Everyone knows about McDonald’s Happy Meals and how they changed the fast food dining experience for children — and parents — forever when they debuted in 1979.
But children of the 1970s and baseball cards collectors from that era know the truth: the Happy Meal is little more than a knockoff of the Funmeal that the now dearly departed Burger Chef introduced in 1973.
What’s more, the Funmeal was arguably a lot more “Fun” than the Happy Meal is “Happy,” and it was certainly more innovative.
How Fun Was the Funmeal?
The Funmeal consisted of a hamburger, french fries, soft drink, and dessert all served in a tray made from thin cardboard. That’s where the fun began, because Burger Chef made parts of their tray — often the tops of food “holes” — interactive.
The disc covering the drink holder, for instance, would often feature a company character like “Jeff.” Kids could remove the disc and play with it or pocket it as a keepsake of their visit.
Other pieces were similarly removable, and there was usually a backdrop that would stand up behind the tray so that the thing looked like a colorful laptop before we even knew what those were.
Burger Chef used all that real estate to treat kids to magic shows, monster lineups, Star Wars oragami-ish toys, and … wait for it … baseball cards.
Until I started researching this piece, I was under the general impression that I acquired my first baseball card in 1981 when my mom brought some home from the store.
But this is Day 25 of the 30-Day Baseball Card Challenge, which meant that I’d be writing about “A favorite oddball card from the 1970s.”
The choice was clear.
My favorite oddball set from the 1970s is the series of discs issued by Burger Chef on their boxes in 1977.
Burger Chef was the best …
They had these funny little hats that my dad or grandmother would fit over my head.
They had hamburgers wrapped in shiny, transparent cellophane that would make the buns soft and steamy. Yummmmm!
And, of course, they had those irresistible and undeniably fun Funmeals.
Back in those days, if my parents gave me a choice between McDonald’s and Burger Chef, the BC would win every time. Eating out was a treat, so I had to make my limited opportunities count.
And I can clearly remember sitting at a Burger Chef in Indianapolis with my parents on a hot summer day, Mom laying my food out in front of me. I could hardly contain my excitement as I struggled to see what kind of shenanigans awaited me on the Funmeal tray.
“What are those?” I said, or something like it.
My dad craned his neck and turned the box to get a better look.
“They look like baseball cards,” he said, and kept eating.
“What’s baseball?” I wanted to know.
I don’t remember exactly what Dad said, but it was probably something to divert my attention. Baseball was a froufrou sport, and not worthy of much discussion. Would have been a different story had I uncovered a tray full of football cards.
It didn’t matter much to me, though, because I had some good food to pound down and some colorful new “toys” to explore.
I remember that Jeff and his friends made an appearance here and there on the discs and on the box. And I remember that the “cards” featured black-and-white photographs inside a baseball shape that was mostly white but had two colored panels: pink, orange, blue, green.
I know now that the cards were produced by MSA, who didn’t have an MLB license and so had to airbrush out team logos.
How many of the baseball Funmeals I ate that summer, I couldn’t say. I’m sure it was just a handful, so I didn’t have many of the cards.
And they may have gotten thrown away before we even left the restaurant. The thin stock and diversionary nature of the Funmeal boxes made them trash once the meal was over in the eyes of most parents.
I do know that I added several of these cards through proper hobby channels later on, probably a flea market buy. I had some discs that were in pretty rough shape, and those could well have been held over from my summer culinary adventures in 1977.
Among these cards, Dan Driessen is one of my favorites because he was one of my favorite players when I picked up the game and the hobby in 1983.
He’s also the first player I remember seeing in person when my parents took me to a game at Riverfront Stadium in 1984. Driessen was taking fielding practice at first base when we arrived, and the sound of the ball hitting his glove is one that will stay with me forever.
The ease with which he tossed the ball across the field and his joyful demeanor also struck me and sucked me into the experience all the deeper. The fact that he went 1-for-4 that night did little to dampen my enthusiasm.
Did I really pull a Driessen disc on one of my 1977 Funmeal boxes? The odds say it’s unlikely, but it’s fun to imagine.
Fun … that’s what Funmeals and the 1977 Burger Chef baseball discs were all about.