What you see: An uncut sheet of 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards, representing the complete set of 20 cards. Robert Edward Auctions (REA) estimates it at $20,000.
The expert: Brian Dwyer, president of REA.
What was the Wilson Franks company? Does this 1954 series of baseball cards represent its only foray into offering baseball cards as promotional items? Yes. Wilson Franks was in the hot dog business and produced a 20-card set, packaged with its hot dogs.
How rare is it to come across any uncut sheet of baseball cards? The older the set, the more difficult it is, generally, to find sheets. The 70s and 80s are much more plentiful in uncut form. The 50s are largely devoid of uncut sheets.
The lot notes say the 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards are “highly prized by collectors as one of the most attractive and desirable of all 1950s regional issues.” Could you elaborate? It’s a very colorful set. For 20 cards, 17 of them have non-white, colored backgrounds–bright blue, yellow, purple. It’s very visually appealing, featuring prominent images of the players and images of a floating package of franks near the player. The color, the rarity, and the design makes them prized.
Do you know how the Wilson Franks baseball cards were received when they were new? It’s hard to say what people thought of them in 1954, but I know in our hobby, Wilson Franks cards are universally regarded as tough to find. I don’t imagine they were heavily produced or distributed over a wide area.
And I take it that because Wilson Franks never did a second set, the baseball cards didn’t work out for them? Yeah. A lot of the time, they’re done as promotional vehicles. If they don’t drive sales or engage customers, they’d move on to something different.
I understand that baseball cards issued in a set of 20 are unusual–it’s more typical to have 100 or more. Does its relatively small size make the 1954 Wilson Franks baseball card set more interesting to collectors? I would say that the smaller size makes it a set that collectors… I struggle to say “easily”, because they are tough to collect even still, but 20 makes it a manageable set, if you’re up to the challenge. If it was 200, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to manage.
The best-known way to collect baseball cards is by purchasing a pack with a stick of gum inside. Wilson Franks sold hot dogs. It makes logical sense that a hot dog company might try giving away baseball cards–people go to a game and eat hot dogs. How many other hot dog companies did what Wilson Franks did? There are a number of companies outside of the bubblegum world that tried the promotional vehicle of baseball cards. Hunter Wieners did players’ pictures on the side of their boxes. Briggs Meats and Rodeo Meats offered baseball cards as well. All date to the early 1950s. Kahn’s, a meat company, had the longest and most successful run with baseball cards, from 1955 through the 1970s. But bubblegum is the main product associated with baseball cards.
How rarely do complete cut sets of the 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards come to auction? Ironically, we have one in the current auction. It’s a unique pairing to have a complete set as issued alongside its uncut form. Complete sets show up relatively frequently. You might see one or two sets a year if you’re lucky.
How many uncut sheets of 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards have you seen or handled? We’ve handled two and seen two others. There are probably no more than … ten would be the high estimate.
While this is a visually compelling set of baseball cards, I see some flaws. The designer could have done a better job of working the package of hot dogs into each card–too often, it hovers awkwardly near the player. And Ted Williams appears to have lost his bat. Do collectors care about these things, or do they find them charming? They are what they are. To some collectors, there’s a charm to the lack of sophistication [in the design], the quirky charm of floating meat. They look past any issues with the images.
Am I seeing the Ted Williams card correctly? I can’t blow up the thumbnail as big as I’d like. Is his bat in fact missing? The knob is visible in his hands. An argument can be made that the bat should intersect with the area between his head and the hot dogs.
Is it possible that the designer took the bat out to make room for the hot dogs and never put it back in? We don’t have the true [source] image, so it’s hard to say where the bat should be positioned. It’s possible it was removed entirely for design purposes.
What’s your favorite baseball card in this group, or your favorite detail? I’ve always liked the Ted Williams card for its simplicity. It’s one of only three in the set with a white background. I like the Ted Williams because it’s a clean card, but the Roy Campanella is my favorite. It’s him in a catching position, with a bright-color background. It sums up baseball to me.
What is this uncut sheet of 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards like in person? Are there any aspects that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? Aside from its size–it’s 19 inches tall by 10 1/2 inches wide–every other detail carries over accurately online. In person, you’re struck by the size, but on a computer, the colors and the images translate perfectly.
Do we know how this particular sheet of uncut Wilson Franks baseball cards survived? And in general, what sorts of things have to happen to allow a full sheet of circa 1950s uncut baseball cards to survive intact? We see a number of different paths for uncut sheets. Some are strictly excess. We’ve heard stories about them being rescued from Dumpsters at the end of projects. We’ve heard stories about executives taking them home. We’ve heard about pressmen taking a sheet home. There are a number of different circumstances. Normally, they fall in one of two categories. One is discarded, then saved, and two is purposefully saved by an executive, an art department, or someone associated with the production of the cards, and later put into circulation as a collectible.
But we don’t know the story behind the survival of the sheet you’re offering currently? Correct.
The uncut sheet of Wilson Franks baseball cards is described as being in “Overall Very Good Condition”. What does that mean here? It takes into consideration all aspects of the sheet and cards. The evaluation is much different than a single card that we might sell. “Very Good” means it presents well, but it’s not without flaws. There are spots of paper loss on the back, and evidence of an adhesive strip along the top edge. And due to its size, it has creasing, and abrasions around the edges.
As we speak on April 9, ten days before the auction closes, the sheet of Wilson Franks baseball cards has been bid up to $6,250. Does that mean anything at this stage? It’s only meaningful in the sense that there’s good early interest in it. Ten days out is still very early in the process. We expect more bids, but it’s a good early start for something that should sell in the $15,000 to $20,000 range.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s the first one I’ve personally handled, and it’s very neat anytime something this rare crosses your desk. It sticks out. It’s a tough-to-find set and it’s got an iconic Ted Williams card. Seeing it in one piece, uncut, is pretty special.
How to bid: The 1954 Wilson Franks uncut sheet of baseball cards is lot 1110 in the Spring 2020 auction at REA, closing on April 19, 2020.
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