Despite half a century of improvements in photography and printing — and just as many years’ worth of raised bars for what collectors consider ‘high end’ and what they’re willing to pay for it — it can still be argued that the Dexter Press baseball card sets of 1966-68 are the highest quality baseball cards ever printed. And just to make the set a little more interesting, about 400 unused negatives of photos the company took but never used on cards have just turned up.
Dexter is best known for 228 (or by one definition, 229) 5-1/2” x 7” premiums it produced for Coca-Cola in 1967. Collectors opened bottles of Coke, Fanta, Fresca, Sprite or Tab to find black and white head shots of their local players or one of 25 All-Stars on the underside of the bottle caps, then glued them into matching spaces on a “cap-saver sheet.” When your 35-cap sheet was finished you could trade it in for one set of 12 Dexter photos of your local team, or in non-major league areas, 12 All-Star photos. Even though some of us had enterprising fathers who figured out that the discarded caps from Coke bottles bought from vending machines were collected in a receptacle inside the machine (and that a dollar could get your corner store owner to stash a summer’s worth for you), the promotion still enabled a lot of cavities among eight-year olds (I had seven by September).
Coke and Dexter made sets of caps and photos for 18 of the 20 major league teams. The 1967 Angels and Cardinals were skipped for whatever reason, which is odd given that Dexter had gotten into the baseball card business the year before with a series of different-sized sets of Angels players. The best-known were slightly larger than a standard postcard (4” x 5-7/8”) and included 16 players plus a shot of brand new Anaheim Stadium, but Dexter also made smaller and larger versions of the player photos for sale inside the ballpark and in other unknown ways. At least one 1966 Angel, Paul Schaal, was produced in exactly the same size that would be used nationally a year later and is usually included in the 1967 checklist as a 229th card, although technically it’s debatable as to why it would belong with the ’67 set.
The company also made a 4” x 5-7/8” set for the 1967 Yankees, duplicating 10 players and images from the Coke set, which I can remember seeing on sale individually at the souvenir stands at the old Yankee Stadium. Dexter would also reprise the premium role for Coke in 1968, but with smaller (3-1/2 x 5-1/2), fewer (77), and less attractively-published postcards featuring a dozen players from each of six teams and five other players scattered among four teams.
The quality of the 1966-67 printing is so good that the cards almost glow. This was evident even to us collectors of 50 years ago. You kept the Topps cards in boxes. You kept the glossy, shiny, richly colorful Coke cards displayed on a shelf or a bulletin board. It would later prove that this was Dexter’s selling point. Mention the company name to collectors of souvenirs from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and you’ll get nods of appreciation: Dexter was the official postcard supplier to the Fair, and those cards also glisten. Do an eBay search for “Dexter postcard” and you’ll find that the company based in the New York suburbs did high-quality work for restaurants and stores and businesses of all sort around the country, and came back in 1971 with another Yankees set and, later, the official postcards for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
As to 1967, counting the All-Stars there are cards of 32 Hall-of-Famers and many more greats of the era. One of the only complaints you could make is that all the poses are the same: portraits to the waist with the player’s hands at his sides or seemingly crossed near the belt, and his autograph superimposed over his head. Even that monotony earns style points when you see all of the cards together. Then as now, the repetition of the poses somehow made the photos look official.
The other complaint would have been that even if you lived somewhere where geographical definitions overlapped — say in New Jersey — and had access to trading in the right 140 bottle caps to get the sets of the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, and All-Stars, you would still have only 48 different cards compared to the 609 Topps would make that year. It bothered me then and it bothers me now and it made an item in a recent auction even more appealing to me: a collection of production materials from the Dexter sets, including dozens of the actual player autographs used (and many not used)
on the cards, still more autographs transferred onto clear plastic overlays, and what turned out to be about 500 negatives, around 400 of which showed players not included in the various Dexter sets.
In the last few days I’ve tweeted about a dozen of the rarer finds for the sake of other hobbyists like me who hunt the arcane combinations of obscure players
with teams they only spent a little time with: Rocky Colavito with the White Sox, Jim Gentile with the Phillies (he was cut during Spring Training) and the like. There are literally dozens of these, plus just as many minor leaguers who got no closer to the big leagues than spring training and the Dexter photographer. The company probably grabbed everybody who would agree to stand still for them, and so the image of Arizona State star and two-game Mets pitcher Alan Schmelz comes complete with a couple of Alan Schmelz autographs on ordinary note paper.
And as always when the production materials for any card set are revealed there are inexplicable and/or rewarding quirks discovered. For instance, a Dexter negative showing Nick Willhite with the 1967 Angels implies that even though the company didn’t make a set of the Halos that year, they were seemingly prepared to. The variety of images from 1968 suggests that the second Coke Premium set was supposed to be much bigger: Dexter shot players from the A’s, Mets, Phillies, Reds, Senators, White Sox, and Yankees — and made no cards for any of those teams. And perhaps best of all, photo after photo shows why so many players look like they’re clasping their hands at their stomachs. They are holding ID slates with their own names on them!