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1886 N167 Old Judge: A Closer Look At The First Baseball Card Set

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As we discussed in our first article about the history of baseball cards, there is some debate about what cards are the first true baseball card set.

Some believe that early “cabinet” cards from the 19th century deserve the honor, but as we noted, these cards don’t meet the true definition of a “baseball card”.

In most collecting circles, the 1886 tobacco cards included in packs of Old Judge cigarettes are indeed the first true baseball cards.

The set (cataloged as set N167 by J.R. Burdick in the historic American Card Catalog) is small in stature. Only twelve cards were created, and only the New York Giants were featured.

Of the twelve cards, six are Hall of Famers; thus, for a set with such diminutive size, it packs a punch.

Finding the N167 cards is like finding a needle in a haystack; they hold tremendous value.

Let’s take a closer look at the set!

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1886 (N167) Old Judge Baseball Card Set

Card Availability 
Very Rare
Collector Demand
High
Current Valuation
Fairly Valued
Investment Potential
Above Average
Num of Cards in Set
12
Common Card Value (VG)
$20,000+

1886 N167 Card Availability: Very Rare

If you’re just getting started in the hobby and aren’t the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the 1886 Old Judge set will probably be unattainable.   Issued in Old Judge cigarette packs in 1886, this twelve-card set is among the rarest pre-war cards.

Based on our checks, only fourteen cards have been graded by PSA. REA auctions estimate that there are only 51 copies in total that have been graded by SGC or PSA, a number they believe could be inflated due to crossover grading.

The late James Blumenthal, a vintage collector well revered by folks over at the Net54 Baseball Forums was able to piece together a full set of the N167 cards, a feat that might be equated to climbing Mt Everest while blindfolded.

As for recent sales, a PSA 3 of HOFer Roger Connor sold for close to $30K at auction in early 2018.  We also found the sale of a SGC 45 Buck Ewing card in 2016, which sold for $51,000.  Given the scarcity of the cards, I’d say that was a bargain purchase.  That card would easily reach well into the six figures in a sale today.

1886 (N167) Old Judge Checklist

  • 1Roger Connor (HOF)
  • 2Larry Corcoran
  • 3Mike Dorgan
  • 4Dude Esterbrook
  • 5Buck Ewing (HOF)
  • 6Joe Gerhardt
  • 7Pete Gillespie
  • 8Tim Keefe (HOF)
  • 9Jim O’Rourke (HOF)
  • 10Danny Richardson
  • 11John “Monte” Ward (HOF)
  • 12Mickey Welsh (HOF)

1886 N167 Collector Demand: High

Given that the N167 set is widely regarded as the first true baseball card set, its high popularity is not a major surprise. Given its scarcity, however, completing the entire set might be nearly unattainable for even the wealthiest of collectors.

The set features twelve members of the New York Giants, six of whom are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Goodwin & Company, the manufacturer and owner of Old Judge cigarettes, was based in Manhattan, hence the reason for only Giants players being featured in the set.

In 1886, Goodwin and Co. also issued similar cards for actresses, actors, and boxers, but these cards didn’t carry the same demand as the baseball cards in the set.   Below is a card of boxer Jack McAuliffe, which was sold at REA auctions in 2009.  (image courtesy REA)

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1886 N167 Current Valuation: Fairly Valued

One of the biggest problems with this set, despite the presence of six Hall of Fame players, is that the names aren’t as well known and regarded as some of the other players of the time, such as Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson.  Thus, there might be a hidden lack of interest because of this.

Still, we have to remember that compared to many of the other sets of the day, this one is one of the rarest. And again, add on the fact that this is the first true baseball card set (I’m kind of getting tired of saying that, but it bears repeating!). I think these cards deserve every penny they would garner at auction.

So, given all the positives, why not undervalued?  Well, these cards continued to gain popularity, and collectors always wanted to get their hands on something that could be considered a significant type of “milestone” set.   Add on the rarity of the cards, and we will likely see new pricing records broken at any upcoming auctions.

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1886 N167 Investment Potential:  Excellent

If you’re one of the handful of collectors hanging on to Giants cards from the N167 set, I believe that time will serve you well from an investment standpoint. Since the N167 cards are the first true baseball cards ever issued, that says a lot, especially in the eyes of a hardcore collector. Add in the extreme scarcity of the cards, and this should make for an excellent long-term investment.

It’s hard to get an accurate estimate of the value of the N167 cards.  Commons in VG+ condition should sell for $20K and more, while the HOF players in similar condition would likely net six figures.  As noted, we identified a few recent sales at auction, but I would expect any sales in this market to likely eclipse previous records.

If you are a deep-pocketed collector, I think the N167 set would be a wise investment—assuming you can find any for sale! It’s doubtful that you would find any at a place like eBay, but keep your eyes peeled at some of the auction houses, and you might just get lucky.

Here’s a list of the best auction houses for vintage baseball cards.

If you come across any for sale, feel free to contact us. We’d be happy to assist you.

Latest eBay Auctions for N167 Cards

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