Coca-Cola and baseball have had a relationship since the early 1900s, and the teaming of two great national pastimes is still going strong. A wide range of Coca-Cola baseball collectibles is available today, although collectors find stiff competition not only from fellow Coca-Cola connoisseurs but also from ardent baseball collectors.
The link between Coca-Cola and baseball is so strong that Coke may owe its status as the world's favorite soft drink to a couple of frustrated baseball fans in Chattanooga, Tenn., in the 1890s. Legend has it that Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead wanted to drink Coca-Cola at local baseball games at a time when the product was available only as a soda fountain drink.
At first, they put Coca-Cola in corked bottles to take to the games for themselves. Then it dawned on them to ask for the rights to bottle and sell Coca-Cola nationally. The rest is history. Today, Coca-Cola is sold in more than 200 countries around the world through the efforts of local bottlers.
The First Ads
The relationship grew stronger in 1905 when The Coca-Cola Company introduced advertisements featuring famous major league players drinking Coca-Cola. Although it was one of the earliest uses of celebrity endorsements in American advertising history, it was not the first foray into sports for Coca-Cola. Coke ran some turn-of-the-century newspaper ads that featured marathon bicycle racers, or "wheelmen," in an era when cross-country bicycle races were popular. But baseball was the drink's first connection to a major sport.
Coca-Cola collectors with an interest in baseball will look for newspaper ads, scorecards, programs, baseball cards, umpire ball-and-strike counters, special promotions and even bats and gloves that were produced by local bottlers. Petretti's Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide (12th Edition) displays a rare child's horsehide baseball glove from the 1930s that says "Drink Coca-Cola in Bottles" on the wrist strap. The glove, which appears to have been well used, is priced at $700 in the book.
One of the most sought-after items is a complete 1952 set of 10 carton inserts, a device used to attract attention to a six-pack sale. The inserts feature baseball greats from the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees and New York Giants.
Produced in the heyday of the three great New York teams, a set of the carton inserts on the auction block today is likely to bring bidding from New York baseball collectors as well as Coca-Cola enthusiasts. Although Petretti prices a full set at $1,500, a telephone auction a few years ago produced a winning bid roughly three times that amount.
Coca-Cola ran national newspaper ad campaigns featuring baseball celebrities in two waves, 1905-1908 and 1910-16. Because they were newspaper ads, they are fragile compared with the sturdier paper stock of magazine ads. They are usually priced in the neighborhood of $20 to $30, depending on quality.
Some of the great names in early baseball appeared in Coca-Cola ads. The ad copy from the early celebrity endorsements can be quite entertaining. A four-time batting champion with Philadelphia and Cleveland declared in a 1905 ad in a Philadelphia newspaper that, "I drink Coca-Cola regularly and have been doing so for several years. It is the most refreshing beverage an athlete can drink, and after a hard game I make my way to a soft drink emporium and get a glass."
A 1910 ad asked readers to send a two-cent stamp to The Coca-Cola Company to receive the Coca-Cola Baseball Record Book of 1910, containing the classic baseball poem, "Casey at the Bat."
Some of these newspaper ads picture straight-sided Coca-Cola bottles, so the collector may encounter competition not only from baseball fans but also from Coca-Cola bottle collectors.
New Major Leaguers
Coca-Cola featured several early African-American major leaguers in a series of cardboard signs in 1956 that are highly desirable to sports collectors. The signs, featuring well-known players from the Brooklyn Dodgers, Milwaukee Braves, New York Giants and Cleveland Indians, are priced in the $850-$1000 ballpark by Petretti.
There are posters of ballplayers as well, but some are tough to find. Coke found a poster of a great Chicago Cubs shortstop from the 1960s and a poster of a 1930s Milwaukee minor league manager in a sports memorabilia catalogue and bought them for our archives. In a Coca-Cola collectibles auction, they would probably bring a higher price than in the sports collectible arena. In the 1960s, The Coca-Cola Company placed pictures of the great major leaguers under the liners of crowns on Coca-Cola bottles and promoted them as collectibles.
From time to time, local Coca-Cola bottlers issued a series of baseball cards for their local markets. For example, the Atlanta bottler put out sets of the Atlanta Braves in the 1970s. I've seen similar sets from San Diego and other cities. Petretti shows a set of 11 cards of the 1980 champion Philadelphia Phillies, with a Coca-Cola logo in the top right hand corner. The set is priced at $15.
One of the largest categories in Coca-Cola baseball collecting is probably scorecards. Coca-Cola bottlers did an enormous amount of advertising in major league and minor league parks, so to get a full collection of this material would be daunting. But scorecard collecting is a relatively inexpensive hobby. Scorecards usually range from $25 to $35 in price.
Another interesting baseball category consists of commemorative bottles and cans that have been produced to honor championship teams. Collecting commemorative items is an easy and inexpensive way for collectors to get started.
One good bit of advice in Coca-Cola baseball collecting is to look at sports collectibles catalogues as well as going to Coca-Cola conventions. You might find yourself as one of the few Coca-Cola collectors thumbing through that particular catalogue.
Eager to get started? Then the only thing left to say is "Batter up!"