Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, collectors faced a series of unusual challenges in trying to add a Ted Williams baseball card to their collections.
“The Splinter” made his first card appearances in the 1939 Goudey and Play Ball issues, with a Play Ball repeat the following season, before World War II seriously curtailed the use of cardboard and paper.
Of course, WWII also curtailed one of the most promising baseball careers of the era, but even multiple stints as a United States Marine pilot could not derail the hitting prowess of Theodore Samuel Williams. By the dawn of the 1950s, Williams had logged four mostly full seasons, with a three year “break” for the war, and had amassed 265 home runs among his 1488 hits, compiling a gaudy .353 batting average.
Not surprisingly, Williams cards were virtually non-existent during the war years, with just a couple of odd-ball issues popping up here and there to whet collectors’ appetites for a visual take on one of the greatest players any of them would ever see.
In fact, Williams had been back in the Sawx lineup for a couple of years before his next major issue hit store shelves, courtesy of the 1948 Leaf set. Beginning the next season and running through 1953, Ted was a major calling card for the Bowman Gum Company as they dispatched Leaf to the hobby history bin and took control of the burgeoning gum card market.
Longtime collectors have lamented for decades the lack of a Williams card anywhere in the early, iconic Topps cards, and it’s not hard to imagine that the upstart would have upstarted even faster and stronger than they did had The Splinter crashed the boards in 1952 or 1953. As it was, his exclusive contract with Bowman kept him off Topps’ checklist for the first three years of their baseball card existence, but all of that changed in 1954.
Scaling back to just 250 cards, Topps made up for lost time by featuring Williams on both the first (#1) and last (#250) cards of the set.
At the same time, Bowman was trying to bail the water out of their sinking dingy, and to help in that effort they plopped down a smiling Williams on card #66 in their own set. Stories vary about what happened next, but two prevailing theories have emerged about why that beauty was pulled early in the print run and replaced with Red Sox teammate Jimmy Piersall.
One idea held that the printing plate on which Williams appeared was somehow broken and that, rather than scramble to create a replacement, Bowman instead replaced Teddy Ballgame himself.
The second, and probably more plausible, theory, was that Williams had switched allegiances — a notion supported by the sudden Topps surplus of Williams cards — and that Bowman went ahead with his card even though they were not legally entitled to do so. In this scenario, Williams himself pulled the plug, likely through the threat of a lawsuit.
In any case, the 1954 Bowman Ted Williams is one of the true rarities of modern baseball cards and sells for thousands of dollars more than 60 years later.
At the same time Topps and Bowman were slugging it out over Williams’ likeness on cardboard, another company with a much lower profile stepped up to the plate and delivered what just might be the tastiest Ted Williams offering of all time.
Chicago-based Wilson, meat packers minding their own business and undoubtedly seeking to drum up a little more business, spent the summer of 1954 doling out cards of 20 Major Leaguers to Midwesterners as premiums with their hot dogs. Or rather, as premiums in packages of their hot dogs.
And not just near the wieners, either, but snuggled up right next to them. It was a card collector’s sweetest dream and worst nightmare all rolled up into one soggy, meat-scented, processed lump of Americana.
Gum-stained Topps cards have nothing on these bad boys, and one of the baddest of all the unnumbered Wilson Franks cards is the one featuring Ted Williams in his sweet follow-through.
At first glance, you might be forgiven for thinking that these cards are from the 1954 Topps set, and that the white-backgrounded Williams offering is yet another nail in the Bowman coffin, courtesy of their young rivals.
After all, card fronts feauure a color image of the player in question, cut out silhouette-style and slapped down on a solid background, broken up by only the player and team names at the top of the card and a facsimile autograph across the player’s body.
It’s quintessential Topps, and there is even a very 1950s-ish team logo in the upper left-hand corner.
Wait a minute. You say you took a second look a that logo?
Well, if you did that, then you already know it’s not a batting red sock or a charming Mr. Red at all — it’s a pack of hot dogs, for goodness sake!
And so, this scratch-and-sniff regional issue that just a few fans could get their mitts on in 1954, and which brings five figures if it’s within dripping distance of NM condition, stands as one of The Splinter’s most sought-after cards, and certainly one of his most scarce issues.
So, what do Rickey Henderson, Kobayahsi, and this Ted Williams baseball card have in common? They’re ALL all about the hot dog, man.