T205 Gold Borders Set: An Underrated Gem

mathewson-t205If you’ve spent any time around vintage baseball card circles, it’s quite evident that the T206 ‘White Borders’ set gets ALL the attention.

And what’s not to love? The T206 cards are gorgeous; featuring breathtaking artwork with multiple player poses and eighteen different back variations.  The T206 Honus Wagner card has helped propel the T206 set to the most highly sought after set among vintage card collectors.

And while I love the T206 cards (and begrudgingly collect them myself) I believe the set’s successor deserves a bit more notoriety from collectors.

The T205 set is smaller in size, more affordable, and scarcer than the T206 set. This for me also makes it attractive from an investment standpoint. And well, you all know what I think about cards as an investment.

Let’s take a closer look at the T205 set, examining the history and detail of the cards, including pricing and what I think of the set as an investment for the longer term.

History of The T205 Set

The T205 set was the follow up to the ever successful ‘White Borders’ T206 issue from The American Tobacco Company.  Issued in 1911, the set is referred to as the ‘Gold Borders’ set, due to the striking gold borders on the cards.  Some are confused by the T205 abbreviation thinking that it must have been produced before the T206 set, but this is not true.  The set was cataloged by Jefferson Burdick in his seminal American Card Catalog as T205 because of the fact that “Gold” comes before “White”.

One key difference between the T205 set and its T206 predecessor is that the Gold Borders card backs featured biographical information and stats about the player.  Whereas the T206 card backs were solely focused on advertising the tobacco brands, the T205 sets was one of the first to introduce stats and player information on the backs of the cards.

t205-cobb-back

T205 cards introduced player bios and stats on the backs of the cards

The cards were issued in packs of eleven different brands from American Tobacco, including Piedmont, Sweet Caporal, American Beauty, Broadleaf, Cycle, Drum, Hassan, Hindu, Honest Long Cut and Sovereign.

One interesting fact is that on the backs of the cards near the bottom is the phrase ‘Baseball Series 400 Designs’.  Since the set is only just over 200 cards, some postulate that American Tobacco had initially planned to issue 400 cards, but never did for some reason.

Details of the T205 Set

The T205 set is smaller in size than the T206 set, featuring only 208 cards, as compared to the massive 524 cards featured in the ‘White Borders’ set.  However, the back variations on the T205 set make the possibilities nearly endless in terms of collecting.  The set features 114 cards from American League Players, 82 Cards from National League Players, and 12 Minor Leaguers.

Because of several print variations in some of the cards, a true ‘Master’ T205 set according to PSA is 221 cards, which adds 13 additional well-known variations.  However, collectors have amassed an even bigger list. Pre-War Cards did a great write-up on what they believe are 24 additional ‘errors’ which would actually bring the total up to 232 total cards.  Note that T205 also has a phenomenal checklist which helped with the breakdown below.

T205 'Master' set breakdown - 221 Cards

Commons - 140 Cards

Hall of Famers - 30 Cards

Short Prints - 18 Cards (note two are also HOFers- Joss and Walsh)

Minor Leaguers - 12 Cards


Design of the ‘Gold Borders’ Set

The three ‘subsets’ have notably differing designs.  American Leaguers are framed in a gold border card with the outline of a baseball diamond behind the players lithograph portrait.  At the bottom of the card lie two baseball bats forming a V shape, with a globe, mask and baseball below.   As an example, here is a photo of a Ty Cobb T205 card featuring the American League T205 design.

cobb-t205

Here’s the Christy Mathewson T205 card, as an example of the design for the National League players.  As shown, this design has a larger, more pronounced portrait of the player, with a copied autograph below, and the players team logo and team name at the top of the card.

mathewson-t205

As an example of the Minor League design here’s an example of a Jimmy Phelan card.  As shown, the minor leaguer design is a bit different, as shown in this pose of Phelan, the player images are not portraits and feature more of an action pose.  The cards also feature decorative borders and big sized letters in the top corners abbreviating the first letter of the players team name.

phelan-t205

Note that because of the gold borders, chipping is a typical condition issue with the T205 cards.  See the Becker card below which is in Poor condition.  Evident that the borders chip quite easily, showing the white core of the cards.  This makes it a lot more challenging to piece together a highly graded set.

t205-chipping

T205 Back Variations and Scarcity

The T205 set was issued by American Tobbaco in the packs of eleven different brands of cigarettes.  There are however seventeen different back variations.  I leveraged some of the work of Shawn Adkins at SGC who wrote a great article on the T205  set in 2007.  Unfortunately the article is no longer in print, but it has been archived here.
In addition, for a great gallery (per usual) the folks at Old Cardboard have cataloged a gallery of the T205 backs.

Common T205 Backs
Piedmont
– The Piedmont Factory 25 back is the most common of all the T205 cards with roughly 38% of the total population. 
Sweet Caporal  – The Sweet Caporal backs in total account for roughly 16% of the overall population with 3 different variations (Factory 42 (red and black) and Factory 25)

Tougher T205 Backs
Polar Bear – 12% of overall population
Hassan – 12% of overall population (Factory 30 a bit tougher than Factory 649)
Honest  – 9% of overall population
Sovereign – 8.5% of overall population

Scarce Backs
Cycle – 3% of overall population
American Beauty – 1.4% of overall population (black and green variations)

Rare Backs
Broadleaf – 0.3% of overall population (black and green variations)
Hindu – 0.2% of overall population
Drum – 0.1% of overall population

Ways To Collect T205 Cards

If you’re just getting started and looking to build the T205 set, my recommendation would be to focus on the 208 card (what is referred to as the ‘Basic’ set above) checklist and ignore the rest.  Some of the variations are going to get mighty expensive and not worth the trouble.   Many also don’t really care about the common cards and focus on only the Hall of Famers of which there are 30 in this set.  Certainly attainable given the budget and the patience.  And speaking about budget, if aiming for VG condition, you could probably put together the HOF subset for around $10,000 to $12,000.   

We’ve provided a list of T205 Hall of Famer’s below.

T205 Hall of Famer List

NameVariation NotePSA 3 (VG) Value
Baker, Home Run 115
Bender, Chief 115
Bresnahan, Rogermouth closed115
Bresnahan, Rogermouth open180
Brown, Mordecai 115
Chance, Frank 115
Clarke, Fred 115
Cobb, Ty 1,150
Collins, Eddiemouth closed115
Collins, Eddiemouth open265
Collins, Jimmy 200
Duffy, Hugh 115
Evers, Johnny 200
Griffith, Clark 115
Huggins, Miller 100
Jennings, Hugh 115
Johnson, Walter 500
Joss, Addie 275
Marquard, Rube 115
Mathewson, Christy 550
Mathewson, ChristyCycle Back, incorrect stats3500
McGraw, John 115
Speaker, Tris 300
Tinker, Joe 115
Wallace, Bobbywith cap125
Wallace, Bobbyno cap – 1 line of 1910 stats625
Wallace, Bobbyno cap – 2 lines of 1910 stats325
Walsh, Ed 215
Wheat, Zack 100
Young, Cy 600

Availability of the T205 Cards

Based on population statistics from PSA, they have graded in total over 38,000 T205 cards, and with just over 200 total players, that nets out to an average of around 200 graded cards per player.  Thus, I wouldn’t necessarily call the T205 cards scarce, but they are certainly not plentiful.  And of course, if chasing some of the scarcer backs or card variations, your quest all of a sudden gets a lot more challenging.  As a comparison PSA has graded over 232,000 T206 cards, resulting in an average of around 443 cards graded per player.  Thus on average, the T205 set is about twice as scarce as the T206 set.  

Valuation and T205 Set As An Investment

The ‘White Borders’ T206 cards are still by far a more in demand set than it’s T205 counterparts.  And that might never change.  The Wagner, the mystique of the various misprints, the full advertisements on the back, the multiple poses and cards for star players (there are four Cobb cards!) make for such an intriguing and appealing story.  Plus, the T206 set has more star appeal, notably including cards that are not part of the T205 set, such as Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie and Eddie Plank.  

But if we are talking pure VALUE, i think the T205 cards make an excellent long term investment for vintage collectors. 

Let’s take a closer look at the Ty Cobb T205 card versus the Cobb red portrait card in the T206 set. 

We can see that for each of the PSA 2 through PSA 4 grades, the T206 has been graded approximately 3x as often as the T205 card.  In addition the T206 red portrait Cobb is worth nearly double that of the T205 at each grade.  (Yes i know these SMR prices are a bit low, but good for comparison sake).  

Trust me, I understand the appeal of that Cobb T206 card.  It’s beautiful and I love the portrait cards in the White Borders set.  But, if we’re speaking pure supply versus demand, then that T205 card is a screaming bargain.  

cobb-comparison

Overall, the T205 commons are about in line with what you might pay for T206 commons of equivalent back scarcity.  But HOFers across the board can normally be found for a lot less than their T206 counterparts.  Thus, if you’re looking for an attractive vintage card set to go after, the T205 ‘Gold Borders’ set is definitely worth your while.

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