Wednesday, June 24, 2009

1953-1955 Johnston Cookies Milwauke Braves Sets

Charlie, Bob and Me & The 1953-1955 Johnston Cookies Milwaukee Braves Sets
(by Mike DeNero)

"Holy cow! That ball almost made it to the Johnston Cookies factory!" - Earl Gillespie (voice of the Milwaukee Braves from 1953 through 1963)

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Where are you, Charlie? I’ve tried in vain to track you down. I have your set; you know, the one you worked so hard to put together way back in good ol’ 1955. The set that you took such great care of and that, at the time, probably sat near your bunk-bed, underneath your John Wayne poster and next to your Chuck Berry 45s. The set that undoubtedly provided you so much joy when you completed it back in your hometown of Milwaukee, the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the New York Yankees to win the World Series. Are you still with us, Charlie? Or have you passed on to the field of dreams? Wherever you are, Charlie, thanks for leaving behind a fantastic piece of history.

Charlie is the pseudonym of the original owner of a 1955 Johnston Cookies Milwaukee Braves 36-card regional set that is currently housed in pristine Sportscard Guaranty ("SGC") holders (colloquially known as "slabs"). Charlie owned the cards in 1955 -- we, Mike DeNero’s Vintage Sportscards, LLC, own them today, at least until someone decides that they would fit more appropriately in his private collection, rather than in the inventory of a sportscard dealer. In the meantime, I’m calling all Charlies.

Charlie’s Pursuit of the 1955 Johnston Cookies Milwaukee Braves Set … And My Quest to Find Charlie

The 1955 Johnston Cookies Milwaukee Braves set was released in six separate panels -- each panel featured six cards. The panels were inserted into packages of cookies and other confections manufactured by Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s very own Robert A. Johnston Co. (the "Johnston Cookie Company"), located just past Milwaukee County Stadium’s center field fence. Attached to the first player card in each panel were two informational cards (each a "flap"). One flap’s face displayed an advertisement for Johnston’s "cookies, crackers and sundae toppings" transfixed over a sketch of County Stadium in the background. The reverse delineated the list of players in each six-card "series."

The second flap’s face, titled "How to Order Trading Cards," provided instructions on how to obtain one of the six series. The reverse took the place of the face of an envelope, as the Johnston Cookie Company folded the panels accordion-style, taped them shut, and simply mailed them to collectors who ordered them.

Charlie’s name and childhood address appears on the address flap of each of our panels. Thus, to complete his set of 36 cards, little Charlie had to do the following tasks several times: check the box next to the series he wanted; enclose a nickel (yes, five cents) with his order; and include either 1) a label, wrapper, or box end from any Johnston cookie or cracker package or 2) a label from any "take home" can of Johnston hot fudge, butterscotch, or chocolate syrup sundae toppings. I sure hope little Charlie had a sweet tooth!

Armed with Charlie’s name and childhood address, I was determined to contact him -- specifically, I wanted to ask him about his childhood ownership of our 1955 Johnston Cookies set. So off to the Internet I went, as would anyone else who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, but is trying to locate a person he’s never met and knows nothing about, other than the fact that he lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin approximately fifty-five years ago. As luck would have it, I found two potential Charlies on www.whitepages.com. So I called them - both of them. Turns out, neither was our Charlie -- or each pretended he wasn't our Charlie when I blurted what must have seemed to be a ridiculously odd reason for my telephone call.

Yes, my expedient, yet valiant, attempt to find Charlie yielded a hugely disappointing result, as I was excited to speak with someone who loved the 1955 Johnston Cookies cards in his youth much like I loved the 1977 and 1978 Burger King New York Yankees cards in mine (needless to say, I am New Jersey born and raised).

The 1953-1955 Johnston Cookies Milwaukee Braves Sets: Generally

While I did not discover the three Milwaukee Braves Johnston Cookies sets issued from 1953 through 1955 until nearly fifty years after their release, I have since become enchanted with them for several reasons.

First, the former stockbroker (and thus, salesman) in me loves the fact that the 1953-1955 Johnston Cookies Milwaukee Braves sets were produced primarily for one reason: to push product -- and in this case, the products were presumably sweet and delicious ones! One peek at the backs of the cards displays the importance of such product pushing -- in large letters at the bottom of each card in the 1953 and 1954 sets appears the slogan "No One Makes Cookies Like Johnston." In 1955, the slogan changed to "Buy Johnston - A Sure Hit Every Time."

Second, although the 1953 set features few stars (e.g., Eddie Mathews; Warren Spahn), it represents a new birth for the struggling team that moved from Boston to Milwaukee just weeks before the 1953 season began. The hapless Boston Braves closed out the 1952 season with a dismal 64-89 record. To add insult to injury, their home attendance totaled less than 800,000 for the entire season. Upon moving to Milwaukee, the Braves turned their fortunes around, finishing 92-62 in 1953 and playing their home games before a Major League Baseball record 1.8 million spectators. In just four short years, the Braves would defeat the New York Yankees in Game 7 to capture the 1957 World Series title, sending Wisconsin into a state of frenzy.

Third, the 1954 Johnston Cookies set not only features oversized cards with a unique shape, but each card number corresponds to its subject player’s uniform number (e.g., #21 Warren Spahn, #41 Eddie Mathews) -- cards depicting team trainers, Joseph Taylor and Dr. Charles Lacks, do not bear numbers, for obvious reasons. The result of the uniform-numbered cards yields a particularly noteworthy factual tidbit: the Hank Aaron rookie card is #5, although Hammerin’ Hank is known for his patented #44. During his rookie campaign, Aaron wore the #5, as he also donned when he played in the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1951. He didn’t sport the #44 until the 1955 season.

Fourth, although the 1953 and 1954 sets are not overly difficult to acquire, they are relatively rare. For example, in a recent eBay search for professionally graded 1954 Hank Aaron cards, of the forty-eight that resulted, only four were Hank’s Johnston Cookies card -- the other forty-four (no pun intended) were Hank’s Topps counterpart. Thus, we can state generally that Aaron’s Johnston Cookies rookie card is approximately ten times as rare as his Topps.

Fifth, all photographs that appear on the cards were taken at the Braves’ spring training facility, Braves Field, located in Bradenton, Florida. Each set’s photographer took a different approach as well. The 1953 cards feature snapshots of the players from the chest up. Each player appears to be standing near the middle of the infield with the grandstand behind him -- two players, however, were photographed with their backs to the outfield. The 1954 set’s images typically captured the player from the chest up as well, but this time, the players leaned against the chain-linked fence backstop -- the result is that the rickety metal folding chairs on which spectators were forced to sit can easily be seen and counted in the photographs (e.g., the Aaron rookie). Many of the players, however, are more animated in the 1954 set than they were in the 1953 set, as they are holding a glove, ball, or bat -- two photos even snapped catchers Charlie White and Paul Burris in the crouch position. The 1955 set, on the other hand, features a plethora of vivid color photos of players in a variety of action "poses" -- one look at a panel of cards alerts the collector to the bright and colorful nature of the set compared with those released the prior two seasons.

My Search for An Alternate Charlie

Considering the aforementioned qualities of the 1953-1955 Johnston Cookies sets, my love of the sets is warranted. Due to my borderline obsession, I possess that certain characteristic shared by many vintage sportscard collectors: we love the hobby, and certain cards/sets, to such a degree, that we consistently seek to proselytize our passion in an attempt to convert non-collector sports fans ("non-believers"), an exercise which, more often than not, results in our disappointment and puzzlement when the non-believers inevitably not only fail miserably to reciprocate our enthusiasm, but are also puzzled, if not a little freaked-out, by it. But, with Charlie I didn’t think I would need to convert him, as he once shared the collecting passion. To borrow a sales term, I had a warm lead at my fingertips, a Glengarry lead, so to speak! Thus, my failed attempt to contact Charlie disappointed me greatly.

Like any great salesman, I picked myself up by the bootstraps and set out to fetch me a new Glengarry lead. That lead turned out to be Bob Buege, the author of The Milwaukee Braves: A Baseball Eulogy, and the co-author of Eddie Mathews' autobiography, titled Eddie Mathews and the National Pastime -- quite possibly, I had found the greatest and most loyal Milwaukee Braves fan of all-time. Surely he would share my passion for the 1953-1955 Johnston Cookies sets, right?

I purchased Bob's book, The Milwaukee Braves: A Baseball Eulogy, read it, and was amazed at the level of detail with which Bob chronicled the history of the Milwaukee Braves before their ultimate relocation to Atlanta after the 1965 season. During my subsequent interview with Bob, I discovered that his passion for the Braves, who he rooted for from the time he was seven-years-old (in 1953) until they moved to Atlanta when he was nineteen, was even more real than that which jumps off the pages of his book. His colorful memories are stored vividly in his mind, even more than a half century later

For example, Bob recalled attending his first Braves games with his father at the age of seven (a double-header against the St. Louis Cardinals) on July 5, 1953. Warren Spahn pitched for the Braves in the opener. Thus, Spahn threw the first Major League pitch Bob ever saw in person. He sat in the left-field bleachers that day, just paces from legendary visiting left-fielder, Stan Musial. He recalled the "overwhelming" sensory images of the afternoon: the vivid dark green hue of the infield and outfield grass, Spahn's unique high leg-kick, the smell of smoldering cigar smoke, the spectators sporting their leisure suits and matching fedoras (yes, Sinatra’s style even made its way to Milwaukee), the dinger hit by Johnny Logan, which clanged dangerously against the left-field foul pole, just yards from where Bob and his father sat, and bounced innocently onto the left field grass in front of Stan The Man.

But, during our interview, when I asked the important baseball card collecting questions, I learned that although Bob still carried a torch for the Milwaukee Braves of his youth, and that he collected baseball cards as a kid (incidentally, his first card, a 1953 Bowman Carl Furillo, was given to him by a classmate who had "doubles" of the card), Bob not only doesn’t own any Johnston Cookies cards, but he also has not been a collector since his childhood. Et tu, Buege?

Reflections on Charlie and Bob

As usual, even though I possessed two Glengarry leads, my effort to find a fellow baseball card obsessive proved fruitless, albeit for a different reason with Bob than with Charlie. But, while I finished 0 for 2 in my Johnston Cookies Braves quest, I still can revel in an imaginary conversation between Charlie and me.

Had we spoken, might I have learned that Charlie was seven-years-old when he collected his 1955 Johnston Cookies set, as was I when I collected the 1977 Burger King Yankees and as was Bob when he attended his first Milwaukee Braves game in 1953? Perhaps Charlie needed to do additional chores around the house to raise the six nickels he needed to purchase all six panels of cards to complete his 1955 set. Perhaps Charlie carried the panels to grammar school with him and presented them to his classmates during "show and tell." Perhaps, had Charlie learned of the current whereabouts of his 1955 Johnston Cookies set, a nostalgic tear would have sparkled in his eye. Perhaps, the 1955 Johnston Cookies set was the last treasured possession of his youth that he sold off to help pay for his children's education or to start a college savings plan for a grandchild. Perhaps, his mom gave the set away to someone when he moved out of his parents’ house years later. Perhaps, he still collects the Johnston Cookies cards, but sold this particular set only after he pieced together the highest graded set in the SGC Registry. One can only imagine … and hope.

Copyright © 2009 Mike DeNero's Vintage Sportscards, LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

5 comments:

  1. As I told you Mike, I can still see that "Johnston Cookies" building in center field behind County Stadium. I was an usher at the stadium for several years during the "early" Brewers years and the cookies sign was the only thing worth looking at (years before Yount and Molitor I might add). Great story!!
    Mark P.

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  2. Great blog, Mike. I've never seen the ad with the 1954 Johnston Crandall, nice touch. As an original collector of Johnston "Cookie Braves," as we called them then, I believe you're mistaken about the photo site for the 1954s. I think the ramps seen in the background on many cards are from old County Stadium. Good memories!

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  3. Great article! Refreshing memories as I hold a few of my cards from that collection. I can still taste the Twilight Deserts! All the best, Bob Johnston (great grandson of Robert A.)

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  4. Outstanding blog, Mike! While I admire the '53 and '54 Johnston issues, my passion is the '55 edition, primarily for the variety of poses and just the sheer colorfulness of the issue. I've been working on assembling a set of the '55s and, while they're not necessarily as scarce as hen's teeth, they are not all that frequently found. My 'Charlie' was Dennis Wayne Voss and, like you, I came up dry in trying to track him down. I have three of his panels. BTW, I too have met Bob Buege, a very nice man and a veritable fountain of Braves history. Very active in the Milwaukee Braves Historical Association.

    Again, an outstanding piece. Keep up the good work. Regards, Jim Williams

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  5. Thank you all for the kind comments and, most importantly, sharing your memories! We truly appreciate your interest in our blog.

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