Baseball and business have gone hand-in-hand in the United States for a very long time. Recently baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, wrote a great piece on the beginnings of this relationship (“The Dawn of Athlete Endorsements”). Indeed, for many years in America if a business wanted to attract extra notice at the cash register it found a way to attach its presence to baseball. It worked for bread, cigarettes, war bonds, cereals, and all sorts of other “daily” items. And it worked for a LONG time for gasoline companies.
Companies would give out booklets about the game as premiums with automotive service or gasoline purchases. (One of our favorites was a 1953 piece titled, “How To Watch Baseball At The Field Or On Television. ”) Many are familiar with the fact that the gasoline stations of Sunoco had pinbacks of the 1969 Cubs that are still eagerly sought. Less remembered, it seems, are the CITGO “coins” of MLB All-Stars from that same summer of ’69. Frankly, it is a pity that more collectors do not remember these metal discs as they are quite unique. They’re not to be confused with the paper stock 1969 CITGO Mets portraits that were sold in the Tri-State area and honored the World Series champs.
In 1969, to commemorate Baseball’s 100th Anniversary, CITGO released their “Famous Baseball Player Coin Collection” of 20 brass-coated metal coins. On the front, the coins featured the player’s name and a raised image of his head. Part of what makes these unique is that the bas relief style of the player was intended as a full portrait and not just a silhouette (like the 1965 Topps Embossed). Coming right out of the coin’s front the player’s face took shape, and the result was that the inexpensive metal of the coins, which are very susceptible to tarnishing due to oxidation, often have excessive wear on the noses and baseball caps of the depicted stars.
Some call the portraits “crude” in appearance, and it is true that some of the bas relief heads are indistinguishable as any particular person. Others, however, truly do bear a resemblance to the player named (we think Ron Santo is a good example).
The coin backs displayed a banner honoring baseball’s s 100th Anniversary. Approximately one inch in diameter the coins came in a sealed pack free with a fill-up. Advertising from that day also reveals that customers could also pay 25 cents for additional coin packages. The 20 coin set could be inserted into an 8 1/2″ by 11″ tri-folded paperboard backing for display. On the back of the display was a short bio with stats of each player.
This 20-coin edition featured ten American League and ten National League stars of the time. The dating of the set has a lot to do with player inclusion as Denny McLain and Frank Howard are featured. Of course, the great era of the 1960s produced many all-time greats, and Hall of Fame players such as Harmon Killebrew, the aforementioned Ron Santo, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey and Jim Bunning are represented. Pete Rose is also in the set, and as usual, one of the most sought after items.
I would love to say that I was able to put this set together in 1969 and still possess it today, but I cannot. Although I remember getting a few of the coins from my father’s fill-ups, he was always keen on getting his gas at whatever station had the lowest price posted and not on who had the coolest premium. Nevertheless, I do have the set now, and it is a great 45-year old reminder of baseball’s centennial celebration.