Collector Phil Garrou is one of the most advanced collectors of the silver-dollar size plastic coins that were inserted into Armour hot dog packages in 1955, 1959 and 1960.
The Armour coins are a special kind of baseball player collectible in that collecting them can be as easy or as challenging as each collector desires. The basic collection consists of 24 players in 1955, and 20 each in 1959 and 1960. A nice mix of superstars, Hall of Famers, regional favorites and journeyman ballplayers comprise the checklists.
Obviously, the basic set consists of one coin of each player in any given year. While there are a few degrees of player scarcity within each year's set, with the exception of Bud Daley in 1960, who is unaccountably scarce, the 64-piece set could easily be assembled in a year's time at a cost of between $12-15 apiece for commons, $30-50 for Hall of Famers, and $75-100 for the Mantles (Daley can bring from $750-900).
The coins are made of injection molded plastic, in about six or eight basic colors, so theoretically the collector could choose to build his set in all-red or all-blue coins, perhaps, or in a rainbow of the available hues. (It has not been conclusively proven that each player in each year can be found in each of the "primary" colors.)
Anybody pursuing Armour coins, however, soon discovers that there are, in fact, an endless variety of color variations. A green Armour coin can actually be light green, dark green, lime green or translucent green. Coins can be found in gold, silver, black and in mixtures with two colors swirled together. Whether these color variations were intentionally created or were the haphazard result of mixing the pigments for the plastic is unknown, but they create a virtually unlimited palette that can keep a collector searching for a lifetime. Long-time catalog contributor Larry Serota, for instance, collects only the 1955 and 1960 Mickey Mantle coins, but he does so in every available color.
Besides the color varieties, the process by which the coins were modeled created a huge number of variations, particularly in 1955. Many of the 1955 coins feature typography that was changed during the course of production. Most notably, Mantle's coin was originally issued with his name misspelled Mantel on front. Once that was corrected, the back was also changed at some point to create versions that read: "bats L or R" or "bats L - R". Johnny Antonelli's coin can be found with his team given on back as "New York Giants" or as "N.Y. Giants". Similar intentional design changes exist for half a dozen of the 1955 coins and for the 1960 Hank Aaron ("BRAVES" or "MILWAUKEE BRAVES").
Besides those variations, specialized collectors have come to recognize that all of the 1955 coins, and at least one (Drysdale) of the 1960 coins, are found with subtle differences in the typography, related to the spacing between words or letters. Additionally, each of the 1955s can be found with the player portrait in two or even three alignments relative to the typography around the edge. Collectors call these "bust tilt" variations. The peak of a player's cap bill might point between the last two letters of his name on one coin, but point past the final letter on another. This was likely caused by the fact that the plaster models from which the coin molds were made probably comprised a matrix of several different elements such as the player name, team, name, stars and bust. In the process of fixing the errors or creating multiple molds for the production run, these elements were not aligned exactly the same each time.
For decades, most of these variations went unnoticed because no one was looking for them, and generally there were not enough specimens of any particular coin at hand at the same time to make comparisons. As Phil points out, however, the rise of the internet, and particularly eBay, allowed collectors to view dozens of coins at any one time, hundreds per week, and sharp-eyed specialists began to spot the differences.
For a period of years beginning in the late 1990s, the Standard Catalog dutifully recorded each verified variation among the Armours. However, the seemingly endless stream of portrait alignment and letter/word-spacing variations now makes that impractical for the book's general audience. Some lines will have to be drawn.
Before a decision is made one which variations will be presented in future editions, we'd like to gather input on a trio of newly reported 1955 variations that Garrou has brought to our attention.
The first involves the back of the Jim Finigan coin. According to Garrou, about 50% each of the coins can be found with his birthplace city correctly spelled "QUINCY" or misspelled "OUINCY". At first glance, this would seem like a no-brainer for a catalogable variation. My concern, however, is that rather than being an actual spelling error that was later corrected, the tail of the Q may simply have worn off of the mold . . . after all, it wasn't very prominent in the first place.
Look at the pictures above -- or better yet, look at any '55 Finigan coins you may have -- and let me know what you think. You can post a comment here, or send me information and scans to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check back on the blog in the next few days to see the other variations that Garrou has uncovered.