It has been 50 years since the New York Mets stunned the baseball world by winning the 1969 World Series. This week marks a big anniversary for the franchise: On Sept. 10, 1969, the Mets took over first place in the National League East for good.
It was part of an amazing month for the Amazin’s. During a 25-game stretch from Sept. 6 through Sept. 28, their pitching staff combined for 10 shutouts – including four a row from Sept. 25 through Sept. 28.
Regional issues during the 1960s were common, and cards featuring the Mets were not rare. The 1969 Citgo set, however, is one of the more artistic, thanks to the work of John Wheeldon. The pastel efforts of the celebrity artist make this a very collectible set. The portraits on paper stock aren’t to be confused with the 1969 Citgo MLB coins that were issued on a wider basis.
Wheeldon also did the artwork for regional sets of the Seattle Pilots, Boston Red Sox (a promo by the Atlantic-Richfield oil company) and Minnesota Twins (a 1970 set issued through the Super Valu grocery store chain), and the California Angels, but the Mets set resonates because of the team’s success.
The Citgo portraits measured 8 inches by 10 inches and were available for free with a gasoline purchase at the station. Gas prices that year averaged between 31 and 35 cents per gallon and many dealers still offered full service. Check the oil, wash the windshield, put air in the tires and get a baseball promotion — all for free.
That aligns nicely with Citgo’s slogan at the time: “A nice place to visit.”
The Mets set consisted of eight cards, which were not numbered. They included future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, along with teammates Tommie Agee, Ken Boswell, Gary Gentry, Jerry Grote, Cleon Jones, Jerry Koosman and Ed Kranepool. Apparently, a young Nolan Ryan wasn’t enough of a contributor to be considered. His absence keeps prices for this set in check.
In addition to the large head and shoulders portrait, the front of each portrait included a mini-action drawing, along with a facsimile autograph of the player. The drawings are set against a bright pastel background.
The backs are printed in black and white and include a long, detailed player biography. Beneath the biography is a year-by-year statistics box — called “His Lifetime Record” — set in white type against a black background.
The bottom third of the back included a biography of Wheeldon, who had a fascinating career. The 1940 census lists him as a poster artist for a theater in Arlington, Massachusetts.
During World War II, Wheeldon was a combat artist for an anti-submarine patrol in the North Atlantic Ocean. In terms of celebrity status, for many years Wheeldon was commissioned to draw the portraits of the Academy Award winners for Best Actor and Best Actress. Based in Southern California, Wheeldon also did notable portraits of actors Clark Gable and Katharine Hepburn and President John F. Kennedy, and according to his biography on the back of the portrait, some of his work made the cover of The Saturday Evening Post.
According to Wheeldon’s daughter, Joan Wheeldon Voltz, he also did album covers for the “Singing Cowboy,” Angels owner Gene Autry. Voltz, who died in 2017, said in a 2001 interview her father was not paid for most of the baseball artwork he did; the Angels were an exception.
Wheeldon, who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1913, died in June 1993, a month shy of his 80th birthday.
The Mets portraits take on a more wistful bit of nostalgia since age has caught up to the Miracle Mets. Seaver, who had Lyme disease for many years, now suffers from dementia. Kranepool had a kidney transplant in May and has been selling his memorabilia to pay the bills.
Agee died in 2001. Jones is 77, Grote and Koosman are 76, Boswell is 73 and Gentry is 72.
Still, the youthful enthusiasm of the 1969 Mets remains intact with the Citgo portrait set. The artwork is rich with detail, and the pastel backgrounds make these portraits worthy of hanging in an art gallery.
While somewhat rare, they aren’t that expensive. You can usually find a few singles and a set or two on eBay.