Exhibit Baseball Cards: A Comprehensive Guide
Exhibit Baseball Cards were often overlooked by vintage card collectors and little known to newcomers to the hobby.
The over-sized Exhibit cards were produced by the Exhibit Supply Co out of Chicago, with the first set produced in 1921.
The larger ‘postcards’ were sold out of vending machines in arcades and amusement parks and featured not only ball players, but other stars of the day including actors and actresses.
The Exhibit cards have become more popular in recent years, as for vintage collectors, the cards offer a more affordable way to purchase cards of star players during their playing days.
In this piece we take a look at the history and various issuance’s of Exhibit cards, along with examining some of the more valuable Exhibit cards over the years. We hope you enjoy.
A History of The Cards
The Exhibit Supply Company (also known as ESCO) was the first company to sell cards that actually weren’t meant as an advertisement or as a premium or ancillary add-on to a product (such as tobacco, caramel or gum). Starting in 1921, ESCO placed vending machines in penny arcades filled with the stars of the day; this not only included baseball players, but movie stars, boxers and even pinup girls. The early cards could be purchased for a penny (years later they cost a little bit more) and were postcard size, measuring 3-3/8 inches x 5-3/8 inches.
The Exhibit cards issued in the 1920’s feature a photograph of the player with their name in cursive text and a blank back (although some later issues feature an actual postcard on the back of the card). ESCO switched to featuring four players on the front of the card during the 1930’s but switched back to a single player format in 1939. Dating the Exhibit cards can sometimes be a challenge as many of the photographs used by ESCO were reused over a series of sets. We’ll provide some tips on identifying the cards when we dig into each issue more in depth.
Closer Look At Different Sets
The Exhibit cards were cataloged by Jefferson Burdick in the American Card Catalog with the ‘W’ prefix (as are strip cards). Here’s how Burdick cataloged the Exhibit cards:
W461: All Photo Exhibit Cards –includes cards printed between 1921 to 1928 and cards printed between 1947 to 1966
W462: Exhibit cards with the words “Greetings” or “Best Wishes” printed between 1939 to 1946 (note also known as ‘Salutations’ cards)
W463: Exhibit 4 in 1 cards printed from 1929 to 1938
W464: One set of 33 card Hall of Fame cards printed in 1948
W465: Pacific Coast League (PCL) Exhibit Cards issued in 1928
Here’s a rundown of the specific sets for each year:
1921-1928 W461 Exhibits
There were seven separate issues issued from 1921 through 1928 with subtle differences that allow for a collector to decipher the difference, although ESCO did not print any year on the cards.
The inaugural Exhibit set, issued in 1921 featured 64 cards with a photograph front along with the player’s name featured in cursive writing and the team name below. The 1921 set is chock full of stars and features a highly sought after playing day Babe Ruth card. PSA has graded 67 of the Ruth cards and SGC 77, thus certainly not impossible to find and they do occasionally pop up on eBay.
A confusing thing about the 1921 Exhibit set is that some of the cards were actually printed with borders. An example is the Ty Cobb card listed below. Thus, if it has a border, it still could be a 1921 card. I think the Cobb card and the Ruth card are definitely worth a look for vintage collectors and undervalued given the population. As noted prior, Ruth has a combined 144 cards graded between PSA and SGC, whereas Cobb has had 86 of his card graded. Ruth goes for around $2000 or so in good condition, while Cobb is valued lower and typically sells near $1000. Both fantastic longer term investments in my eyes.
The following two Exhibit issues in 1922 and 1923-1924 are nearly identical in nature, and even include some of the same exact cards. For example there is a card in the 1923-24 set of Babe Ruth that is the same exact image, except for the 1923 issue has white borders, whereas the 1921 issue does not. One of the preeminent experts on Exhibit cards is Adam Warshaw, who noted on a past Net54 forum post that it’s quite likely the 1921-1923 Exhibit cards likely overlapped one another.
I am absolutely convinced that the 1921-23 ‘sets’ overlapped and that the latter issues represent replacement cards and additional cards. It appears that the company came out with sets of 64 cards in 1921 then started additions and removals after that for two years. That is why the 1921 issue is the easiest to finish–by far–and the 1923-24 set is so difficult: a good chunk of the 1921 set was issued in 1922 and even in 1923. It is also why some of the 1921 cards seem easier than others.
We can indeed see from the PSA Pop Reports that the 1921 Exhibit cards are certainly more plentiful than the two later issues. On average about 25 of each card in the 1921 Exhibits set has been graded, with 10 of each player graded in the 1922 set, and 8 on average of each player in the 1923-24 set.
The 1923-24 Ruth has seen only 5 copies graded by PSA and 2 by SGC, thus a total of 7 making it quite scarce. Thus even though the 1923 looks nearly identical to the 1921 version (aside from the white borders) and was printed a few years later, it is worth a lot more money. Whereas the 1921 Ruth can be found for close to $2000 in good condition, the 1923-24 card is worth somewhere between $20,000 to $30,000. Big difference!
The 1925 Exhibits set featured a slight change in design with a box in the lower corner with the player’s name, team name and a ‘Made In The USA’ line. The set is also much larger (128) than previous years. The set features cards of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Walter Johnson. Gehrig’s Exhibit card from the set is actually considered his rookie card and is a highly demanded card by collectors. Only 31 have been graded by PSA and a good condition version of the card is worth close to $50K.
The 1926 Exhibits set marked the last 128 card set printed by ESCO. The set features 70 identical cards from the 1925 issue, yet ESCO used a bluish gray tint in order to distinguish from the previous year’s set. It’s quite tough to tell the difference unless the cards are in hand however. There are 58 new cards; 21 cards which reuse the 1925 picture but don’t the white border box from around the name and 37 entirely new cards. The latter player cards have an unboxed legend and also contain the line “Ex. Sup. Co., U.S.A.”. This is all utterly confusing I know. Note the 1926 set is certainly on the scarcer side of all the Exhibits.
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1922 Eastern Exhibits
This 1922 release from ESCO features 20 borderless cards which are distinct from the other issue from the W461 set in the same year. The cards feature postcard backs although there are three different known variations.
This issue is on the scarcer side of all the Exhibit issues. PSA has graded 17 of the Babe Ruth card from the set, although other players can be a lot harder to find.
1925-1931 Exhibit Postcards
From 1925 through 1931 Exhibit released a postcard backed set, featuring 69 cards, with many different back and front variations. Note this set is completely different from the other Exhibit issues released during the same time. Also, the third party graders will slab these cards as ‘1926-1929 Exhibits’ even though Adam Warshaw (the Exhibit guru) has determined that this issue was released over the course of five years.
From the aforementioned work of Warshaw, he has also clarified some important points about the set, which I have listed below:
- Of the 69 cards, there are 51 different players in the set (great checklist from Old Cardboard here as well)
- Five players have two poses (Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby, Simmons and Waner)
- Eight cards exist with and without backgrounds (note the SB designation in the above Old Cardboard link)
- Five cards also have a crude reworked variation of their name and team on the front of the card to reflect new teams (Cobb, Hornsby, Frisch, Peckinpaugh and Roush)
- Card backs are either blank or have a postcard back (with different variations), Warshaw has concluded that blank back cards were printed in 1925 and are scarcer than the postcard backs
- Card color varieties also exist including the base B&W, including 11 additional colors. (Old Carboard has a fantastic gallery which illustrates the color variations)
- Some of the cards were short printed, making this a tremendously tough set to complete
- A lot of the images and exact fonts were reused for the W517 Strip Card set
- There are also four 4-1 cards which leverage the same images from existing cards in the set, also are four 4-1 cards which feature 2 baseball and 2 boxing players. While both are quite scarce, the boxing/baseball issue is extremely rare.
PSA has graded 1150+ of the ‘1926-1929 Exhibit Postcards’ with SGC (albeit navigating their database is a lesson in futility) somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 or so cards. Thus the set isn’t exactly scarce, with on average about 30+ issues of each card getting a grade. However there is a vast variation in the set as there are notable short prints which make piecing this set together a challenge. For example PSA has graded only 1 copy of Heinie Groh’s card from the set.
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1928 W465 PCL Exhibits
Issued in 1928, this 32 card set is devoted to players in the Pacific Coast League (PCL). The cards have the same design as the regular 1928 Exhibit issue and have a blue tint (likely to distinguish from the other set). The cards are quite hard to find and there is little in the form of star power in the set, thus for those interested in collecting HOF like sets, this one would most likely be best avoided (unless you are prone to torture like situations) as PSA has graded in total only 144 of these cards or less than 5 per player on average.
1929-1938 W463 4-1 Exhibits
Following the end of the W461 issue in 1928, ESCO switched to a different card format for the next ten years, featuring four player images on each individual card. A total of eight different sets were produced in this era, and the individual sets are often notated as W461-1, W461-2, etc. A total of 160 cards were issued over the course of the eight different sets. As common with other ESCO issues, there are varying color fronts and different backs, including blank backs and postcard backs.
The 4-1 issue shown below is from the 1929-1930 issue (or W463-1) and features Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The card is one of the most popular of all the W463 cards and is somewhat hard to find as PSA has only graded 25 copies of the card to date. Check out Old Cardboard’s listing of the sets for more images and checklists.
1939-1946 W462 Salutations Exhibits
In 1939, ESCO got back to making single player cards, with the issuance of what is commonly referred to as the ‘Salutation’s set. The reason for this moniker is due to the fact the front of each card has a signature along with a salutation, such as ‘Sincerely yours, Best wishes, etc’. ESCO produced cards for each player of the 83 card each year until they retired, thus these cards are much more widely available than many of the early Exhibit issues. Thus, from an affordability standpoint, these cards are a good choice for more cost conscious collectors.
Note however that there are several short prints in the set. And, even thought the Salutations cards are technically cataloged as being produced between 1939-1946, many of the cards were actually produced well into the 1950’s and maybe for some even into the 1960’s. As note on Adam Warshaw’s fantastic Exhibit gallery page:
Nominally given a date of 1939-47, in reality some of the Salutations cards were issued for only a year or two, some were issued into the 50s or even 60s. Joe Dimaggio’s card was one that was issued into the early 1950s and is easier to find than most other cards.
PSA data is a bit all over the place due to the odd dating and excessive production of many Salutations cards. For example, PSA lists near 200 of the Dimaggio card as having been graded, however, one search on eBay shows very good availability with ‘good’ condition copies available for around $50.
1947-1966 W461 Exhibits
A continuation of the Salutations set, this 336 card set sticks with the same general design albeit without the salutation on the card. Warshaw notes that he views this set as mostly a sort of series extension from the Salutations set.
Given the spillover into the 50s and 60s, I hesitate to call the Salutations a separate set from the 1947-66 grouping. It makes more sense to treat them as series, as in the case of T206’s different printings.
Like the salutations cards, these Exhibits were widely produced with some players having multiple cards and are widely available with PSA having graded over 11,000 cards, for an average of around 32 graded copies per player.
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1948 W464 Hall of Fame Exhibits
In 1948, ESCO produced a special HOF set featuring 33 Hall of Famers. The set leverages many of the past images from previous years and the cards are fairly common. PSA has graded 1200+ cards in total, for an average of 36 cards per player having been graded.
This leads to very affordable vintage set–note that the Eddie Plank card in Excellent condition can be found for under $100.
Distinguishing Different Years
One of the biggest challenges for Exhibit collectors can be trying to pinpoint at an actual production date. ESCO didn’t print any sort of date on the cards and the grading companies use general classifications in labeling the cards. Thus trying to figure out if a 1947-1966 Dimaggio Exhibit card was produced in 1947 or 1966 can make a big difference in the end values for the cards.
One great resource for dating Exhibit cards was put together by Keyman Collectibles As you can see in the aforementioned link, the key is to examine the print words on the front of the card. For example, in the 1947-1966 Exhibits issue, the lettering and the size of the ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ text could indicate a difference of up to six years. Later releases from this set even shifted to a ‘Printed in U.S.A’ with different sizes, cases and colors.
Note this tends to still be a great source of confusion for even some of the more experienced collectors and likely one of the reasons Exhibit cards don’t quite hold the popularity as ‘regular cards’. In addition, the grading companies don’t narrow down a card to it’s exact print date, so the value and the populations are somewhat of a black hole. Whatever the case, if you are buying an Exhibit card, try to determine the date to get a better idea of scarcity and values.
Identifying Reprint/Counterfeit Exhibit Cards
Some of the more common reprinted Exhibit cards are from the 1947-1966 set. The key to telling the real cards from the reprinted ones is with the color on the back of the cards. The back of a real Exhibit card from this set should have a cream/tan color, whereas the reprinted backs are either white or dark gray.
In 1980 Fritsch also released a 32 card reprint set but these are quite easy to distinguish, since the bottom of the card says “An Exhibit Card 1980 Hall of Fame”
In 1974 and in 1977 there was also a reprint set issued for the 1948 Baseball’s Great Hall Of Fame Exhibits created. The ’74 reprints are identical with the only difference being the card stock and the white backs. If you look closely at the Dimaggio 1977 reprint below, the words ‘PRTD USA’ are written in the bottom of the two columns–note this is not on the original cards.
Exhibit Cards As A Long Term Investment
Exhibit cards aren’t really an unknown entity anymore. Will they ever hold the same cachet as say the T206 set of the early Goudey or Cracker Jack cards? Not likely. But for collectors seeking an alternative and more affordable play in the vintage space, the Exhibits make a lot of sense. The early Ruth, Cobb and Walter Johnson Exhibits for example are quite affordable still relative to their other more popular playing day cards.
Take or example the 1921 Exhibits card of Ty Cobb. A good condition copy will probably run you somewhere between $700 to $800. PSA has graded 45 of these. SGC has graded 49, so easily in excess of 100 Cobb Exhibits floating around. Not scarce, of course, but compare it to Cobb’s 1909 T206 cards; PSA alone has graded nearly 1700 copies of his Red Portrait card, which in good condition can easily eclipse $2000 in a sale. Not to say the T206 Cobb’s are a poor value (they will likely continue to climb given the high demand) but I think the Exhibits provide some fantastic relative values.
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Relative Scarcity of Exhibit Cards
Based on PSA stats, we’ve attempted to group the Exhibits into their relative scarcity. Feel free to reach out if you have any differing opinion on this.
Extremely Tough To Find
1926-29 Baseball/Boxers 4 on 1
1922 Eastern Exhibits
1926-29 Baseball 4 on 1
1928 PCL W465
1939-46 Salutation W462
1948 HOF Exhibits W464
George is a longtime vintage card collector and a passionate writer about all subjects relating to the hobby. I learned of George's love for Exhibit cards by reading his fantastic piece which can be read here.
What initially drew you in to the Exhibit cards? Do you personally collect any of the Exhibit issues?
I bought a few baseball exhibit cards at the Riverview Amusement Park in Chicago every time I went in the mid-1950s. Since 1981, I have collected most of the 1939-1966 baseball exhibits. I have gradually expanded into collecting many of the other exhibit sets and the baseball variations.
Do you collect anything else besides the Exhibits?
Sure. Just about every sport card set from 1933 to 1981.Exhibits are maybe 1% of my cards.
I know that you have written about the investment aspect of cards a bit in the past. What do you think about some of the early Exhibit cards from an investment perspective?
I wrote an article, but my own interest in values is rather tepid since I don’t want to sell anything, and I would as soon see affordable buy prices. The affordability of exhibits was one of the continuing attractions for me.
Some say that Exhibit cards are more like postcards and shouldn't be viewed as a true baseball card--what your thoughts on that?
They are cardboard cards and have baseball players on them. But I understand the comment. They have always been second-class citizens - too large, too cheap, too many produced, no stats for many investment-oriented collectors.
What is your general opinion on the overall value of the pre-war Exhibit cards relative to other tobacco (much older) or candy sets from the era?
They will likely be poorer cousins to the more popular “regular” issues. But some of the tougher cards should do OK as to holding or improving their values.
I know there are a lot of reprint Exhibit cards, even some that have been graded as authentic by PSA. Any tips, resources or advice on helping identify them?
It is helpful to know the history of the Exhibit Supply Company and how they issued cards. The back color and aging need to be carefully considered. After 1968, I recall, ESCO printed cards on white stock and remained in business until the 1980 sale, so some white-backed exhibits are authentic – just a few sets though in the 1970s.
Any tips for collectors interested in Exhibit cards on how to find cards to purchase, maybe aside from eBay?
Most larger vintage dealers have some and a very few specialize in them. I’ll look for them at the National. Matt Meister is a collector/dealer in exhibits.
Exhibit Card resources