By Doug Koztoski
A few vintage baseball sets usually live in the driver’s seat (T206 tobacco cards), while others normally “ride shotgun” (like 1956 Topps), at best. Some, however, are like car keys, spare change and Chiclets gone rogue and seemingly disappear between or under the seats.
The 1969 Citgo baseball coin set is the latter – a small issue, in various ways, that the average collector might not think much about or pursue to any degree, but it can be fun when you unexpectedly find a sample or two from the 20-piece offering.
First available to collectors in 1969 with gasoline purchases at Citgo service stations, the set commemorated the 100-year mark of professional baseball. The brass-coated metal coins feature a raised portrait image of each player – that in some cases even looks a little like the intended subjects.
The collectibles are about the size of a quarter. Depending on where you lived in the summer of ’69, that was about a nickel to a dime less than the average price per gallon of gas. A quarter was also the price per coin of one’s choice with a mail-in offer, available after the gas promotion period reached “Empty.”
Denny McLain, who leads off the Citgo set, was a full tank of talent and attitude in 1968. With 31 victories, McLain accounted for more than one-quarter of Detroit’s 103 wins that year, en route to a World Series championship against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The right-hander is the most recent pitcher to win 30 or more games in a MLB season – and likely the last. Why? It was difficult enough to win 30 games in a season back in McLain’s days when they had four-man pitching rotations, but for decades since, five-man rotations have been the norm, so pitchers today have even fewer chances to realistically come close to 25 wins, much less 30.
Although the coins themselves are unnumbered, any numbers connected to the gas station premium came from the paper display board Citgo made available to collectors by mail. The displays included a slot to store each of the 10 players from both leagues.
American Leaguers fill the first half of the issue, with slugger Harmon Killebrew as the lone Cooperstown representative. The National Leaguers, meantime, feature several Hall of Famers: Joe Torre, Ron Santo, Henry Aaron, Willie McCovey and Jim Bunning. Plus, they also have Pete Rose, who along with Aaron, are the keys to the entire issue.
“We get $20-$25 apiece for Rose and Aaron,” said Scott Cowan, general manager of Kit Young Cards, referring to those coins in solid condition. “For the commons, we stick to The Standard Catalog (of Vintage Baseball Cards) and sell them for $2-$4 each.”
Cowan said that when his company picks up a set of the coins, “we break them up, sell them to team set collectors or to someone looking for just a certain player.” He added that the collectibles are “not rare, but not common, either.”
With a recent collection purchase, Dave Levin of Dave’s Vintage Baseball Cards picked up four to five of each of the Citgo coins. Levin said many of the commons sold for around $5 each. Those in the batch that sold out quickly were a good blend of commons and stars: McLain, Killebrew, Torre, Rose, McCovey, Willie Horton and Jerry Koosman.
The coins’ most common areas of wear? The player’s nose and hat. Also, finding them raw without a decent amount of oxidation, after nearly five decades, is kind of like locating a gas station these days with “free air.”
Cowan emphasized that the Citgo coins are hard to find in nice shape, but “are popular in that they are so inexpensive.”
PSA has graded about 400 of the premiums thus far, with PSA 6s and 7s usually the highest grade you will find with any regularity online, and those often sell for $7-$20 depending on the player. Recently listed on eBay: a Gem Mint PSA 10 Koosman for $300. It had not sold as of press time. Raw individual samples are readily found on eBay, but expect mid-grade at best in most cases.
Unopened coin packs occasionally surface in online auctions. Plan to pay at least $20 to $35 per pack.
The display boards, with all three sections, seem more rare than the packs. The bottom part, the send away/order form, is generally missing when you find a listing for one of them. This third panel, which pictures the McLain coin in color, comes with the line: “Offer open to licensed drivers only.” No doubt many younger collectors/unlicensed drivers influenced the majority of the orders.
Empty, intact displays in Excellent condition can bring $35-$50.
An Amazin’ summer
In July 1969, the U.S. put the first man on the moon and just a few months later, another incredible feat took place: The New York Mets won the World Series.
In the first year of divisional play, the “Amazin’ Mets,” who had struggled for much of their first few years in existence, won 100 regular season games, swept their playoff series against Atlanta and beat the favored Baltimore Orioles in five games to take the MLB crown.
Pitcher Tom Seaver powered the ’69 team, also known as “The Miracle Mets,” as they became the era’s first expansion franchise to win the Series. They entered the league in 1962.
With pitcher Jerry Koosman and outfielder Ron Swoboda, the Mets just happen to be one of four teams with a pair of players in the ’69 Citgo coin set.
The service station chain also had a regional Mets issue that year: 8-by-10 illustrated player portraits with two color images on the front and biography and career information on the back. This fairly unknown offering, with Seaver as the key, presents well.
The eight different Mets portraits do not show up a great deal, and often sell for less than $8 each.
Open all night
Gas stations coupling product promotion with sports has been around for generations, and, granted, the 1969 baseball coin campaign is a mere “pit stop” within that history.
Even so, a good way to characterize the coin set comes from borrowing the phrase from the front cover of Citgo’s 1969 road maps: “A Nice Place To Visit.”
Line ‘Em Up
The following is the checklist for the 1969 Citgo Coins set:
1. Denny McLain – Detroit Tigers
2. Dave McNally – Baltimore Orioles
3. Jim Lonborg – Boston Red Sox
4. Harmon Killebrew – Minnesota Twins
5. Mel Stottlemyre – New York Yankees
6. Willie Horton – Detroit Tigers
7. Jim Fregosi – California Angels
8. Rico Petrocelli – Boston Red Sox
9. Stan Bahnsen – New York Yankees
10. Frank Howard – Washington Senators
11. Joe Torre – St. Louis Cardinals
12. Jerry Koosman – New York Mets
13. Ron Santo – Chicago Cubs
14. Pete Rose – Cincinnati Reds
15. Rusty Staub – Montreal Expos
16. Henry Aaron – Atlanta Braves
17. Richie Allen – Philadelphia Phillies
18. Ron Swoboda – New York Mets
19. Willie McCovey – San Francisco Giants
20. Jim Bunning – Pittsburgh Pirates
Doug Koztoski and The Offbeat Beat welcome comments and questions related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.