A History Of Baseball Cards
I’ve been collecting cards for over thirty years now. Until recently I wasn’t really interested in learning about the history of baseball cards.
When I started back in the 80’s, I was more focused on collecting cards of the guys that I watched. Rookie cards of Cal Ripken Jr., Wade Boggs, Eric Davis, Andre Dawson, and Eddie Murray were more my speed.
Sure, I knew of the all-time greats such as Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Robinson, et al, but it didn’t interest me as much as my own heroes.
But as the years moved on, I slowly got this itching desire to learn more about the early days of baseball history and the associated trading cards.
Thus I embarked on a fact-finding mission; to learn as much as humanly possible about where baseball cards got their start.
I consider this a living, breathing document, so if I have anything wrong–please let me know (I’ll fix it!) I would also love to hear any stories you might have regarding early baseball cards. Feel free to share your story in the comments section below!
Cabinet Cards were produced in the years before and just after the American Civil War, approximately 1840’s to 1860’s. During the mid –19th century both baseball and photography were becoming more and more popular.
These cabinet cards as they were called, were more picture-oriented timesakes, much different than the modern baseball cards that many are familiar with. They were called ‘cabinet cards’ since they were the appropriate size (usually 4 inches by 6 inches) to be showcased in a family’s cabinet.
There is much debate about whether these cabinet cards (or ‘’cartes de visite” as they are sometimes called) should equate to being qualified as an actual “baseball card” since the majority of these cards are basically just team portraits, an example of photography of the time and not of an actual “baseball card”.
These cards were kind of comparable to a business card of today. Once photography became more widely available, those with enough money could have as many of these cards produced for themselves, thus there wasn’t any one particular company producing these cards.
Self proclaimed “Baseball Nerd” Keith Olbermann argues this case:
The nit-picking part here is that the definition of a “baseball card” has always been a card or similar item depicting a player or team that was designed to help sell another product. As late as 1980 there just weren’t many cards made just for the sake of making them.
They were means of advertising, they were the stiffeners in the packs of cigarettes, they were sold with slabs of taffy, they were found in boxes of cornflakes, they doubled as tickets, and most recently they were used to raise one particular manufacturer’s bubble gum above all others…
So, the 1865 Atlantics carte de visite, while a great item, doesn’t meet the standard definition of a baseball card.
But by the late 1860’s, more official type baseball cards were hitting the market and these most certainly would live up to the criteria as defined by Olbermann. Peck and Snyder, a sporting goods company created what can be considered the first true baseball cards, producing cards from 1868 to 1870.
The fronts of the cards featured a photo of the respective team, with a cartoon image advertising the Peck and Snyder store in New York. The 1869 set featured cards of the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings and was produced in two different sizes.
Still despite this technically qualifying as a “baseball card”, these cards are commonly known as “trade cards” those that are given away as opposed to something provided to help sell a product. It would be another twenty years before the more typical production method of creating cards for individual players would take place. Still, these cards are certainly quite rare. PSA notes that only 6 have been authenticated. One recent auction shows a sale price of over $50,000.
The Tobacco Card Era
By the late 1800’s baseball was on its way to becoming America’s pastime. Tobacco cards were now becoming widely distributed inside of cigarette packs; they were used to both promote various cigarette brands while also acting as a stiffener to help protect the cigarettes from getting crushed.
Importantly, since these cards were only found inside of cigarette packs, the cards were not targeted at kids, as this wouldn’t come until almost 25 years later.
The early tobacco cards varied in design and format, with the typical size measuring roughly 2 5/8″ by 1 1/2″. In 1886, Goodwin Tobacco (owner of Old Judge and Gypsy Queen cigarettes) created what has become known as the first official baseball card set (aka the N167 set). The set features only twelve players from the New York Giants, not surprising given Goodwin’s New York location.
Between 1886 and 1890 Goodwin was pumping out cards in cigarette packs, under the Old Judge and Gypsy Queen brands. The N172 Old Judge set is a massive collection of cards with over 500 players and 3000 variations known.
These cards are fairly easy to find, as PSA has reported over 4000 graded submissions, thus low-grade common cards can be had for under $100. The biggest problem is finding cards in good condition as fading and rebacking are common issues.
Around the same time, Allen & Ginter another popular cigarette company issued some of the most beautiful lithographic cards of the era. The first Allen & Ginter set (referred to as N28) is one of the most popular issues of the 19th-century tobacco era.
Despite the age of these cards (now over 140 years old), they aren’t impossible to find. According to PSA, roughly 3800 cards in the N28 set have been graded. However, you can forget about finding a PSA 10, as none to date have received a perfect score.
As this great piece on tobacco cards notes, it was quite common for collectors to glue these cards into albums. Thus, finding one in tip-top shape is nearly impossible. Even still, commons in VG shape still run about $300 on average.
Baseball Card Classifications
You might see some weird letter classification system to help catalog different years and types of baseball cards. This system was first developed by Jefferson Burdick, author of the American Card Catalog, first published in 1939. I’ve outlined some of the more popular categories to help as a reference. Some of these have changed over time, and there are more but this list should be a good guide.
D – Cards distributed with Bakery Items
E – Early Candy & Gum Cards (pre-1930)
F – Cards packaged with Food
M – Cards packaged with Magazines and Newspapers
N – 19th Century Tobacco Cards
R – Recent Candy and Gum Cards (post-1930)
T – 1900 and Later Tobacco Cards
W – Strip Cards
Another popular set of the pre-1900 tobacco cards is the Goodwin Champions (also known as N162) set, which like the N28 set, features an advanced look into commercial color printing of the day. The set is a beauty to behold, as the colors are really breathtaking, considering the age of the cards.
Only eight baseball players are featured in the set, as fifty cards in total were produced, with other cards featuring billiards players, marksmen, and even the “strongest man in the world”. While the non-baseball cards can be found for under $100, the baseball player cards are quite popular and sell for over $500.
Hall of Famer King Kelly, one of the more talented and colorful players of the time is one of the more popular and valuable cards from the set. A recent Kelly sale of a PSA 8 version of his card sold for $38,000.
PSA notes that only 54 of Kelly’s cards from the set have been graded. Cap Anson, also a Hall of Famer, is the most valuable card in the set–PSA notes that 60 Anson cards have been graded.
DiD YOU KNOW?
Michael "King" Kelly wrote baseball's first autobiography "Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field in 1888". Kelly, also considered to be the Babe Ruth of his time, invented the "hit and run" while also developing the "double steal" and infield shift. In 1887, Kelly hit .394 and stole 84 bases for the Boston Beaneaters.
In 1890, the major US cigarette companies joined forces, resulting in the formation of the American Tobacco Company and included Goodwin & Co, along with Allen & Ginter among other cigarette brands. The company soon became known as the “Tobacco Trust” given its near-monopoly on the cigarette market at the time.
The business was soon a target of regulators and was forced to dissolve due to its monopolistic nature. Interestingly enough, from the formation of the “Tobacco Trust” in 1890 until the dissolution in 1909, there were very few tobacco cards produced. Given the lack of competition, there was no need for incentives to help promote cigarette sales.
The Golden Era Of Baseball Cards (1909-1915)
While there is really no official classification for the era following the lull in production for tobacco cards between 1890 and 1909, some I’ve seen refer to it as the “Golden Era” of cards, and I’m going with that.
I’m also providing a reference to the great work of David Cycleback who is one baseball collector who uses this terminology. I highly suggest checking out his blog for some fantastic work on the subject.
Tobacco companies were back at it again, following the breakup of American Tobacco Company. The landmark set of the era is the fabled T-206 set, which was issued from 1909 to 1911.
The cards are often referred to as the “White Border Set”, given the white border surrounding the lithograph of each player.
Cards were included in packs of fifteen cigarette brands still owned by American Tobacco. Each back had a different advertisement for one of the tobacco companies, leading to multiple variations for each player in the set. While the regular checklist consists of 524 T-206 cards, there are over 6000 front and back variations, leading to why some have called the T-206 the monster of baseball card sets.
The Honus Wagner from the set is usually instantly recognizable by even the novice collector and is referred to by some as the “Mona Lisa” of the baseball card industry. The rarity of the card is due to American Tobacco pulling production of his card early in its run.
The reason for the removal of the Wagner is subject to debate but centers on either Wagner not wanting to be associated with a smoking product or due to a lack of adequate compensation.
Scot Reader of “Inside T-206” notes that there are roughly 50 to 75 Wagner’s in existence with only a handful in excellent or better condition. Each sale seems to break a previous record, with the most recent Wagner selling for over $6 Million in 2021.
Issuance of the T206 cards caused a near-mass hysteria at the time of release.
As noted by Scot Reader:
The collections have become a mania. Whenever a new shipment of cigarettes is opened, the small boy congregates around the stand and every purchaser is besieged, and not allowed to leave until the picture has been forced from him.
Despite the age of the cards, due to the widespread availability, it’s not tough (aside from the Wagner) to find cards from the set. PSA notes that there are over 180,000 graded cards from the T-206 set, although only 284 have received a 9 or 10 grade.
Aside from the T-206 set and other tobacco cards released during this era, other popular issues from the early part of the 1900s include the 1914-1915 Cracker Jack Cards (aka E145 set) and the E90-E91 American Caramel cards issued from 1909 to 1911.
There are quite a few different sets available from this era, whether it be tobacco cards (T series) or cards issued with candy and gum (E-Cards), bakery goods (D cards), or magazines (M cards) among others.
Popular players of the time include obvious names such as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Cy Young. Of course, these all-time greats demand a premium in some of the more well-known sets, although low-grade versions can sometimes be found for a more reasonable price.
With the American involvement in World War I (1914-1918), most tobacco card production was grounded, mostly due to a lack of availability of materials. Other candy and gum cards (E-Cards) and strip cards (W cards) picked up the slack.
The Roaring 30’s
Following the Great Depression, many owners feared that they would have trouble drawing fans to the games, given the significant impact the stock market crash had on overall economic and psychological well-being. And they were right; in the seasons of 1931 and 1932, “gate levels plunged 70 percent from the figures of 1930.
Owners began to provide giveaways to fans, introduced nighttime baseball, started widespread radio broadcasting, and introduced an All-Star Game. These changes appeared to re-invigorate the game as Americans grasped onto what they considered to be one of the irreplaceable joys in life–baseball.
And it didn’t hurt to have the support of names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Ted Williams to help draw in folks to the games. With this newfound love of the game, a new concept was introduced – a pack of cards sold along with a piece of gum, targeted mainly at youth in America. This issue from Goudey Gum in 1933 is considered to be one the most popular vintage baseball card issues in history.
Cards from the inaugural Goudey Gum issue in 1933 feature wonderful color portraits and at 240 cards, is the largest set issued by Goudey. The set is basically a who’s who of major league Hall of Famers, featuring cards from Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Fox, and Napoleon Lajoie.
As evidence of just how popular “The Babe” was at the time, the ’33 Goudey (R319) set actually features four cards of Ruth (#53, #144, #149, #188).
According to PSA, #53 (yellow background) is the hardest to come across, followed by #149 (red background). Card #144 (aka ‘Full Body Ruth’) was double printed and is more widely available.
Aside from Ruth, one of the granddaddies of the set is the Napoleon Lajoie card, which is considered to be one of the rarest and most sought-after of this era.
Lajoie was not initially included in the set and due to an outcry from fans, later produced it in 1934. But, only those who sent a letter to Goudey could receive the card.
According to PSA, there are less than 100 of the Lajoie cards that have been submitted for grading. And if you’re lucky to have one sitting around, it is worth a pretty penny; a high-graded PSA 9 Lajoie sold for $144,000 at the end of 2017.
In 1934, Goudey produced a smaller set with only 96 cards, which featured the rookie card of Hank Greenberg, but oddly enough featured no Babe Ruth cards (remember he had four cards in the previous year’s set).
The cards featured a unique tagline on the front of each card, which notes “Lou Gehrig says” in 84 of the 96 cards of the set. The remaining twelve cards are tagged with a red “Chuck Klein says” border.
Statements ostensibly authored by Lou appeared on the backs of the cards and constituted the entirety of the items’ descriptive texts. (To achieve a balance between rival leagues, Chicago Cubs slugger Chuck Klein performed the same role, with his photo presented in a red strip at the lower edge, on most of the set’s high-numbered cards.)
Goudey continued producing cards up until 1941, yet with varying sizes and formats over the years. The 1938 set (known as the R323 set) depicts cartoon images of players with a photo head. The set contains the rookie card of one “Joltin” Joe Dimaggio which features two cards of the Yankee great.
Other popular cards of this era include the Play Ball Cards produced by Gum Inc of Philadelphia from 1939 to 1941. The 1939 Play Ball Card of Ted Williams is considered to be his true rookie card.
PSA has 845 reported graded 1939 Ted Williams Play Ball cards, so not impossible to find, but only about 100 with a PSA 8 grade or better.
Baseball card production came to a screeching halt in 1941, as America entered World War II. Mark Fricke at Sports Collectors Daily helps explain:
Rationing of paper and gum began quickly, leaving precious resources to create such trivial items as baseball cards. It might not have mattered if they were produced, as mothers around the country were saving their pennies for more critical needs than allowing their kids to by baseball cards.
The Bowman Era Begins
In 1948, Gum Inc. (who produced Play Ball Cards from ’39 to ’41) returned to producing cards under the “Bowman” brand name. The 1948 Bowman Baseball set was a small set in stature (only 48 cards), and not terribly attractive as the cards featured black and white images with no labeling on the front.
The set however featured the rookie cards of Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, and Yogi Berra. Note that Bowman was also competing with Leaf at the time of issue. Leaf produced cards in 1949 (although they say 1948 on the cards) which feature the rookie cards of Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. It was the first post-World War II set to feature color pictures.
Despite the lack of “attractiveness” of the 1948 issue, Bowman began to step up the game in later years. The 1951 through 1952 sets feature breathtaking color portraits, while the 1953 set used specialized Kodachrome film, a type of fine, slow grain-rich color film.
The 1951 Bowman set is considered to be one of the crowned jewels of baseball card collecting and features the rookie cards of both Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Finding a high-grade Mantle or Mays from this set might set you back a second mortgage on your home, but lower grade alternatives can be found for close to $5000.
Note, that if you want to join a group of great folks who are big fans of the Bowman sets, check out my friend Frank’s Facebook Group “Best of Bowman 1948-1955”.
I learned a lot from these guys (especially some stuff about the Bowman photos) and there is great discussion in the group.
Here Comes The Topps Monopoly
The Topps Gum Company tiptoed into the baseball card business officially in 1951 with its Red Backs and Blue Backs sets of cards. The cards were designed to look like a playing card and were meant to be played as a baseball-themed card game. The cards really never caught on and Topps decided to move in a completely different direction the following year
In the autumn of 1951, a young Topps employee named Sy Berger designed the 1952 Topps baseball card set on the kitchen table of his apartment in Brooklyn using cardboard and scissors. Berger, now a legend in the collectible space was an employee of Topps for fifty years and is considered to be one of the most influential figures of the hobby.
Berger was even honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, which credited Berger with “the development of the modern baseball trading card” and honored him for “helping to introduce generations of fans to baseball for more than half of a century”.
The ’52 Topps set is a thing of beauty, an iconic design that started what would become the standard format for the modern baseball card. Although the size of the 1952 set was still on the larger size (the 1957 set would mark the official start of the 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inch size (standard of today) the card created by Berger was a groundbreaking feat.
The design included a player’s autograph (taken from their Topps contract), team name and logo on the front; and the player’s height, weight, statistics, and a short biography on the back.
The ’52 set was issued in six different series and Topps designed releases so that most of the big stars weren’t released until later in the series.
Later series cards were produced in much smaller quantities due to the fact that the later series runs coincided with football season and kids heading back to school.
To compound this scarcity, Berger has admitted to dumping thousands of cards into the Atlantic Ocean:
They were put in boxes. It took three garbage trucks. I would say 300-500 cases. All high series of 1952 Topps. I found a friend of mine who had a garbage scow and we loaded the three trucks-worth on the barge. The cases were stacked on the center of the barge, and a switch was thrown and those (now) precious cards were consigned to the deep. And that was the end of it.
Sy Berger Topps Executive
Topps and Bowman battled it out for the next several years, and when I say “battled it out” I generally mean in court, as the two companies fought over exclusive player contractual rights. As David L. Farquhar notes in his fantastic blog, the legal issues were a big overhang on the card companies:
Bowman and Topps spent the early 1950s entangled in a landmark legal case over the contracts permitting players to appear on their cards. Both companies had habits of signing the same players to “exclusive” contracts, and it was better PR to sue each other than to sue the players. As a result, both companies spent about $100,000 a year fighting each other. Keep in mind that prior to 1954, no company had ever sold a million dollars’ worth of cards in a year. So the legal battles represented significant overhead.
In 1956, Topps made Bowman an offer they couldn’t refuse. Albeit, it was quite a measly offer–only $200,000 for the entire company, even though Bowman had generated $600,000 revenues two years prior. This marked the start of the Topps monopoly, as no other card company would produce baseball cards for another 25 years. While there were minor threats along the way (note the ’63 Fleer Ted Williams set and the Kellog’s 3-D cards from the 70’s) Topps had the baseball card market cornered during this period.
It wasn’t until 1981 that Fleer and Donruss were finally victorious against Topps. As Wikipedia notes:
The Topps monopoly on baseball cards was finally broken by a lawsuit that let Fleer and another company, Donruss, enter the market in 1981. Fleer and Donruss began making large, widely distributed sets to compete directly with Topps, packaged with gum. When the ruling was overturned on appeal in August 1981, Topps appeared to have regained its monopoly, but both of its competitors instead began packaging their cards with other baseball items — logo stickers from Fleer, and cardboard puzzle pieces from Donruss.
Once the early 80’s hit, baseball cards became so massively overproduced, that many refer to the time from the early 80’s to the late ’90s as the “Junk Card Era”. Today’s market is a bit different, as cards are designed with more of a lottery-type feel. Collectors seek that big “hit” looking for one of many autographed or jersey insert cards, some with only one version actually produced.
Still, the production numbers are massive, and for every 1/1 of one version of an autographed player, there are likely another 100 different versions of some similar card.
Since our blog deals in vintage cards, this is also where the story ends.
I hope you enjoyed this piece on the History of Baseball Cards.