Frito-Lay announced in April that going forward, its boxes of Cracker Jack would no longer include a tiny tangible toy prize of one ilk or another. No more whistles or tattoos or joke books and such, and even those bonuses had been scaled back the past few years.
Nope, the caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts will now be accompanied by a digital code, with baseball-themed experiences that can be redeemed/enjoyed through an app. One reportedly allows you to make your own baseball card. So now maybe the classic song “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” can have its lyrics revised to say: “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, give me a few while I download my app…”
Anyway, we’ll see how that all works in the coming years, but Frito-Lay’s announcement made me think back to a time when “the code” for many snacks and cereals and the like normally included “a prize inside.” One of the often forgotten about freebies in the sports genre that came to mind appeared in Old London snacks packages in 1965: baseball coins.
Made by Space Magic Ltd., the 40-piece 1965 Old London MLB set gives collectors a decent range of players to choose from. The Canadian-based company also manufactured the much more well known 1964 and 1971 Topps Baseball insert coins, all 1-1/2 inches in diameter, and metal. Finding any of these “Space” products in nicer shape seems to become more challenging and more expensive with each passing year.
While the ’64 and ’71 Topps coins landed in card packs in their birthday suits, the unnumbered Old London coins arrived individually wrapped in cellophane, nestled amongst the tasty snacks. Since Old London had a 1964 “Rocky and Bullwinkle” coin set, highlighting the cartoon, for instance, and those appear to have at least come out with potato chips, it is likely Old London used the same distribution channel for the ’65 baseball coins. Searches for images of containers advertising the coins came up emptier than a snack-size bag of chips with a few remaining crumbs discovered crumpled up in one’s coat pocket.
“One coin, Bill Mazeroski,” said Bob Zanella, is what brought the Pittsburgh Pirates collector to the Old London offering about a decade ago. “I love insert sets and I love smaller sets,” he said. “And while looking for Mazeroski items, I found this set.”
After getting the Maz, Zanella added pitcher Bob Friend, the other Pirate in the issue. “Then I picked up a Dick Groat (a St. Louis Cardinal here),” he noted, of the former Pirate and 1960 NL MVP. Soon after this Pirates plundering, Zanella struck gold with the Mickey Mantle coin, and the quest to complete the set entered deeper water. Zanella eventually gathered all of the coins in his treasure chest in either PSA 8 or 9 grades. Thar he shows! He’s No. 4 on the PSA Set Registry’s Current Finest list!
Some blue chips among the blue coins that came with chips
“The set has a higher percentage of household names (than many others),” said the Pittsburgh-area resident, “Aaron, Banks, Killebrew, Mantle, Maris, Mays, Yastrzemski, the Robinsons (Brooks and Frank), the only guy missing is Clemente.” A Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale would have been nice, too, Zanella acknowledged, but in such a small set, only so many big names made it into this relatively row boat-sized issue, especially compared to the “fleet” of cardboard that the 1965 Topps Baseball delivered: 598 cards.
Mike Ballew also likes the offering’s more manageable size, but since starting to collect them nearly five years ago, he had adhered to one rule: buy only in PSA 9 condition.
“I really like the blue background and close-up photographs,” said Ballew. “It’s a nice little set, kind of overlooked.” Zanella added the simplicity of the set’s design is a plus “and the darker blue hides the rim toning and the marks pretty well. They are very attractive.”
“PSA 9s for the most part are reasonably priced,” said the Nevada-based Ballew. He paid around $100 for his Willie Mays coin and recently noticed a Roger Maris on eBay for $110. “That is pretty reasonable for a ’65 Maris (coin).” As for the commons in that stellar condition, he said the range is “$20 to $80.” The collector noted that Dave Wickersham, a common, rarely shows up in PSA 9. “And you don’t see many Yaz’s in that high grade, either,” he said. Mantle, Maris, Aaron and Banks remain on his want-list, at the right price.
In addition to his graded Old London coins, Ballew owns a complete set of the snack pack promotions in their original cellophane wrapping. He said he paid about “$1,400 for the set” in a Memory Lane auction a few years ago. A May 2016 Robert Edward Auctions listing saw a comparable Old London set sell for $2,160.
Virtually all of the 20 MLB teams of the day have a pair of representatives in the Old London set, except for the 1964 World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals (3) and the New York Mets (1). In addition to the aforementioned Groat, the Cardinals have star third baseman Ken Boyer and pitcher Tracy Stallard, the player best remembered for surrendering Maris’ then record-breaking 61st home run in 1961.
It’s a solid guess the Stallard coin was likely originally slotted to accompany Ron Hunt with the Mets, but in December 1964, New York traded Stallard to St. Louis. Looking at Stallard’s coin, it seems as if Space Magic did a little “presto-chango” on the pitcher’s image, as the logo on his hat is blacked out, although it appears he is wearing Mets’ colors, at least based on the bit of the jersey/warm-up jacket you can see. But with 20 pitching losses to his credit in 1964, granted on a lousy Mets team, you have to wonder how he was picked for this set.
In Zanella’s coin quest, he noted the Stallard, Leon Wagner and John Wyatt were among the toughest commons to find.
Dropping some serious coin
A summary of the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards breakdown of the issue in Near-Mint and raw condition: $475 for the set; $3 for commons; Mantle anchors the issue at $100; Hank Aaron, Roger Maris and Willie Mays $30-$35 apiece; Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, the Robinsons and Carl Yastrzemski $20-$25 each. The guide also has the set at $1,800 if complete, in cellophane and in top shape; “wrapped” commons are three to four times the guide price compared to their raw counterparts.
In the next decade or so Ballew said the Old London baseball set’s “popularity will grow.” Zanella concurred and added: “I see more people gravitating toward this ‘cheaper’ and currently unpopular material (little known oddball sets in general).” In other words, those collectors and others classify the Old London coin issue as, to use an old school term, “crackerjack.”
On one undated online post, via the CGC Comics Forum, one contributor wrote about various Space Magic coins that came out circa 1964 with Krun-Chee, Schuler’s and Nalley’s Potato Chips: “Although all these brands were also sold somewhere in Canada at the time, my impression is that these coins were only distributed in the U.S. since that’s where they all seem to originate these days.”
The contributor added that Old London chips sold mainly in Pennsylvania and other nearby states.
Doug Koztoski welcomes comments and questions related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.