No matter how you slice it, the Kahn’s basketball cards that were released between 1957 and 1965 were a rare, regional phenomenon. The Cincinnati-based meat company’s slogan was “The Wiener The World Awaited.” For basketball card collectors, these NBA sets came at a price — the cards were packaged with Kahn’s hot dogs, so finding any in pristine condition was difficult.
“Just about every card had a stain and an indent from a frozen hot dog,” said Nevada collectibles dealer Steve Taft, who has several sets Kahn’s sets listed for sale on eBay.
Kahn’s wasn’t a national chain so the cards were only distributed in a relatively small section of the country.
Kahn’s Royalty and Mr. Clutch
The cards featured members of the Cincinnati Royals, but from 1960 to 1965 there was one notable exception — Los Angeles Lakers star Jerry West. Other than the fact that West was from West Virginia and his college team played in the 1959 Final Four along with Ohio State (the two teams did not meet that year), there is no real explanation — but it was a heck of a marketing move.
“He was perhaps one of the most popular players in the league,” Taft said. “He certainly helped the popularity of the sets.”
Mainstream basketball collectors point to the 1961-62 Fleer set as containing the West rookie card, but the 1960-61 Kahn’s card is considered the true West rookie by others.
Taft said that as a youth growing up in California, his favorite player was West.
“But after I met him I didn’t like him so much,” Taft laughed, remembering a charity golf tournament in the early 1980s (Taft was a golf pro at the time) where West seemed preoccupied with an impending trade in his role as Lakers general manager and wasn’t very charitable to fellow golfers during the event. But he admits that the West cards in the Kahn’s sets “are the most sought after.” The only other player who comes close in popularity, not surprisingly, was Cincinnati superstar Oscar Robertson.
1950s Kahn’s Basketball Cards Launched the Franchise
The cards were black and white for all but the final two years the cards were issued. The debut 1957-58 set and the follow-up product in 1958-59 are among the toughest to collect in nice condition. The 1957-58 Kahn’s offering was an 11-card set, coinciding with the Royals’ first season in Cincinnati after a dozen years in Rochester, New York. A total of 123 cards were sent to PSA for grading, but none came back gem mint, and only six graded out as PSA-9s.
“The first couple of years are significantly tougher to collect (in high grade),” Taft said.
Cards throughout the rest of the set’s run fluctuated between 10 and 13 base cards. The largest sets (1958-59 and 1959-60) had 10 cards each. The 1961-62 and 1963-64 sets had 13 cards apiece. The final set — 1965-66 — had only four cards, but each was a Hall of Famer.
The 1964-65 set had 12 cards, but there were variations for the Robertson and Jerry Lucas cards. Robertson’s photo showed one variation facing sideways, while the other presented him looking right at the camera. The Lucas variations are much more subtle. In one variation a window can be seen in the background; in the other variation, the window isn’t visible.
Robertson’s first Kahn’s card also pre-dates his 1961-62 Fleer rookie. The Big O appears in the 1960-61 Kahn’s set and his among the most valuable cards of the era. A higher-grade complete set of the ’60-61 cards sold for $7,110 in 2014. The other sets typically bring $1,000 and up, depending upon condition.
Taft said there are some cards that were not attached to packages, and he has seen a few floating around at various shows. He speculates that those might have been promotional cards carried by Kahn’s salesmen, but he cannot confirm that.
“There’s a good chance they came from a salesman’s sample, but those were the exceptions to the rule,” Taft said. “I’ve only seen one or two of them.
“If someone says they are going to hold off and try to build the set with (the cards not stuck to hot dog wrappers), well, good luck.”
Some history is in order about Kahn’s — the company, not the card sets.
Elias Kahn sailed from Alberschweiler in Bavaria in 1880 with his wife and nine children. The 45-year-old German immigrant settled in Cincinnati, and in 1883 opened a neighborhood meat market on Central Avenue.
Chicago had overtaken Cincinnati as the nation’s pork-packing capital by the time Kahn arrived, but pigs were still big business in the lower Ohio metropolis.
Kahn died in 1899 and the family business was taken over by four of his sons (Eugene, Nathan, Louis and Albert) and one of his daughters .(Matilda). Louis and Albert, the last of the surviving Kahn brothers, died within seven weeks of each other in 1948. Matilda’s son, 34-year-old Milton Schloss, became the company’s president. It was Schloss who recognized that marketing through radio and television—and by promoting his product with basketball cards — was an effective tool.
In 1966 the company was sold to Consolidated Foods Corporation; which owns Sara Lee and Hillshire Farms. And by then, the bloom was off the American Beauty Rose that was Kahn’s trademark, and the cards were discontinued. The Royals, meanwhile, would relocate to Kansas City in 1972 and change their name to Kings. The franchise moved to Sacramento in 1985 and has been there ever since.
Kahn’s franks would become the official hot dogs of the New York Mets, starting a two-decade run that began in the 1980s. Kahn’s is closer to home now, as it is the official hot dog of the Cincinnati Reds.
Along with the basketball sets, Kahn’s also produced baseball and football sets, so the company’s sports card promotional ventures were virtually year-round for a while.
A Bouncing Business
Taft, 58, who has been in the collectibles business since the 1970s — “I do cards for a living , and it’s not a very good living,” he jokes —has his eBay auctions and a studio at the Great Western Marketplace in northwest Reno, where he sets up shop every Friday through Sunday. Basketball cards caught fire in the 1990s, but a lockout which shortened the season to 50 games in 1998-99 quelled the excitement.
“Basketball was on the verge of catching baseball,” Taft said.
It didn’t happen, but the Kahn’s sets of the early 1960s certainly kept interested piqued in the Ohio Valley. Today’s international audience has opened up some new doors in the current era, even if no meat maker has picked up the torch.
“Basketball collectibles overall have had some ups and downs,” Taft said.
And that’s no bologna.