Arco was looking to establish itself as a new face in American gasoline in 1971, and what better way to win over some sports-minded customers than with a baseball promotion? Today, the oversized 1971 Arco baseball sets are among the most memorable regional sets of the era, even if only a few teams are represented.
The company itself was not old; in fact, Arco came about through the merger of several companies. Nevertheless, while gas-guzzling was still prevalent in the early 1970s, baseball card giveaways were excellent advertising tools. They’re considered “cards” by most collectors but in reality, they’re oversized photos.
1971 Arco Overview
The 1971 Arco sets included four teams — the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates. There were 13 cards in the Phillies set, while the other three teams had 12 cards apiece.
Printed on heavy paper stock, the cards measured 8 inches by 10 inches and featured color images with facsimile signatures on the front. Red, white and blue stars flanked the player’s name at the bottom of the card front. Those colors were a nod to Arco’s newly unveiled color scheme.
Most of the players were not wearing hats in the four-color photographs.
The backs include biographical and statistical information as well as an offer for a set of frames to store them in.
The cards/photos were issued as an enticement for customers. To get one, consumers had to fill up with eight gallons of gasoline. Then, they had their choice of player, depending on what was in stock at the gasoline station.
In 1971, a gallon of regular gasoline cost 36 cents. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to $2.32 in 2020 currency, according to Dollar Times.
Any leftover cards were sold directly to collectors.
Arco was the product of several mergers. Its immediate parent, Atlantic Richfield, was born in a 1966 merger, according to the Los Angeles Times. Atlantic Richfield was formed from Atlantic Refining Corp., which was based in Philadelphia, and the Richfield Oil Corp., of Los Angeles, which owned 4,100 gasoline stations in six western states.
The eastern portion of Atlantic Richfield was responsible for two-thirds of the company’s sales.
But in 1968, a major discovery of crude oil on Alaska’s North Slope left Atlantic Richfield with plenty of oil, but not enough gasoline stations to ship to.
That was rectified on March 4, 1969, when Atlantic Richfield merged with Sinclair Oil Corp., a struggling oil company whose corporate symbol, fittingly enough, was a dinosaur. The company morphed into Arco after realizing that having six brands of gasoline (Atlantic, Richfield and Sinclair), was not only unwieldy, but also confusing.
The company had actually ventured into baseball collectible promotions a couple of years earlier. A set issued in 1969 by Atlantic Richfield showcased the Boston Red Sox, with pastel colors painted by noted artist John Wheeldon.
The 1971 Arco baseball sets are fairly popular with collectors. Among all four sets, only 49 have been graded by PSA, and only four register as high as 9. One of them was a Pirates card of Roberto Clemente, which is easily the most valuable card among all four sets. Twenty-five of the 49 slabbed cards are of Clemente. Other notable Pirates were Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski (which has one card at PSA 9) and Al Oliver, whose nickname “Scoop” is included in the pre-printed signature on the front.
The Pirates cards would become more desirable after Pittsburgh defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series.
Among the Red Sox, the key cards were Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski (two cards have come back as PSA 9s, and one is a PSA 8) and Luis Aparicio. George Scott and Reggie Smith were also key cards in that set.
For the Phillies, Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and catcher Tim McCarver are the key cards in the set, while for the Yankees, Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer and Roy White attract the most attention.
The good news for collectors is that virtually all of the sets are inexpensive, with many single cards often available on eBay for under $5. A Yaz sold not long ago for $15. Complete sets of Yankees and Red Sox can sometimes be a little hard to find, but are rarely expensive when they are found. The Phillies set is usually the cheapest of the four. You can see what’s available on eBay here.
The Arco set recalls a time when gasoline stations fought for the consumer dollar. Oil was plentiful in 1971, but that would change with the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Arco would be sold to British-based BP in 2000.