. It’s an auction, starting at $2,499 … I made the seller an offer of $2,000, waiting to hear back on that.”
The early 1970s also saw the introduction of Kellogg’s 3-D sports cards, which the cereal maker inserted into boxes of its cereal. The Kellogg’s cards—baseball and football—were unusual in that they were plastic, and were made using a lenticular process, which gave them an illusion of depth, particularly when moved back and forth. But this feature means that surviving Kellogg’s cards often suffer from cracking of the plastic finish. “Heat can affect them … going from heat to cold also can damage them,” warns Tony Greco. “I had a number of 1975 Kellogg’s cards in our garage and in the attic at one point, and a lot of those cracked on me.” The cereal maker offered the cards in its boxes until the early 1980s.
Beverage manufacturers eventually jumped on the giveaway bandwagon. In 1958, Hires Root Beer included a baseball card in cartons of its product, and it was an unusual piece of cardboard. Attached to the baseball card along its bottom edge, with a perforation, was a wedge-shaped card that served a dual purpose: it invited the owner of the card to join the Hires baseball club by tearing off the wedge card, filling it out, and sending it in to the company; and it acted as a tab that held the whole thing in the carton of root beer bottles. Unsurprisingly, most surviving Hires cards are missing the wedge tab, which makes complete examples that much more desirable.
In 1962, Salada Tea began inserting plastic baseball coins into packages of its product, a move that still has collectors scratching their heads 60 years later. How many kids drank tea in 1962, and how many of them would bug their mothers to buy that box of herbal chamomile to get a Rocky Colavito coin? Despite the strange marketing strategy, Salada coins are very popular with collectors of oddball and giveaway items. Junket Pudding also put the baseball coins in its packages, which makes some sense given that kids eat pudding. In addition, Shirriff potato chips put the coins in its packages for the Canadian market, along with offering coins of NHL hockey players in its packages of jelly and pudding.
Salada and Junket again offered baseball coins in 1963, but they now were made of metal. They featured the player name, team, and position on the back instead of the front, like the 1962 coins.
And then there were Slurpee cups. In 1972, 7-11 convenience stores started offering sweet drinks in plastic cups bearing the likeness of MLB players on the front, with the player’s information and team logo on the back. Two new cups were issued each week, and the company continued the program in 1973 with additional players added to the series. The 7-11 sports cups were hugely popular and are today fairly easy to find. But they often have at least minor wear due to 7-11, and then subsequent owners, “nesting” the cups together to save space, which often resulted in the lithographed artwork and text getting smudged and scratched. 7-11 went on to produce cups showing NBA basketball players, DC and Marvel comic book heroes, and various other series.
Both Berg and Greco see the Kellogg’s 3-D cards as being a strong category in the giveaway/oddball collecting market. “Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve seen the Kellogg’s cards skyrocket in value, especially graded examples … that’s because you know what you’re getting when it’s been graded and encapsulated,” offers Berg. “The Roberto Clemente card in the 1971 Kellogg’s set, in PSA 10, is really a prized piece. There’s only about 25 of them [in PSA 10] known to exist, so that’s one of the most desirable items there is in the category.”
Greco sees them as low-hanging fruit for collectors. “The Kellogg’s cereal cards are probably one of the easier items to go after because they’re more recent than some other issues, they were produced in the 1970s. A lot of them were available from Kellogg’s in sets … you’d send in some number of Kellogg’s box tops and a couple of dollars and you got the complete set. Those are easier to find today than other oddball items like the Milk Duds boxes or the Hires Root Beer cards. There are two exceptions: the 1971 and 1975 cards, which weren’t available as sets … you could only get them inside the boxes.”
Along with what we’ve explored here, there are many more sports giveaway items out there than can be covered in one article. Think of a type of food or beverage and it’s as likely as not that somebody used Walter Payton or Sandy Koufax to help sell it at some point.
To learn more about sports giveaway items, check out these resources. The website postwarcards.com features a wealth of articles and posts on numerous food issues, inserts, and other oddball items. Click “Oddball Archive” on the home page.
And Sports Collectors Digest’s Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards is an excellent book that includes information and lists on a lot of giveaways and premiums.
Douglas R. Kelly is the editor of Marine Technology magazine. His byline has appeared in Antiques Roadshow Insider, Back Issue, RetroFan, Diecast Collector, and Buildings magazines. He is a regular contributor to the Journal of Antiques and Collectibles by penning the column “Toys from the Attic.”