Charles Hires did not invent root beer, but his marketing and advertising skills helped make his brand one of the United States’ top selling soft drinks by the time of his death in 1937.
Hires, a pharmacist by trade, flooded the market with advertising, distributing Victorian trading cards with stunningly beautiful artwork and placing ads in publications like the Ladies Home Journal. His heirs carried on that business savvy by printing baseball cards in 1958 and inserting them into cartons of Hires Root Beer.
1958 Hires Root Beer: The Nuts and Bolts
Hires started with an eight-card test set before releasing a 66-card set. The cards were numbered from 10 to 76, with card No. 69 never issued. Perforated tabs were included beneath the card; the width of the card varied, from 2 3/8 to 2 5/8 inches and as much as 3 5/8 inches tall. The wedge-shaped tab added another 3 ½ inches of depth.
The tab served a dual purpose — to hold the card onto the cardboard carton of soda bottles it was distributed with, and to offer membership to a fan club (“Join the Hires Baseball Club Today!” it urged its patrons).
All a fan had to do was paste 10 cents to the picture of the Hires bottle cap on the back of the tab and send it along with two bottle caps to the company’s headquarters in Haddonfield, New Jersey. In return, the fan would receive “a valuable membership card” along with a “How to Play Baseball Book.”
High Grade Hires
Finding a card with that tab intact is difficult. A PSA-7 card of Hank Aaron (including a tab) sold for $1,021 this year. PSA also notes that graded cards with tabs generally sell for three times the listed price for tab-less cards.
The second best set on PSA’s Registry sold via Mile High Card Company in late 2014 for $215,536. An ungraded set, with extras, sold for $960 via Robert Edward Auctions last fall while a set with six SGC-rated star cards sold for $2,844 via Huggins and Scott.
Currently, a complete graded set without tabs has a buy-it-now price of $1,755 on eBay by longtime collector Phil Regli, author of the book “The Collectors Guide to Sports Illustrated and Sports Publications.”
The design Hires used for the regular set was a colorized player likeness framed by wood grain art. That gives the card a knothole-like feel to it. That design looks strikingly similar to one of the prototypes Bowman was considering for its 1956 release (which never happened, since Topps bought out its competitor) and was later revived to comprise part of Topps’ 2003 Bowman Heritage set.
The player’s name is featured in white block letters at the bottom of the card inside a black, rectangular box. The player’s position and team are situated beneath his name.
The back of the card included a drawing of a Hires Root Beer bottle and a biographical sketch, with a small fact box giving out vital information like birthdate, height, weight, and whether he bats and throws left- or right-handed. A Hires bottle cap at the top right of the card back lists the number in the set.
Key cards in the set include Aaron, Richie Ashburn, Larry Doby, Pee Wee Reese, Willie Mays, Bill Mazeroski, Don Drysdale and Ted Kluszewski (as a member of the Pirates). Prices, of course, vary greatly based on condition.
Collectors Chasing 1958 Hires Root Beer Baseball Cards
Peter, a collector from Maryland, has all 66 cards and seven of the eight test cards (he’s missing Chico Fernandez).
Peter said his favorite players from the set were Ashburn, Aaron, Doby, or Kluszewski.
The Test Set
The test set’s biggest name was Mays. Other players included Fernandez, Johnny Antonelli, Jim Busby, Bob Friend, Vern Law, Stan Lopata and Al Pilarcik.
The design for the test set was decidedly different than the regular issue. The cards strongly resemble the 1958 Topps set, although they have a sepia tone against plain yellow and orange backgrounds, rather than color pictures.
“I have seen some of the test cards with tabs,” Peter said. “But those are tough and expensive.”
Some collectors, like Joshua Levine of Canyon Country, California, concentrate on one team. In his case, the Phillies.
He has all of the Phillies in the regular set and test set except Fernandez. His Granny Hamner card in the main set still has the tab attached.
“It is a fun set but difficult to complete,” Levine said. “I know a collector who spent years putting a set together and is still missing one of the test issues.”
Most collectors buy the Hires cards from online auctions or card shows, but some, like Bill Malson of North Canton, Ohio, have owned one by actually pulling the card off the carton. Malson, who was 6 years old and living near Akron when the set was released in 1958, has a Mays test card without a tab (although a fellow collector mailed him a detached tab a few years ago). That’s the key card among the eight test issues.
“I probably pulled it off the bottle back when it was issued — and since I was a pretty young pup at the time, it is in decidedly poor condition,” Malson said. But he noted that “if you are only going to have one card from the set, that’s a pretty good choice.”
Hires’ heirs sold the company in the 1960s. It is currently owned by the Dr Pepper-Snapple Group.
You can see the latest eBay auctions for Hires Root Beer cards here.