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A look at the 1968 American Oil Company sports card set

The 1968 American Oil Company sports card set features cards from the sports of baseball, football, golf, track and field, auto racing, and others.

By Doug Koztoski

Rolling down the road in 1968 many cars had music thumping, much of it coming from their AM radios and/or 8-track tape players. Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild,” one of that summer’s hits, gained near-cultural icon status the next year as part of the soundtrack for the wildly successful counterculture film, featuring a couple of Harley Davidson-riding hippie types in “Easy Rider.”

As the song says: “Get your motor runnin’/Head out on the highway/Lookin’ for adventure/And whatever comes our way.” “Runnin’” and “lookin’” at this level requires gas, of course, and for some in 1968 that meant an occasional refuel at an American Oil Company station. That year the national average for a gallon of gas: 34 cents, adjusted for inflation that’s about $2.52 a gallon today.

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This era included several gas station giveaways, promotions where just visiting the stations garnered free items; other gifts came with a gasoline purchase. In the summer of ’68 American Oil stations gave out perforated pairs of sports-related cards in a “Winner’s Circle” promotion.

Some “Winners” won instantly, while others received the designated prize if they could find matching sides of the dollar amount or item. Babe Ruth, for instance, earned a buck. Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Bart Starr, fresh off winning his second straight Super Bowl, brought $5. Sluggers Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, the latter in his final season, brought the booty to ten bucks each. 

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Cash prizes on the high end came in at $1,000, via the right pieces with racecar driver Parnelli Jones and 1967 horse race star Damascus, who won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

But with perhaps some of the best prizes ever given in a gas station sweepstakes, the two that really would “get your motor runnin’” for many with this American Oil campaign were the 1968 Camaro and Corvette. Or, as they are more colorfully described on their cards: (Camaro) “The Hugger, from Chevrolet’s Sports Dept.” and for the Vette: “America’s only true production sports car.”

Lou DiCioccio has done his part thus far to “head out on the highway,” granted maybe the information super highway, to find some of the ’68 gas cards and the trip has been a decent ride so far.

DiCioccio bought his first 1968 American Oil card, a Ruth single, a few years ago and soon after he made a discovery.

“I found out about the panels and liked those,” he said. “I have been trying to complete the panel set for the last couple of years.”

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The collector also noted that what he liked most about the issue was that “they are still around in panels after all these years.”

James Dial collects American Oil panels, too, and enjoys the issue “because it is an oddball/non-traditional set and it isn’t too big to collect.”

Made up of 12 different images, the panels normally came with an action shot on the left side of the card front attached to a portrait image. DiCioccio likes the set’s basic design and has a particular interest in the Mantle card since it shows his favorite player. He also likes panels with Starr and Mays, who was the second leading all-time home run hitter when the set came out.

Dial, meanwhile, chiefly concentrates on the baseball-related panels, with his favorites including “Mantle/Corvette, Mantle/Damascus and Ruth/(Gay) Brewer,” the 1967 Masters champion golfer.

American Oil individual cards showing Mantle, which carried a $10 designation within the contest, remain prevalent enough. A recent look at eBay listed a dozen recent sales of these “AO” Mantles, split evenly between single card and panels. For many baseball fans in particular the main combination in the issue teams Mantle and Ruth.

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DiCioccio’s most challenging cards to find in the mid-grade range or better are Mays, Damascus and golfer Julius Boros ($100). Dial, meantime, said the Mantle panels have been difficult for him to locate, “especially the ones with Damascus. I have often wondered if it is due to Damascus being a $1,000 winner.”

Rounding out the set roster: two-time Olympic Gold Medal winning pole-vaulter Bob Richards (a 50 cent prize, the set’s lowest) and “Flashy Running Halfback” Gale Sayers ($5 prize).

Baker’s dozen?

Although the issue is looked upon as containing a total of twelve different images, one could make the case for adding another to the list.

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Every so often one of the panel sides pictured a portrait of what is, apparently, supposed to represent an American Oil employee. The idea was if one of their workers provided “prompt, courteous service,” customers were asked to identify the model employee on the card marked “Welcome Service Award,” separate it from the sports card, and give it to one of the station’s attendants. “It may help him win a prize,” noted the card.

Not sure how many gas station workers were clean-shaven with a short hair cut and wore a bow tie in 1968, maybe 10 or 20 years before that it was common, maybe, but the image on this card alone deserves further consideration for inclusion in the set.

Born to be mild

The 1968 American Oil offering has a fairly small number of hardcore fans, and DiCioccio has a theory as to why.

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“I don’t think they are that big in the hobby due to multiple figures, horses, cars, baseball players, etc. I think most collectors like one sport on a card (or for a card set), not multiple,” DiCioccio said.

Dial said he is okay with the set’s limited hobby appeal.

“The set in both singles and panels, in my opinion, is worth the hunt,” he said. “Since it is an oddball set, I do not see it as being overly popular, except to oddball collectors, like myself.” 

Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at dkoz3000@gmail.com.