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A Brief History of Baseball Cards
The Earliest Days: (1840s-1867)
In the period before and just after the American Civil War, baseball became an increasingly popular sport in the United States. In these early days before modern printing techniques, a type of baseball-theme picture card was made. This picture card was called a 'cabinet card' or 'carte de viste.' A photograph of a baseball player, team or theme was pasted on a cardboard backing. A large version of this card is a cabinet card, because it was meant to be displayed in a cabinet. A miniature version is a carte de viste. These cards sometimes depicted famous players and teams. These cards could also picture amateur, local and youth teams. Some family pictures depict young boys in a baseball theme, such as wearing a uniform or holding a bat and ball. Many cabinet cards and cartes de viste depict non-baseball themes.
Unlike modern cards, which were used for commercial purposes, these cards were made to be nothing more than momentoes. While cabinet cards were used into the 20th Century, these early cards are obscure and rare.
The First Commercial Cards
In the late 1860's a sporting good company named Peck and Snyder printed up baseball cards and used them as advertisements for their products. On one side was pictured a famous baseball team and on the back was the advertisement. As these cards were printed up in large amounts (at least for those days) and were used for commercial purposes, they are considered the first modern baseball cards. These advertising cards are called 'trade cards.' A trade card is an advertising card that is given away, as opposed to being sold with a product. They were much like flyers handed out for free on street corners.
During the 1870's to the 1890's, trade cards were popular form of advertising. In fact baseball theme trade cards made up only a fraction of the total trade cards. Trade cards depicted many subjects, including presidents, animals and comics. A popular type of baseball trade card were comic trade cards, which shown baseball scenes in a comical situation. Collecting trade cards and pasting them into scrapbooks became one of the country's most popular hobbies. Many of these baseball trade cards found today have some damage on the back where they were removed from scrap books. Collecting old trade cards is popular with some collectors today.
The Tobacco Production
Starting in the mid 1880's baseball cards were mass produced and distributed nationwide for the first time. This era produced many attractive cards which are still popular amongst collectors. Goodwin & Co., a tobacco company in New York, issued the Old Judge cards, a small picture card that was inserted into packs of Old Judge brand tobacco. Goodwin & Co. produced these cards both as a 'stiffener' for their cigarette packs and to boost sales. There were well over 2,000 different cards in this issue with new examples being discovered today. As competition heated up, other tobacco companies created other interesting and attractive cards. Allen & Ginter, Buchner & Co, and Mayo & Co., and Kimball produced quality cards and inserted them into their tobacco packs. Some cards, like Yum Yum tobacco, S.H. Hess and Four Base Hits, are very rare and quite expensive. Most of these insert cards are much smaller than the cards made today.
Some large cabinet cards were offered as premiums. For example, a little Old Judge baseball card and some coupons were inserted in packs of Old Judge cigarettes. When you collected enough coupons, you could send them in for a large card.
Stars from these days include Cap Anson, Mike 'King' Kelley, Buck Ewing, Charles Comisky and Charles 'Hoss' Radbourne.
By the late 1890's, many of these tobacco companies combined to make a single company called the American Tobacco Company. Since there was no more serious competition, making insert cards was unnecessary as a promotional tool. From this time to early in the 20th Century, few baseball cards were made.
The Golden Age
1911 T205 Addie Joss and 1909-11 T206 Rube Wadell
In the early 1900's the U.S. government successfully sued to break up the American Tobacco Company monopoly. With the splintering of this group into smaller independent companies, cards once again became a viable way to promote tobacco products. The period from 1909-15 is regarded by many as the golden age of baseball cards. Tobacco and candy companies produced some of the most beautiful, original and expensive cards of all time.
Popular issues from this era include the T206 White Borders produced from 1909 to 1911 and sold in various brands of cigarettes. This set includes the undisputed king of baseball cards, the T206 Honus Wagner. This card was removed early in the printing of the card making it rare. There are only about 50 of these cards in existence, and the card in top condition would sell for over $500,000. Other popular issues are the T201 Mecca Double Folders which can be folded and unfolded to created different players, T202 Hassan Triple Folders, the large and beautiful 1911 T3 Turkey Red Cabinet Cards, 1914-15 Cracker Jacks and 1911 M116 Sporting Life issued by the sports magazine. There are a plethora of other types of cards. There were cards issued by clothing makers, bakeries, game companies (playing cards) and others that are very popular. Many collectors specialize in this era, finding more than enough card to keep them busy.
Popular players from this era include Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Honus Wagner and Napolean Lajoie.
The End of the Golden Age
1921 W555 'Strip Card' of Ty Cobb
With the American involvement in World War I, tobacco bowed out of baseball cards. Candy and gum cards, however, picked up the slack. These 'E' (or early gum and candy) cards were issued by many caramel companies. Also, there are 'strip cards,' or strips of connected cards with perforated lines so the cards can be removed. While these cards are not nearly as attractive as the earlier tobacco cards, they are more affordable.
The Silver Age
1933 Goudey Lou Gehrig
In the 1930s another extremely popular era in cards were introduced by the Goudey Gum company of Boston. The Goudey cards, especially from 1933, 34 and 38, are among the most popular cards ever produced. With colorful art, they picture all the era's stars, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. Other gum companies produced popular cards including the 1934 Batter Up die cards made by the National Chicle Company, and 1933 Delong issued by the Delong Gum Company.
From 1939 to 1941, Gum Inc, produced the Play Ball cards. These include popular cards of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.
This fine era ended in 1941 when paper became scarse because of the American involvement in World War II. From 1941 until 1947 few baseball cards were made and and those were usually of lesser quality.
The Modern Age
1949 Leaf Jackie Robinson Rookie Card (RC)
In 1948 Bowman Gum, the descendant of the makers of the Play Ball cards, issued its first baseball issue. While not terribly good looking, these small black-and-white cards started the baseball card industry as we now know it. Bowman sold their cards with a stick of bubble gum. In the successive years, Bowman's cards become more and more attractive. Their 1951 issue is extremely attractive and includes the Rookie Cards (first year cards) of baseball greats, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. In 1948-1949 Leaf produced a set that is popular today. These Leafs are quite ugly, but includes many 'short prints' (cards rarer than the other cards in the issue). This includes a very rare rookie (first year) card of the legendary pitcher, Satchel Paige.
The Topps Dynasty
In the early 1950's Topps Chewing Gum Company of New York City joined the mix. Their first major issue in 1952 is regarded by most as one of the greatest sets of all time. The large colorful cards are highly sought after by collectors today. The 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle is the most sought expensive card in the Post-War era.
In 1956 Topps bought Bowman Gum. For decades Topps dominated the baseball card industry. For a large part, the history of baseball cards from 1956 to 1980 is the history of Topps. Each year from 1952 to 1981, Topps issued a large issue sold in packs of gum. Most of the important cards of the famous players of the day were Topps Cards.
Along with their regular cards, Topps was known for it's 'test-issues.' These experimental cards, often used to test the market and created only once, include die-cuts, stamps, tattoos, pins, coins, posters, 3-D cards and more. These test-issues vary in popularity among today's collectors. Topps also produced cards for other companies, including Hostess and Kellogg.
1968 Topps 3D Test-Issue of Maury Wills
During the period of Topps' domination, a few companies unsuccessfully tried to make inroads into the business. The 1963 Fleer cards (sold with a cherry cookie) and 1960 Leaf (sold with a marble) were short-lived endeavors . Some more obscure and regional issues were made. These are often called 'Odd Balls,' in part because they were unusual in design or distribution. Odd balls include 1976 Crane's Potato Chip Discs, 1950's Armour Hot Dog Coins and the 1950's Kahns Meat's card. Some collectors specialize in these unusual cards.
A Crowd Forms
For a long time Topps had a virtual monopoly in selling baseball cards. In 1980, however, a court ruled that other companies could join the fun, though they weren't allowed to package their cards with gum. In 1981, Fleer and Donruss produced baseball cards. From that time until today, more companies have joined the mix. Today if you go to a card store, you will be able to buy one of many types of cards sold in packs. In fact a company like Topps or Fleer or Score will have many different brands of cards to choose from. Just deciding which pack to pick can take some time.