Below is an excerpt from the newly published book on CD “Never Cheaper By the Dozen” by collector Brian Powell. Some of the photos come from the SC Daily archives.
The grandest of conventions, which ran several times a year for many years, was held at the George Washington Motor Lodge in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. The show was so important of an event to find badly wanted cardboard gems that the promoter hit upon the idea of making Friday, the first night, solely for members of the local area collecting club. Now, anyone could join, but the yearly fee cost you $10 or $20. The shrewd promoter knew collectors cannot bear the thought of missing out on finding something they would have wanted. Living way out in South Dakota, I became a member, since my family and I were planning to vacation in Indiana. I in turn would venture alone to this suburb of Philadelphia. It was September 1988.
My sense of exclusivity expired as I approached the already long, thick line of collectors stretched out through the parking lot. Members only? I thought I arrived early, but when the doors finally opened I was stuck in the middle with all my fellow happy, hopeful hobbyists. A bundle of distressed nerves was I. Hope there isn’t a major Mantle collector ahead of me. If so, maybe he’ll just want something easy, like an early Topps or Bowman.
Within one hour after the doors opened at Philly, I had purchased the 1962 JELL-O Mantle box. It was sitting in one of the cases of “Mr. Mint” Alan Rosen.
The Mint Man was not the easiest person to do business with, and you approached him with a certain humility. He paid immense sums to advertise his name and desire to buy old cards. Week by week, month by month, year by year. It worked. In so doing, he was able to purchase vans of stuff that, when the gems were sifted out, would gladly be purchased by you. These became the centerpieces, the highlights, truly the most cherished of your collection. For this I thank him, and keep an attitude of gratitude.
Mr. Rosen told me the Mantle JELL-O box was consigned from a collector to whom Alan had originally sold it. Prior to that, the crease-free box was once one of the treasured pieces in the collection of Barbara Grossman, a major collector in the 1980s known as The Yankee Lady. Long-time collector, dealer and founder of Robert Edward Auctions, Rob Lifson, told me that the well-known Yankee Lady was very fanatical about condition. This JELL-O gem befits her fastidious collecting manner, though the box’s prime condition is merely part of its significance.
When Mr. Mint purchased Barbara’s wonderful collection devoted to the New York Yankees, it filled three vans. Announcing the find with a full-page ad in SCD, above the ad’s headline was a pair of photos displaying an artistic arrangement of a few choice items, including this unfolded JELL-O box. Mr. Mint described the pictured items as “rare and unusual,” and this beautiful Mantle piece epitomized his well-chosen words. Several years ago, Alan told me it was the only 1962 JELL-O box he ever had of Mickey. It is an honor to own such a card in this fashion.
Had I turned down the show promoter’s membership offer and the privilege of attending a day earlier than the general public to save those $20 for card-buying, then somehow found out what I missed – super self-recrimination! I would have pounded my head as The Professor who always blundered trying to defeat Felix the Cat, yelping “I made a boo-boo! I made a boo-boo! I made a boo-boo!!!” Don’t take me seriously here, but that sizes up how I would have felt.
In 1962, JELL-O and Post Cereal were among the brands of General Foods. According to an excellent 1988 Sports Collectors Digest article on Post Cereal by Gary Hailey, “perhaps after seeing how successful the cereal division’s promotion was in 1961, the Jell-O people decided to test-market baseball cards in the Chicago area in 1962.” Milwaukee and its suburbs were included in the test region as well.
In 2003 I spoke with Larry Fritsch on this question, and he confirmed that Chicago and Milwaukee were indeed the chosen markets for the test issue. Earlier, Beckett 3 described the set as “considered by many to be a test issue.” Makes a lot of sense, as these two cities represented three major league teams in close proximity to one another to gauge the promotion.
In addition, though the main offices of JELL-O were in White Plains, New York, their boxes were printed in Chicago. Chicagoan Sports photographer Art Shay was hired by Post to take the player photos. In a November 1, 1991 SCD feature on Art, he spoke candidly about the JELL-O people: “Jell-O pirated my cards. They did a whole series (actually two) of Jell-O box cards. They never paid for those, because even though my contract was with Post Cereal, they dared me to sue them, I guess. But they were supposed to pay me for the use of the cards.” In this case, JELL-O played the General Foods’ “jiggle-o.”
My introduction to the test JELL-Os came well into that summer of ’62. Besides my pursuit of Topps, I had been quite occupied with gobbling down various varieties of Post Cereal. Though I enjoyed the Topps cards, I loved the colorful Post just as much, if not more, because of the challenge of building a 200-card set just a few cards at a time.
Furthermore, Post Cereal produced several well-done television commercials to advertise this major promotion. These commercials were geared to kids all the way, each one featuring one particular star, and sometimes one or more of his children. Among them were Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Jim Gentile, Whitey Ford, Harmon Killebrew, and Rocky Colavito. These snippets of a star “talking to you” made a great impression upon me as a 7-year-old. There were no Topps commercials. Thus in my mind, using a superlative of the time, Post was “the most.”
A few years ago, while surfing for baseball card information online, I discovered someone had put the Maris and the Mantle commercials on YouTube. What an invigorating blast from the past! Seeing those commercials bowled me over with a wave of nostalgia and a surge of appreciation for the Post and JELL-Os again. With both brands and baseball card sets being so intertwined, these thoughts indeed are germane to the subject.
Take the Mantle commercial. Filmed in black and white, it’s saturated with ambiance. An idyllic setting in the backyard of a beachfront home with the waves of either the Atlantic or Pacific rolling in as a backdrop. A girl, about 10, wearing her swimsuit bounces through the yard gate.
The ads conspired to fill many of us kids with desire, and the word got out to most card collectors in the Chicago-Milwaukee area about the JELL-Os, too.
I loved JELL-O, but do not recall seeing any of their baseball cards early in that 1962 season. One vivid memory remains, though. I would often accompany my mother on her weekly grocery trip to the local Jewel Food Store in Skokie, Illinois, where I grew up. It was late August.
There, in a very open shopping area, not more than 10 feet from a check-out, was a large circular bin, 3 feet in diameter, and 6-8 inches deep, at the perfect height for this now 8-year-old. That bin was loaded with JELL-O baseball card boxes, prob-ably on sale. For a moment, I just gazed at them. It was so intriguing, a JELL-O box with just one baseball card on the back. I dove my fingers slowly into the pile, carefully culling. Oh boy, there he is. Mickey Mantle. Mickey Mantle! I must have spent 20 minutes going through as much of that massive mound of boxes as I could, picking out a half-dozen Mantles. My mother wheeled her cart past me on the opposite side of the bin. We had a silent conversation. I looked up at her with pleading eyes. She gave me a cold look, and shook her head “no.” My dear Mom was half-German, and her response was indeed a firm “forget about it.”
Earlier in the year, I had so frustrated her by spending most of my little money on Topps cards that, what with her frequent Post Cereal purchases for me, she had just about had enough of baseball cards and further had no use for me starting another set.
So I dejectedly, but delicately, placed each Mantle box in a different area of the bin, I suppose to prevent another boy from potentially mining all six Mickeys at once. That thought was too painful to contemplate, when I was denied even getting one box.
The sight of all those JELL-O boxes remains with me. I had looked upon them with such fascination. At the time, I could not have known of their scarce test issue nature. All I understood was I had gotten my hands on a cluster of huge perfectly round South Sea pearls. Just one would have been satisfactory. At the moment my desire became known, however, mother of pearl snapped shut. Walking away empty-handed from that pearl bed paradise underscored the vulnerability of us kid collectors. We were at the mercy of our loving moms. The supermarket’s name was sadly appropriate – Jewel.
According to my research, a small box of JELL-O cost 9 cents in 1962. That comes to virtually two nickel-packs of Topps, or 10 cards. Even if I had been in a position to use my small allowance to buy a couple of boxes of JELL-O, I would not have been able to build a very large collection. The cost per card was just too much, and since it was a food item, I would have begged my mother to buy JELL-O. That did not always work. So perhaps you can see why I valued the JELL-Os so highly.
Consider for a moment. Instead of a refusal to release this pearl, what if she had allowed me to select one of the Micks. It begs a question. Would I have left the box entirely intact, wrapped in something to prevent bugs from getting through?
Had I been a grown-up, there is a good chance I would have gone to great pains to save and preserve a few boxes, using cedar to help eliminate any odors . The overriding truth is my being 8 years old then, so the answer is no. I would have cut Mantle out, as it was intended to be. If, of course, I remembered the card.
Let’s look at the reality of the time. A glowing facet of the JELL-Os is that boys normally would not have had interaction with the box. They merely ate this great delicacy. Let me explain. Since JELL-O’s baseball card promotion had no media blitz, but ran simply as a regional test on the coattails of Post, it was only through kid collectors intermingling that word would get out about them. Who would put a kid attraction down the gelatin aisle? That section of a store was never a hot spot for kids to congregate or check things out. Unless a boy accompanied his mother on her shopping, and by slim chance helped her as she selected the provisions, he might be totally oblivious to their existence. Which then explains why a sharp Jewel manager decided to display the boxes where they would have much more exposure and be accessible to his young consumers.
Furthermore, unlike the Post cereal boxes seen and handled by children each morning, a JELL-O baseball box would have been handled just once, when mother prepared it. The box was then thrown away unless she remembered sonny boy want-ed it. Would a young baseball card collector help his mother with the JELL-O, to get the box? All the preceding factors make it doubtful he would be there to claim the free prize, this time.
For me, Mom began supper around 5 o’clock. That’s when Garfield Goose and Friends came on TV, hosted by the beloved Frazier Thomas. This sadly missed Chicago area kid show would have masses of us Baby Boomers glued to Channel 9. The JELL-O baseball card would be temporarily forgotten in the midst of “Clutch Cargo” and “Journey To The Beginning of Time”. By the time that cardboard gem flashed through my consciousness, Al Kaline was now clutched in the large cargo of trash, beginning its final journey – to the dump site ‘til the end of time.
No wonder the survival rate of the JELL-O test issue falls far short of its Post Cereal counterpart, making them worth substantially more money.
In 1969, a junior high buddy gave me his childhood collection of 27 ’62 JELL-Os, all “neatly pasted” into a non-slotted General Foods baseball card album. The next year, a close high school friend gave me his ’62 JELL-O Mickey Mantle, which, even with a small crease was a real beauty.
By 1988, married with a son, my collecting was limited, but primarily focused on Mickey Mantle. I was one of the proverbial Mantle Maniacs back then. That Mantle unfolded box purchase was a Bengal Tiger of a catch on that card-hunting expedition!
So let’s hone in on some aspects of this box.
The colors used to create the distinctive artwork for each flavor of JELL-O brand products or variety of Post Cereal caused small variations in the color blends that made the player photos. My hand-cut JELL-O Mantle has darker photo colors than my box. The flavor of my box is apple, and a pastel-red was used for the apple art-work. Thus, the apple flavor Mantle colors are more tranquil, but elegant nonetheless. In fact, all 1962 JELL-Os have a distinct coloring that stands in stark contrast to the Post version. Also, there is more of the original photo used to create the JELL-Os. These aspects join several others to make a genuine difference between the two issues.
For years, I searched for reassurance that my hideously rare unfolded box was not slightly sun-bleached! Then, I saw in the 12/8/2005 MastroNet auction catalog Lot No. 1247, a large group of 1962-63 JELL-Os, with a typical just-as-the-cards-actually-are photo. Among the cards pictured was a ’62 Mantle having the precise softer colors as my box. Color variation confirmed – 17 years later! Recently, I’ve seen a couple of others on eBay, too. These cards would all have been cut from an apple flavor box.
The apple flavor is certainly worth discussing. An April 1982 SCD magazine had a feature article on the GF issues by Stewart Jones. It was his understanding regarding “Apple” JELL-O that “that particular flavor was withdrawn after the first shipment to retail stores. Consequently, a 1962 JELL-O box of ‘Apple’ flavor would be particularly rare.”
Think about it. Apple pie, applesauce, and apple juice and cider are mainstays of our taste palette, but Apple JELL-O? Yuck. That idea was in bad taste. I vaguely recall my mother buying it – once! When Apple JELL-O debuted in 1955, its ad stated the new flavor had “a bright refreshing taste – a magnificent golden color!” The ad shows a glowing painted picture of the new flavor on a salad dish, its color a golden tannish-orange, or coral.
Not to be unkind, but the color reminded me of a bitten apple starting to turn brown, or the gelatin in a canned ham. So, apple was dropped, and the folks at JELL-O debuted a new flavor – blackberry, one of my favorites, which I now miss.
The black line that comprises the border for the JELL-O Mickey is very revealing. First, the precise dimensions of a 1962 JELL-O, including the black border, are 2-25/64 inches by 3-3/8 inches. Beckett 3 erroneously gave the ’62 size as 2-½ inches by 3-1/2 inches. Their 2008 Almanac is a little better at 2-½ inches by 3-3/8 inches. Even the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards is in error, stating “cards which have been neatly trimmed from the box which they were printed will measure 3-1/2 X 2-1/2.”(5) However, collectors need to report errors or additions. Sadly, grading companies take guide figures as etched in stone, and often grade specimens as Authentic, at best.
Yet, there is good reason why those cards are graded Authentic, and that is due to the cards’ vertical black lines. As you can see, extra space was provided for both horizontal borders. That’s the good part. The bad part is that both vertical borders are situated at the very ends of the box where the folds begin. My box has the end flaps scored as part of the printing process, but not actually folded. Were it a completed box, with the folds and food product, as virtually all boxes were, you could not have cut the card out and included the vertical borders, because they were right on the fold. Even if you had included those black lines, the card would have a fold crease on both vertical borders.
The 4-ounce pudding and pie filling boxes were shaped the same as the standard 3-ounce gelatin box. The August 2008 Mastro Premier Auction, Lot No. 801, had such a complete box, of Roger Maris no less! Upon close view from their web-site, were you to attempt cutting the card out, the vertical black borders would have purely been a lost cause.
As for a larger 1962 JELL-O box, Huggins & Scott’s April 2008 auction, Lot No. 870, offered one – a strawberry Camilio Pascual. There was oodles of room for cutting the horizontal borders intact. Yet, the vertical borders offered very little relief, with perhaps 1/32-inch clearance at either end. That is not much, since the end fold would crease the cardboard badly and separate the fibers slightly beyond the fold itself. Thus, cutting out the card from even the larger boxes would have challenged the fine motor skills of any adult, much less children. Not saying it would be impossible for a card to have full black line and grade EXCELLENT or better. However, you better believe it would classify as a downright rarity.
One of the most memorable and clever advertising lines of the company was introduced in 1964. “There’s always room for JELL-O.” As a kid, I sure would have agreed. Even today. Unfortunately, it seems the company never left enough room for a baseball card on their boxes in 1962. That decidedly tight fit caused the printer to put JELL-O’s soon-to-be nationwide 1963 baseball cards “on a strict diet” over the winter. Upon their release in the spring, the cards were now a quarter-inch narrower, allowing a child just enough room to successfully remove the entire card with its black border. Whether or not he actually bothered including that black border is another matter.
A complete, unfolded box such as this is very rare. At the show I purchased the Mantle, a dealer who worked with Mr. Rosen offered a similar 1962 JELL-O box of a blackberry Roger Maris. Not one second was wasted contemplating the pur-chase of that regal Rajah. I prize it as a giant rare ruby. He said he had a Yogi Berra somewhere; that was all. Since then I have only seen one other unfolded ’62 box – a strawberry Tommy Davis offered in a 2003 MastroNet auction, its write-up saying it came from the ex-Copeland collection. Mr. Copeland would have gotten this precious piece about the same time I got mine.
Whether I was a child or an adult in 1962, only completely packaged boxes would have been available at grocers. I would have had to write a very friendly and plead-ing letter to the General Foods offices for unfolded boxes, or to beg the address of their printer, and state my intentions to pay for them.
Remember, back in 1962, baseball card collecting was considered a child’s pur-suit by 99.9 percent of the public. An adult collector was looked upon as Barney Fife described Ernest T. Bass – as some kind of a nut.
Then again, you do as Larry Fritsch told me he did (with several food issues, though not the JELL-O), and as ol’ Buck Barker used to do. You go to the printer, ask to speak to the foreman, and show him a $10 bill. Now you’re speaking his language. But in 1962, you could count the fingers on two hands of the men who tenaciously pursued these kinds of pristine food issues, and that’s being generous. Wonder of wonders, in 1962 someone paid a visit to the JELL-O printers, or some-one who worked at the printer had the unintentional foresight to grab a few of these boxes as souvenirs, before they were put through the packaging process.
That is what makes this box a quintessential dream piece that obsessive-compulsive competitive collectors dream about. Satisfying the collecting beast within them is not easy, for what they crave is realistically unrealistic. This is the essence then of why mint condition is so longed for and hunted down – because it is so very elusive and exclusive. Normal human rationality. A 1962 JELL-O Mickey Mantle – from a test issue, in the rarest flavor, and nestled beautifully on its period box, is the combination of ingredients for one of the top echelon Mantle cards.
Yet there’s that further, oh so sweet twist I mentioned. That it was snatched away and spared from the packaging machine that might have worked it over a bit to unfold it, inserting the waxed-lined bag of gelatin inside, gluing the box shut, then sending it down rollers where an operator hurriedly picked up several boxes at a time to steadily pack each case. Again, none of that handling occurred, which explains its mint condition, which defines why it is so valuable, because it was spared from the usual operations and then consumer handling that would cause all the wear and tear, and the certain “authentic” looking cut out rendered by a kid doing his dead level best to remove the card.
The dream pieces, as Harry Rinker wrote, are those that make your collection king of the hill, without peer. This ‘62 JELL-O Mantle box is the kind of piece that would tend to astonish even your most tenacious rival, because there are so desperately few of these that chances are he will not have one. Attempts to match this gem would quite likely prove fruitless.
Ours is not to reason why. Ours is to blame JELL-O for allowing so few to es-cape, a generation-plus later.
For several years I pondered the matter of getting the box graded. It’s such a choice plum of a Mantle card that I thought having it graded would make it stand out all the more. PSA refused. I was stunned. I even discussed with Rob Lifson the idea of carefully cutting the card out and just submitting it to a grading company. He urged me not to do it, that it was much more attractive, and valuable, just the way it was. I knew Rob was right, because in my heart that’s what I believed, too. I contacted Sportscard Guaranty, and through some persuasion, they said yes, then no, and finally yes. The best SGC could do was authenticate it, since unfolding it to examine the inside would compromise the quality of the piece. At the 2008 National, SGC authenticated the box. Looking quite resplendent in its SGC holder, I’m relieved it’s done, and thankful I didn’t cut the card off the box! I also wish to thank SGC’s then-Vice President of Operations, Sean Skeffington, for agreeing to authenticate it.
Never Cheaper By the Dozen focuses on vintage baseball regional sets of the 1950s and 60s. The 479-page, full-color book is presented in PDF form on a CD. $30 postpaid, first class mail, payable via money order only to:
P.O. Box 743
New Carlisle, IN 46552
Indiana residents must add 7% sales tax, or $2.10, to their money order. Paypal is not accepted. For further information, contact Brian Powell at [email protected].
Update: The Kindle version of Never Cheaper is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com or free with a Kindle Unlimited subscription.