The following is an excerpt from collector Brian Powell’s new CD book ‘Never Cheaper By the Dozen‘, a look back at giveaway baseball card sets issued with food and through other promotions from 1947-1971. His chapter on the Home Run Derby set issued in conjunction with the TV show produced in the late 1950s yields a little more light on this somewhat rare issue that had limited distribution, primarily, it seems, through the syndicated program’s sponsors.
For years collectors have labeled the card set, which includes numerous Hall of Famers who competed on the show, as a 1959 product. While the show may have been produced then, it appears that the cards were created in 1960.
Among the wondrous things about DVDs of your favorite old TV shows and movies is that with today’s technology, their quality is fantastic. Using just an average DVD player and an above-average quality television with a 32-inch screen, I am now seeing The Andy Griffith Show, F-Troop, The Three Stooges, Bugs Bunny, Sea Hunt, Bogie, Charlie Chan, Laurel & Hardy and It’s a Wonderful Life much better than I ever saw them when growing up. We all have a personal favorite list, and what a treat it is for us Baby Boomers! It’s as if it’s live black n’ white.
I enjoy vintage baseball from the ’50s and ’60s. Some of it I saw. A lot of it I missed. Naturally, I’ve loved cards from back then ever since I began collecting. What I never imagined was seeing my cardboard heroes “live” again. I adore the movie Safe at Home. But Home Run Derby is a time capsule opened up.
It was not until about 2005 that I first saw the old TV series, Home Run Derby. I bought a couple of episodes on eBay. My lovely wife then taped a few hours worth of shows for me. Wow, 100 percent nostalgia. Finally, the DVD set of the show was produced and again, the quality took a quantum leap – the privilege of going back in time and watching these great sluggers I love and have avidly collected for more than 45 years, to see them “live” in glorious black and white!
Such greats as Ernie Banks, Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew, Henry Aaron, and Rocky Colavito batting in the prime of their careers is a rare treat indeed. Through the easy-going conversations and good nature banter between announcer Mark Scott and each player, I get to know these guys in a way I never have before and appreciate them and their cards all the more. As I related, my hero when I began playing baseball was Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. I started watching Cubs games opening day in 1967, the season the Cubs became a first division team since long before I was born. But here’s Ernie eight years before, shortly after winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player award for the second year in a row.
Honestly, I enjoy the Home Run Derby episodes much more than the trading card set they issued; however, my fondness for those cards is definitely enhanced by the show. Normally, black-and-white cards are tolerated at best. These cards I like – they echo the TV show perfectly.
I guess I could be accused of having sour grapes. In late 1988, I came so close to winning a phone auction for a genuine high-grade complete set of 20. Just prior to the auction, I had seen them at the Philly show. They were all close to Near Mint or better. The man who ran the auction even told me I won it, but what came in the mail was a letter of apology with my returned check. Oh bug spit! That was a low blow. At least the auctioneer apologized.
So, I went and bought the reprint set. Surprisingly, they are a mirror image of the real thing. Same 3-1/4-by-5-1/4-inch size. Same glossy thin but superior grade cardstock. Printed on the cards is “C.C.C. Reprint-88,” which Card Collectors Company tastefully placed on the lower right side margin, so as not to mar the aesthetics. At 98 percent of the eye candy, you cannot go wrong.
The photos used to create the Home Run Derby cards were shot on location where the series was filmed, which ties them even closer to the shows. With the circular blurb “See HOME RUN DERBY on TV!” these cards look perfect.
It is a unique situation to be able to relive all the hubbub of a promotion, between the DVDs and reprints. So why bother writing about the cards? Two little windows on the world of collecting the rare 1960 Home Run Derby cards have given me some insight into why so few cards are around today.
Before opening those windows, I had better address a little matter. Doubtless I have irritated several of you volcanic readers regarding the year I give for the set, so let us begin there. Naturally, the episodes were all filmed after the 1959 season in a very quiet, empty Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. Located at 42nd Place & Avalon Boulevard, the park was home to the Pacific Coast League Los Angeles Angels.
The ballpark was selected because it was symmetrically shaped, and favored neither a right nor left-handed batter. It was also chosen because the climate was warm in the winter months, and close to the ZIV Television Productions facilities in Los Angeles, of which the producer, Homer Productions, was a subsidiary. There, the footage could be edited to produce a half-hour program.
Back to Home Run Derby, from a comment by host announcer Mark Scott, production must have begun well into November 1959. In the contest between Mickey Mantle and Ernie Banks, Mick took a lead of 5-2 going into the ninth. Mark Scott tells Mickey, seated beside him, “Well you know Mickey, you’re out in front, 5 home runs to 2, but anybody who can win the National League Most Valuable Player award two years in a row can’t be counted out.” The announcement of Banks winning his second MVP would not have been made until the second week in November.
With the episodes shot well after the 1959 season, Home Run Derby was then aired in syndication from January 9-July 2, 1960. At the conclusion of the credits for the first three episodes, it reads “copyright 1960” or “MCMLX.” The baseball cards were produced to help promote the TV program and thus issued in 1960, as well.
For decades, collectors, guides, and grading companies have incorrectly given the issue year as 1959. Since I will really need to put this matter on ice to pacify the hothead stubborns, one need look no further than the Home Run Derby card of Rocky Colavito. Rocky is pictured in his Cleveland Indians uniform, as he was in the episodes. However, looking below his name, you will see his team designation as “Detroit Tigers.”
The National League had opened its season a week ahead of the American League. On April 17, 1960, the day before the American League season commenced, a bombshell of a trade was fired off. “Frantic Frankie” Lane, the Cleveland Indians general manager, traded away powerful slugging star and fan favorite Colavito, who had hit 41 homers in ’58, was the ’59 American League home run co-champion with 42, to the Detroit Tigers for their fan favorite, singles-hitting ’59 AL batting champion Harvey Kuenn. Colavito said his trade was induced by a salary dispute with Lane.
The reaction of the Cleveland fans was instant bloodshot eyes enraged! Frank Lane was hanged in effigy.
Indians fans had a chant: “Don’t knock the Rock.” It was directed at several Cleveland sportswriters who criticized Colavito’s play. I wonder if a new chant instantly emerged, “Lane’s a knock-head!” Many once-loyal fans vowed never to return to watch the Indians play. No idle threat either, as attendance plunged from 1,497,976 to 950,000 year-over-year, a stunning 36.5 percent.
The Indians had finished second to the pennant-winning Go-Go White Sox. The Colavito trade seemed to trigger mediocrity for the Tribe, for they did not compile a winning season again until 1965, when Rock was dealt back to them.
Esteemed long-time Sports Collectors Digest editor T.S. O’Connell penned a powerful piece on Colavito. Rock somberly remembers the other side of the controversial trade. “It was a shock. You know, everybody worried about how it affected me, yet hardly anyone talks about how it affected Harvey,” Colavito said in a 1990 interview in SCD.
“I always felt bad about that. I got most of the publicity. It was a little different in Cleveland with all the fanfare, but the fans loved Harvey in Detroit. I know it fouled him up. I often think about it. His first wife had a real problem dealing with it … She was gorgeous and had been Miss Wisconsin. She was a beautiful person. She had a mental disorder after that, and I often think to myself that the trade had a lot to do with it … She later died.” What a tragedy.
The Cleveland owner should have seen this coming before he seriously thought of hiring Frantic Frankie. Just before his stint in Cleveland, Gussie Busch hired Lane as general manager of the Cardinals. Take one guess whom Lane tried to trade. As ludicrous as it sounds, if you said Stan “The Man” Musial, you were right on the button. That attempted swap probably pushed Gussie’s bush league button, yet Cleveland’s owner still saw something in Lane.
As time passed, the trading of Colavito became a jagged rock lying under the Cleveland owner’s mattress. Yet there would be a large mace head with long sharp spikes lying in wait to make the owner sleepless and in pain because of Lane. Shortly after the 1957 season, the fiery and single-minded Frank Lane had a discussion with one of his young outfielders, insisting that he play winter ball to sharpen his timing. The equally strong-minded outfielder said no and, as usual, meant it. Lane did not get his way, so he bided his time, and on June 16, 1958, the last day of outright trading before the fall, swung his hatchet deal and traded the young outfielder to Kansas City. Oh yes, the player’s name was Roger Maris. Shortly after that dismal Colavito-less 1960 season ended, Roger was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
Several days later, Lane was dismissed.
Now consider. Cleveland fans adored their Rocky. Just put yourself in their painful place a moment. How would you feel if Mickey Mantle had been traded for Pete Runnels? Roberto Clemente for Felipe Alou? Ernie Banks for Johnny Callison? Al Kaline for Boog Powell? Brooks Robinson for Floyd Robinson? Sandy Koufax for Jack Sanford? Carl Yastrzemski for Alex Johnson? Henry Aaron at his peak for Barry Bonds at his PED-less peak? Stan Musial for… for… for… I cannot think of anyone, and neither could any red-blooded Cardinal fan. Does that not give you a splitting headache at what might have been?
So if you see a Rocky Colavito Home Run Derby card, now you know the rest of the sad story. The bottom line is – since Colavito’s card has a Detroit Tiger team designation, then the Home Run Derby cards were definitely issued after April 17, 1960.
So how could one get these cards at the time? Good question. Among the few treasured pieces Barry Halper kept from the auction block was a Home Run Derby advertising poster. It was in the form of an uncut sheet of the 20 cards, with the show’s local co-sponsor’s trademark printed in large script – Esslinger Beer. Also shown were the station call letters, and the two days and respective times the show was broadcast each week.
Interestingly, the individual Esslinger-sponsored Home Run Derby cards are slightly different than those of the more commonly known sponsor. From an April 13, 2008, Net54baseball forum thread, “Lets see some Test/Oddball cards,” fkw posted a scan of a Sportscard Guaranty graded Esslinger Derby card of Hank Aaron. While using the same photo of Aaron, it is cropped differently, with player and team names at the top of the card, while on the bottom appears “sponsored by Esslinger” (shown in logo script) and their slogan “THE BEER WITH THE BUCCANEER.” Also, “Esslinger’s Inc., Phila., Pa.” The brewery was likely the sponsor in Philadelphia, and its regions. They closed in 1964.
Children would not have gone to a beer distributorship for cards. Esslinger employees ostensibly might bring a set home to one of their kids. Maybe they were given out at the local liquor stores that stocked Esslinger. Youngsters do not frequent such establishments either, unless accompanied by a parent. Perhaps a parent might think to grab a card for junior.
Who else sponsored Home Run Derby that had their baseball cards available to a select few individuals? American Motors.
American Motors had always made decent cars, but America’s collective connotation for AMC put them a distant fourth behind General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.
AMC’s sponsorship of Home Run Derby must have been a wise choice, for their total sales for fiscal year 1960 was 478,249 cars. The corporation reported a net profit of $48 million on revenues that exceeded $1 billion! The former underdog was riding high, and Rambler had an enviable image as a “David” against the “Goliath” of The Big Three.
A Rambler American with overdrive, driven coast to coast under NASCAR’s vigilant eyes, averaged 38.9 mpg! In the Pure Oil Economy Trials, another AMC car averaged an astounding 51.281 mpg!
Bill Zimpleman is a lifelong Pennsylvania native, as well as a Pirates fan. He began collecting as a child in the 1950s, and entered the adult hobby in 1967. Listen up as Bill tells his story:
“Back in 1960, Home Run Derby was sponsored in Pittsburgh by American Motors. I was a very active collector at that time but was just starting to get into music and girls, so the cards were going on the back burner.
“My father was looking to buy a new car, and he and I went down around the corner from our house to the American Motors dealer to look at cars. Well my father struck a deal and bought a new Rambler. While sitting there doing all the paperwork, one of the salesmen started talking to me about baseball, and it came up that I was a baseball card collector. The salesman goes to his desk and comes over with a stack of what I thought were just pictures, but they had the logo on them that said Home Run Derby. I had never heard of this set or seen these. It turns out he had given me 20 complete sets. I put these away with all my other cards and went on to record collecting through my teen years.
“In 1967, I got the bug to collect cards again, but wasn’t sure if there was anyone out there collecting. I remembered back in the 1950s there was a collector in the next town over but I had never met him. I took a chance and called him and here he was, still a collector. His name was Chuck Blazina. He introduced me to so many new things in the hobby and told me of two card magazines.
“One was the Ballcard Collector. I sent for a subscription and really got hooked. I noticed that collectors were writing in and telling of different sets being issued in their areas. I pulled out my Home Run Derby cards and sent the editor a complete set and the info about how they were issued. He put in a picture of one of the cards and the checklist. About a week later, I was getting all kinds of requests for the cards.
“I had held on to the 19 sets until 1970 when Chuck and I traveled to Cambridge, Maryland to Crawford Foxwell’s house for what we now consider the first get-together of collectors on the East Coast. There were 13 of us that spent three days of trading and just looking through Crawford’s fabulous collection. Well, I was being offered all kinds of Goudeys, T206s, and many other goodies, so 18 of the sets went that weekend. But I was happy with all the stuff I got.
“I guess today those 20 sets would be worth quite a bit, but I had fun trading and telling my story on how I had obtained them.”
Can you think of another time when a car salesman’s freebies would, 50 years later, be worth at least 40 times the original purchase price of the car? I suppose Bill probably wishes he had held on to those rare sets for five decades, but none of us are born with hindsight. I can just imagine those collectors at Crawford Foxwell’s home going for those rare Derby sets like a school of starvin’ catfish!
Ol’ Zimp is probably responsible for nearly all of the nice Home Run Derby sets that exist today, as well as the high-grade singles from sets broken up. Other children of AMC car customers were probably given a set or more, but they did not squirrel them away in a safe, secure place as Bill did.
Why weren’t the cards saved? I think the more appropriate question is why were they not collected at the time? I have discussed its connection to the alcohol sponsor; now I turn to buying a car.
Recall what Bill said when the AMC salesman gave him the Home Run Derby sets; Bill had never heard of the cards. That is significant. Obviously, their existence was not communicated to the public.
Even if a child found out about these baseball cards used in the car promotion, a youngster with the biggest soulful-looking eyes in the world will not be able to talk his parents into buying a car, just to get a free set of scarce baseball cards. It would not happen – ever. Even Mr. Millions would not cave in. Millionaires absolutely hate to spend their money, unless it goes for a rare, beautiful item they badly desire. Had they known the future value of the cards, then they would have pulled the trigger.
There’s probably a few ex-AMC car salesmen scattered abroad who could just pull the trigger on themselves so to speak, for throwing all the leftover Home Run Derby cards in the trash or incinerator that helped keep the dealership nice and toasty in the winter. No doubt their heads are still steaming over that issue.
Eerily, long after I wrote this, I read an anecdote from Jamieson’s book, Mint Condition, concerning George C. Thompson, the last president of the Goudey Gum Company. “The company itself didn’t do much to preserve its cardboard. When Goudey was foundering during the winter of 1961-62, Thompson, then president, directed that the company’s back stock of ’30s-era trading cards be thrown into the furnace to help heat the building. It was the last winter that Goudey workers would have to endure. The insolvent company shut its doors permanently that January.”
I also read you could get a free card if you test-drove a new American Motors car. Piece a cake. Yeah right. Car salesmen have just one thing in mind when they meet you. They are well trained, though many are naturally skilled at their craft. Their shark eyes may be clouded by a Cheshire Cat smile, and they will treat you as a friend of old, but the bottom line is, they’re aimin’ for you to drive away in one of their new cars marked “sold.” A lot of people would rather see their dentist than see a car salesman.
So, if by chance sonny boy found out about the Home Run Derby cards, and heard you could get “a free one” at the AMC dealership, a hot conversation would ensue. The final “no” could be expressed several dozen ways, but basically it is: “Son, if you want baseball cards so bad, I’ll buy you a full box at the drugstore. We’ll even both get chocolate malts. But I am not, under any circumstances, going to test drive a car and have to say ‘no thanks’ five dozen times. My nerves can’t handle that.”
Thus, few Home Run Derby cards were ultimately given out.
Another interesting twist. Bill Zimpleman was given clean, Mint cards. Apparently, not every AMC dealership left them, shall we say, perfect. In the October 2008 Huggins & Scott Auction, Lot 580 was a PSA 2 Gil Hodges. On the backside of the card, the dealership had stamped its contact info:
“SNYDER’S MOTOR SALES
STUDEBAKER – PACKARD
R. D. No. 4 NE 30 – ¼ MILE EAST
GREENSBURG, PA. PHONE 5680”
By the grading standards of today, that stamp messed up the condition, but dealerships certainly were not thinking in those terms in 1960. They preferred you buy a nice new car to go with the “free card.” Of course, buy a car, and if you asked they would gladly give you 20 free sets, sans stamp. Nobody thought to request them back then. As most of you know by now, people were not thinking in those terms in 1960, either.
The show was a big hit with baseball fans of all ages, I’m sure. Henry Aaron won the most matches with six, while Mickey Mantle socked the most home runs by far, with 44. The low salaries for playing Major League Baseball being what they were back then, some players won a hefty chunk of money on the show. The top three being Aaron, at $13,500, Mantle at $10,000, and Jackie Jensen at $8,500.
Special mention should be made of Jensen, who was the only player to hit as many as four home runs in a row. Later in the same contest, he slugged five home runs in a row. Jackie’s terrible fear of flying pretty much ended his baseball career, when westward expansion made his train travel unworkable.
On another very sad note, shortly after the shows’ broadcast run, host announcer Mark Scott dropped dead of a heart attack on July 13, 1960, in Burbank, California. He was only 45. His fine work in briefly explaining the contest rules on each show, for the benefit of new viewers, and particularly his easy rapport with all the players kept the atmosphere friendly and peaceful. According to Wikipedia, “Once Mark Scott died, the producers decided not to replace him and the show was canceled.”
Curiously, the show’s director, Benjamin Stoloff, died shortly thereafter, as well, on September 8, 1960, in Hollywood.
An astute observer wrote, “The show is certainly evocative of the simpler, more innocent days of being a young baseball fan.” I believe everyone involved kept an invisible sign in their mind that said, “Many of our viewers are children and their parents – ACT ACCORDINGLY.”
Being such a far cry from today’s baseball world, the old Home Run Derby series and their trading cards, real or reprints, offer baseball historians such charming innocence and nostalgia that make me feel thankful and privileged to enjoy them time and again.
I am a big proponent of finding other media to complement my enjoyment of the postwar regional food issues. An old commercial, an original advertisement, a team program or yearbook from the time of the issue, a rare sports film tape or DVD, and especially a great story from a pioneer collector or person who collected the issue as a child.
Home Run Derby is a tour de force on this line. The DVDs take you back in time, up close and personal from a child’s point of view. In this case, the cards are just along for the ride back in time. I am deeply grateful to Bill Zimpleman, for his story now helps us understand the journey.
Mark Scott’s oft-used line from the show was, “It’s a home run or nothing here on Home Run Derby.” It’s a grand slam to me, and a lot of other people. Wish I could thank him.
Ed. Note: Complete sets of original Home Run Derby cards often sell for thousands of dollars with single card prices varying by player and grade. Originals and reprints can be found on eBay by clicking here.
The 479-page, full-color book “Never Cheaper by the Dozen” includes chapters on many vintage sets such as Dan-Dee, Stahl-Meyer, Bell Brand, Post Cereal, Bazooka, Kellogg’s, Jello and many others.
The Kindle version of Never Cheaper is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com or free with a Kindle Unlimited subscription.