A Collector’s Guide to Pre-War Strip Cards
Within vintage collecting circles, “strip cards” (as they are known) have long been thought of as the forgotten step-child in the hobby.
The cards were initially either sold or provided to customers in various retail stores in the 1920’s. The cards were issued in a long strip (hence the name) and either cut or distributed in partial uncut strips.
The anonymity of the cards (most have no known issuer), the low quality of the card stock, and a lack of a printed back has led to strip cards not maintaining the same level of popularity as some of the more well known candy or tobacco issues.
In addition, from a grading perspective, the cards remain a challenge, since the cards were meant to be hand-cut. While some cards have surfaced in uncut sheets, those that have been cut get somewhat different treatment from the card graders. PSA for example with label a strip card as only ‘Authentic’ with no numeric grade if the card has been cut within the pre-dotted line, despite the overall condition.
Yet, despite the obvious flaws, these cards offer baseball card collectors a more reasonable way to collect some of the biggest names from yesteryear, including Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and more.
While some also complain about the ‘ugliness’ of many of the strip cards, I tend to overlook this in many cases, knowing that I can get a card of one of the big name baseball stars while they were playing for the fraction of the cost of say a T206 or American Caramel card.
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Please enjoy this review of some of the most popular strip baseball card sets of the era!
**One quick note before we get started. As we discussed in our piece on the history of baseball cards, strip cards (along with Exhibits) were given the “W” designation in the American Card Catalog, thus you will normally see strip sets referred to with a W classification. This becomes the major identifier for most sets. Since there typically is no known producer of the cards–they are often referred this classification (i.e. the 1921 W551 set or the 1920 W-522 set).
Referred to by Ted Golden in the Old Cardboard cover story in issue #11 as the ‘”T206″ of strip card sets’, this issue is one of the most highly collectible of all strip card issues. The reasons are a few fold; one, the set is one of the largest issues of the strip card run in 1920’s, with 120 cards. In addition, the colorized images and white borders make for one of the more attractive strip card issues (note that there are some collectors who abhor strip cards altogether, citing the ‘ugliness’ of the cards).
Here’s a great note from Golden about how the W514 cards were distributed:
The W514 cards were sold by local grocers, 5 & 10 cent stores and ice cream parlors. They were issued to the stores in strips of ten cards. Each player card could be separated from adjacent cards according to the vertical lines that were dotted and ran the height of the strip. All known full strips begin with card numbers 1, 11, 21, 31 …and so on.
Of the 120 cards in the set, 27 are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, adding to the attractiveness for vintage card collectors. The issue also features the first card of Ruth as a new member of the Yankees, along with containing seven of the eight Chicago players involved in the remarkable Black Sox scandal of 1919.
While the majority of the cards were issued with blank backs, several variations have been reported, including one with for “Hendlers Ice Cream” and another for “Barker Bread”. It is unknown how many cards can be found with these variations, but they are quite rare.
All in all, PSA’s grading stats note that around 2700 cards have been graded from the W514 set, equating to an average of about 23 graded issues per player, making this a fairly scarce issue.
Here’s a gallery of all cards in the W514 strip card set (courtesy Old Cardboard)
The W516 set is a bit of an unknown entity, as no one is quite sure of where the cards were issued, and it’s a bit of a confusing set to say the least; the cards were issued in 5 similar sets and can be thought of as two different groups. Each set includes 30 cards, with the difference in numbering, image (normal or reversed) or the style of font on the front of the card. Differences as shown below:
W516-1 – Group one numbering, regular image, hand written fonts
W516-1-2 -Group one numbering, mirror image, hand written fonts
W516-2-1 – Group two numbering, mirror image, typed fonts
W516-2-2 – Group two numbering, mirror image, hand written fonts
W516-2-3 -Group two numbering, regular image, typed fonts
The cards were Issued by the International Feature Service, as the card fronts feature a copyright symbol with the letters “IFC”.
Some cards in W516-1 are found with a partial “UNIVERSAL BASE BALL MATCHING CARDS” printed in top border. Cards with this UNIVERSAL line at top are scarcer than cards without the line.
PSA notes that only 760 W516 cards in total have been graded, making this is a rather scarce issue. The most valuable in the set is (no surprise) the Babe Ruth card, but the set features many big stars and HOFers including Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Grover Alexander.
The 1920 W519 cards were one of the first sets of strip cards ever published. The set is relatively small, with only 20 players, yet published over three different subsets. A similar set (W521) was published in 1921 and is identical to the W519 set aside from the fact that the images are reversed.
Like most strip cards from this era, not much is known about the actual cards themselves and where or how they were distributed. We do know that both sets were produced by Decalco Lithco of Hoboken, NJ.
According to Old Cardboard, there is a 20-card Numbered 1 subset (W519-1-1), along with a rarer series two subset (W519-1-2) believed to contain 10 cards, and a more common unnumbered subset (W519-2) with only ten cards.
The key to this set is the Babe Ruth card, which is featured in all three subsets of the W519 issue.
According to PSA there are 13 graded versions of the W519-1-1 card, 3 versions of the much tougher W519-1-2 and 32 versions of the ‘unumbered’ W519-2 set, equating to a total of only 48 graded versions of the Babe Ruth card in population.
We’ve seen recent sales of ‘Authentic’ PSA graded W519-1-2 Ruth cards sell for between $1000 to $2000 which based on the rarity of these cards, appears to be a steal.
Here’s a gallery of the W519 strip card set (courtesy Old Cardboard)
Quick Note on Strip Card Grading
There's a bit of confusion, and lack of clarity regarding strip card grading.
First, recall, that strip cards were issued in strips, thus they needed to be cut by either the retailer selling the cards or the person buying the cards (more often than not a kid).
This leads to some pretty terrible cutting jobs in some instances. Thus, for the graders, in can be a challenge to provide the 'correct' grade for a strip card.
PSA, from what I can best understand, will not offer a numbered grade for any strip card that was cut inside of any pre-determined lines. SGC appears to be more forgiving, as I've seen cards that have been cut within those lines receive actual numbered grades.
As an example here's a Ruth card graded as 'Authentic' by PSA:
It's clear that this was cut inside of the lines, as the 'Babe Ruth' text has been cut off, but also more than likely that the card was trimmed, given the razor sharp edges of the cards. That's another issue to contend with as it can often times be hard for the graders to determine if a card was cut three weeks ago or 100 years ago.
Now here's a Ruth card as graded by SGC:
Pretty clear on this one that it had been mis-cut by the owner, but it still received an actual grade from SGC. No doubt in my mind that this would only receive an 'Authentic' grader from PSA.
Either way, if buying graded strip cards, it's good to know the differences. Especially since in most cases PSA graded cards tend to carry a premium.
The W520 set is a slightly smaller issue (1 3/8″ x 2 1/4″) than the W519 set of the same year. There are 20 different numbered cards in the complete set.
The first 9 cards of the set are portraits, while the last 11 are action shots. Like the majority of strip cards from the era, the backs are blank. In addition the set features the same images and basic design as the W522 set which was also released in 1920.
The Babe Ruth card from the issue is the most valuable, while also featuring HOFers Christy Mathewson, Zach Wheat and Tris Speaker. PSA notes that only 76 cards have been graded from the W520 set, making this set one of the scarcest issues of all strip cards sold during the 1920’s.
Here are pictures of all the cards in the set (thanks to Old Cardboard)
The W522 set was also issued in 1920, with the cards sharing the same basic design and player list as the W520 set. The only difference being that the W522 set has a card number at the bottom left corner, whereas the W520 cards have the card number in the bottom right hand corner. The card numbers of the set are also different, but the cards themselves are identical.
Here’s an image of a W522 Christy Mathewson. Notice the card number #39 in the bottom left, whereas on the W520 (above) his card number is located in the bottom right (#2). Thus if needing to identify the difference between these two sets, that should be the first thing to look for!
A small set of baseball players (10 cards) make up this multi-sport set issued in 1921. Nine of the ten baseball images in the set are similar to the W514 strip set with the Babe Ruth card being the only exception.
Despite the small number of cards, the set packs a punch with Ruth, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, George Sisler, Frank “Home Run Baker”, Casey Stengel and Tris Speaker.
From a population standpoint, the cards aren’t rare, but aren’t exactly plentiful either. As of last check there were close to 100 PSA graded Ruth cards. You can occasionally find uncut strips, which in good condition could set you back a mortgage payment, but are quite attractive collectibles. See one example below:
Buyer Beware - Strip Card Reprints
As with any popular card issue, the strip cards have had their fair share of forgeries, reprints and intentionally aged cards. In some cases, I've actually seen PSA and SGC graded card which were later discovered to be aged reprints.
One noteable card dealer Larry Fritsch actually sells reprints of popular strip cards from the 1920's. The problem is that most of these cards don't have any identifiable marks to indicate that they are reprints like many other sets do.
An example of this was part of a big discussion in a Facebook group I belong to. A card in question, a W551 Tris Speaker was posted by a user. Someone noted that the card, even though graded by PSA as 'Authentic' was likely a Fritsch reprint. I've posted an image of the card below:
Now while the card looks old and certainly looks to be of the right era, there's one problem. None of the cards from the set were ever printed with blue text, yet the Fritsch reprints of the W551 cards were.
We actually went through all of the recent PSA graded sales and found two other Tris Speaker cards that were graded as 'Authentic' by PSA. Now, it's hard to say that PSA got this one wrong, but it certainly looks to be the case. We are still investigating further and will update the post if anything else concrete is found.
Thus, be careful when buying not only raw strip cards but graded versions as well! There are so many different variations of text and backs and colors on all of the strip cards, that it's important to try and review as many historic sales as possible, to make sure the card you're buying is indeed a legit copy.
1923 W515 Strip Card Set
You either love this one or you hate this one. While some love the pastel colors and somewhat ‘unique’ portraits, some argue that the comic like drawings and bright colors make the set on the ‘ugly duckling’s’ of the era. Still, the cards remain quite collectible for vintage collectors.
The cards measure 1.4″ by 2.25″ and were sold in strips of 5 or 10 for a penny. Like all strip cards, most found today have been cut (often times poorly) into individual cards. There are two different subsets (W515-1 and W515-2) each with 60 cards, yet with one variation. The W515-2 was printed with the words “THE LITTLE WONDER PICTURE SERIES” across the top of the strip.
In addition, as noted by the excellent Pre-War Cards blog, there is another variation issued by Fleer, which is basically the same as the other W515 cards, but are machine cut and were issued in Fleer’s ‘Bob’s and Fruit Hearts’ candy packs. The cards have a printed ad for Fleer, but aside from the backs are identical to the other two sets. The Fleer variations are much rarer and seldom come up for sale.
The W515-1 set, while rather scarce, is more plentiful then the second series (W515-2), as PSA has graded 1158 of series one and only 337 series two cards. I think from a price to scarcity comparison, these cards have a lot of potential. In comparing to the landmark T206 set, which has roughly 438 graded cards per player, the W515 set (when combining the two subsets) only has roughly 25 versions of each player graded. A bit of apples to oranges comparison I know, but just simply put the W515’s look undervalued relative to its peers.
W515 strips sometimes show up on eBay, so keep your eyes peeled and you might find yourself a deal.
1925-1928 W512, W513 Strip Card Sets
I grouped these together, as the 1928 W513 set was a continuation of the W512 strip set issued from 1925 to 1927. The W512 set is only ten cards and is part of a larger multi-sport set that featured other popular players from golf, boxing and other celebrities of the day.
Despite only ten cards in the baseball issue, the set features one of the popular Babe Ruth strips issued during the era.
The W513 set is a continuation of the W512 set and features 26 baseball players (out of a total of 50 cards), yet doesn’t quite feature the star power of the earlier W512 issue, as the highlights include Waite Hoyt and Hack Wilson, hall of famers, but a far cry from the popularity of the star power in the W512 set which included, Ruth, Ty Cobb, Dazzy Vance, Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker.
PSA notes that close to 800 cards from the W512 set have been graded, including 132 for Babe Ruth, making these cards somewhat scarce, but still available for the right price.
1931 W517 Strip Card Set
A bit of an unusual issue, as compared to the strip cards from the 1920’s, this issue represented a larger size (3″ by 4″) and actual photographs of the players, as opposed to the drawings that made up other sets issued during the era. The 54 card set is loaded with stars, featuring two Babe Ruth cards, with a total of 34 Hall of Fame members.
We noted the Ruth card as one of his that appeared undervalued relative to his other popular issues, as the Babe’s W517 card can be found often for under $2000.
The set has seen just shy of over 1300 cards graded by PSA, making this set attainable for vintage set collectors, and a good one for those focused on only Hall of Fame players.
Also note that there is a mini version of the set which are much harder to find than the regular size issues.
And as with many other strip card sets, the W517, due to the star power, has been reproduced many times, and there are counterfeits surfacing. So be sure to do your due diligence when buying these cards.