Sports fans have always been a target market for Wheaties. The “Breakfast of Champions” has often given sleepy-eyed fans something to read with their morning bowl of cereal. Sometimes the players were found on the back and sometimes they were featured on the front but there’s a dating error when it comes to one of their most unusual and scarce collectibles.
In the 1950s, the company created a set of four baseball photos printed on pieces of tin shaped like small trays and stuck them to the backs of their boxes. The “Wheaties Baseball Trays” have long been thought to have been issued in 1952. That’s not quite right. They actually arrived two years earlier and the reason they’re fairly rare today is that they appear to have had a very limited distribution area. In fact, if you didn’t live in New York state or a small area of the Upper Midwest, you probably never saw them.
The set consists of four players: Ralph Kiner, Stan Musial, Phil Rizzuto and Jackie Robinson.
The color photos are exceptionally nice images measuring 3 x 4 inches in size inside the 4 7/8″ x 5 1/8″ tray. There’s a hole in the top of each for hanging and the back of the tins were gold in color. They were “lacqured to resist stain and tarnish,” according to newspaper ads touting the promotion.
Locating some of those original newspaper ads helps us ferret out some important information about the set. First, the offer appeared in newspapers only in 1950. The first ads appeared in papers located in Winona, MN, not far from General Mills’ headquarters in the Twin Cities, in LaCrosse, WI, a city just over the Mississippi River from Minnesota and in the Elmira, NY area.
Those ads appeared during a month-long span in early to mid-April of 1950, to coincide with the start of the baseball season. Most of the ads were small but the Winona paper had a big spread for the promotion that also provided the checklist. The trays were available with the purchase of a package that contained two eight-ounce boxes of Wheaties (29-30 cents at the time). The LaCrosse paper even offered a free Joe DiMaggio photo to the first 250 who bought the two-packs, although it’s likely the “autograph” was probably a facsimile.
Later that summer, General Mills brought the promotion to New York City as newspaper advertising popped up there as well.
The August 24, 1950 edition of the New York Daily News included a large ad, very similar to those published in Minnesota and Wisconsin. This time, though, there was no mention of Jackie Robinson.
The fact that Robinson trays were apparently no longer being issued by the time the promotion hit New York City is probably the reason why that one is so hard to find these days, often selling for hundreds of dollars, while the others are usually much less. We have no definitive proof he wasn’t found in New York, but the fact that he wasn’t mentioned in advertising seems to be a strong indicator.
Why the set became known as a “1952” issue in the hobby has been lost to time. Did the trays make some sort of comeback in ’52? Was it simple confusion connected to the sports cards that appeared on the backs of Wheaties boxes that year? Just incorrect knowledge passed down by those who created some of the first modern era hobby guides 40 years ago? My money’s probably on the latter.
Whatever the case, it’s pretty clear the origin of the set should be 1950, not 1952 and it seems like they should be considered either a regional or test set. Yes, it’s true they’re not “cards” in the true sense, but they’ve appeared in vintage card price guides for a long time and card collectors do chase them.
High-grade examples of the trays are rare because of how they were distributed. Glue and cardboard are often found adhered to the backs of the trays and, of course, scratches and scrapes are common since so much time has passed since they were issued and most weren’t likely treated like the sterling silver trays America’s moms kept in the dining room cabinet.
Considering their uniqueness, scarcity and checklist that includes four Hall of Famers, prices on the Wheaties trays aren’t bad. Earlier this year, Robert Edward Auctions sold a complete set of four for $1,200. You can usually find a few for sale on eBay.