Excitement was brewing in Baltimore as the 1954 baseball season approached. The St. Louis Browns franchise had become the Baltimore Orioles and big league baseball was back in the city for the first time since days of John McGraw. After opening on the road, the O’s played their first game in Memorial Stadium on April 15. Nothing went better with baseball than hot dogs and the team’s official supplier of frankfurters was not only ready to feed fans, but turn them into baseball card collectors.
Today, though, the 1954 Esskay Orioles cards are among the rarest and most expensive food issue sets of all-time.
Just days after the home opener, Esskay ads began appearing in newspapers throughout the team’s marketing area–from southeastern Pennsylvania to DC and Virginia–promoting the cards that were “on every 1 lb. package of Esskay Frankfurts.” The cards weren’t inside the packaging–they were part of the packaging.
Using photos supplied by the team, Esskay created what would be a 34-card set of Orioles with two cards on the bottom of each box. Want them? Grab a scissors and a dishrag. It was a messy job.
The cards were in full color and included Gil Coan, who collected the first hit in the history of the franchise, Don Larsen, two years away from pitching his famous World Series no-hitter, veteran outfielder Vic Wertz who’d be traded away on June 1 and the other members of a hapless squad that would finish 54-100.
The Browns suffered through losing streaks of 14, ten and nine games but just barely escaped the American League basement thanks to the even more inept Kansas City Athletics.
The box had a waxy coating and there was nothing written on the back of the cards–probably an added expense Esskay didn’t want to meet in its efforts to hustle the cards into production. The company was conscious of the roster, however. Dave Koslo was acquired on from the Giants on April 8 but the pitcher did get a card at some point that spring.
Why are the cards so rare today? Was it too much of a hassle and a bit expensive to pound down 17 packages of hot dogs to build a set? Were they too messy and stinky to cut up and save? Did families in the region just not like to buy their hot dogs by the box? Maybe their less than attractive appeal once cut from the package made them easy targets for the garbage when mom insisted the kids clean their rooms. Maybe all of the above.
PSA has examined only 162 with none grading above a 4, thanks to imperfect cutting and grease stains that are typically found. There are no complete sets in the PSA registry. SGC has graded only 61 single cards.
The toughest card in the set is Jehosie “Jay” Heard (#13). Heard was the first African-American to play for the Orioles and made just two big league appearances before returning tot he minors for good. Fewer than five Heard cards are known to exist.
If you’re looking to pursue the set, have a nice stack of cash to dip into. In March of this year, a single card of Cal Abrams carrying an SGC 1 grade, went for $15,275.
Collectors just missed out on having to chase a card that would have been a big ticket item today. Satchel Paige was released two months before the 1954 season after owner Bill Veeck was forced to sell the Browns to the group that moved the team to Baltimore.
Esskay would produce another set of Orioles cards in 1955 and that one isn’t much easier to complete, especially with only one player per box.
If only Joey Chestnut had been around…