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How to Identify Cards

'What is it?" and "What is it worth?'

These are probably the two most asked questions by the collector, both novice and advanced. Anyone who has a mystery card ultimately wants know if its worth lots of money or not. The only way to find out the worth of a card, is to first figure out its identity. Also, identification is essential to the enjoyment of collecting. One of the biggest reasons why people love collecting cards, is that cards are fascinating. Each card has its own look, story and personality. Knowing where and when cards came from, along with all the other little details, is what makes collecting fun.

Most beginners who come to me a bunch of cards, think one of two things-- that their cards are worth much more than they really are, or much less. The former, often hear about the thousands of dollars paid for some of the vintage Mickey Mantles or Babe Ruths and incorrectly assume that their collection must also must also be worth thousands. On the other end of the spectrum, I have had people come to me with mysterious items which they assume probably aren't worth much and it turns out they have quite a find. The below card was found in a yard sale in Florida. The owner had no idea what it was, and asked me for help. It is a card featuring the Boston Bostons (later to become the Braves) featuring the early Hall-of-Famers, George and Harry Wright. It is from 1877.

1887 Carte de Viste of Boston Bostons

Around the same time, an owner of a small bookstore in England contacted me about some cards she had found. She knew almost nothing about baseball, but said these looked to be old. Upon examining the two dozen cards, I identified them as scarce and valuable cards from the nineteenth century, featuring several Hall of Famers. Even more exciting, several of the cards were unknown to the hobby. In other words she had found cards not known to exist. Each of us could only guess as to how the cards ended up in England

On the other end of the spectrum, someone recently came to me with a card of the legendary turn-of-the-century pitcher Cy Young. He had heard how expensive old star cards were and figured this one must be worth at least a thousand dollars. It turned out that his card was not old at all. Upon first glance I could tell that it was beat up and mass-produced reprint from the 1990s, worth a quarter at best.

From the above examples, it should be obvious why correct identification is essential. This is unless you want to pay too much, and sell for too little.

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Important Terms

issue: the type of cards issued by a manufacturer. The cards are often issued yearly, and a manufacture can produce more than one issue in a year. For example, 1933 Goudey was an issue by the Goudey Gum Company. In 1934, Goudey produced another issue, called 1934 Goudey.

single: a single card.

set: one of each different singles from an issue. For example, the Bowman Chewing Gum Company issued 224 different cards in 1954. Thus, a 1954 Bowman set would consist of one of each of the 224 different cards.

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1957 Topps (R414-11)

1909 T204 Ramly

The above two lines are the names of two card issues.

Each name has three parts-- the year of issue, the descriptive name and the catalog designation.


The year is shows when the card was issued. In most cases, as above, this a single year. In a few cases, cards were issued over several years, and the year of the issue shows this. The 1909-11 T206 White Borders was issued from 1909 to 1911.

Descriptive name

The descriptive name can be the brand name or manufacturer of the cards. The descriptive name can be simply that: a physical description of the card (such as 'white borders', 'gold borders', 'brown background'). The descriptive name can include a team name, if the issue is associated with a particular team. The descriptive name can be a combination of the above.

1957 Topps (R414-11) was manufactured by the Topps Chewing Gum Company. The 1909 T204 Ramly cards were inserted in to packs of Ramly brand cigarettes.

Catalog Designations

All card issues have specific catalog designations. Some card issues are commonly known by their catalog designations, while others are not. The above 1909 T204 Ramly is commonly known by the 'T204.' The 1957 Topps, on the other hand, is not commonly known by its 'R414-11'. But, just as everyone has everyone has a social security number, all cards have a catalog designation. These designations consist of a letter or letters followed by a series of numbers, and are the official identification of a card. The names are derived from the American Card Catalog by Jefferson Burdick.

The first part of the catalog designation is a letter (or occasionally letters). This letter tells what type of card it is. For example the letter 'N' in a catalog designation indicates that a card is a Nineteenth Century Tobacco card. Specifically, the N cards were issued in the late 1800s with cigarettes or other tobacco products, or were otherwise promoted by the tobacco companies. A name with the letter 'E' means that it was a Early Candy or Cum card before 1930. Many of these E cards were packaged with gum or caramel. The letter 'R' says that the above 1957 Topps is Candy and Gum since 1930. The Topps cards were made by the Topps Chewing Gum Company, and were sold with pieces of gum. The 'T' of the 1909 T204 Ramly, indicates that the cards were early 20th Century Tobacco cards.

Below low is a short list of the letters. Feel free to refer to it whenever you have to. Even I sometimes forget what some of the letters stand for.

C: Early Cigar

N: 19th Century U.S. Tobacco

B Blankets

D Bakery inserts, including Bread

E Early Candy and Gum

F Food inserts

H Trade Card

M Periodicals

PC Post cards

R Candy and Gum since in 1930

E early gum and tobacco

Following the letter (and an optional hyphen) is a 1, 2, or 3 digit number (such as in T204). Occasionally there is an additional hyphen and one or two digit number (such as T213-2).

These numbers come across as arbitrary, and there is no need to try to memorize them all. I would be surprised if anyone in the world has memorized them all. Most collectors and dealers learn the more commonly known catalog designation through repetition rather than logic. Using a price guide or other reference is always useful.

As mentioned earlier, some cards are commonly known by their catalog designations, while others are not. In ordinary use, most Post-WWII cards are not commonly known by their catalog designation, but rather by the descriptive name. On the other hand, not all but many Pre-WWII card are commonly known by their catalog designation, or a combination of the designation and the descriptive name. With these early cards there is little consistency in the order the designation and descriptive name are placed. Some put the designation before the descriptive name, others switch them.

The below shows two perfectly allowable ways to name the same card.

1911 T3 Turkey Red

1911 Turkey Red T3

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Let's identify some cards:

Let's get down to the nitty gritty and identify some individual cards.

When I am identifying a mystery card, I use the following steps. As you become experienced, you may come up with a slightly different way.

1) Guess the date of a card from the overall appearance. With a mystery card, I try and guess what era it came from, using its overall appearance. Of course it's just a guess, and it may turn out that I'm off base-- but the more experienced you get, the better get you'll get.

The first thing I do is look at the overall 'look' of the card. Just as with cars or movies or clothes, cards from eras have distinct looks. This includes the design of the card, and who's depicted in the card.

Also, does the card have the appearance of an old card? Not all old cards are worn, but most are. Many old card smell old and musty

Who is the player on the card? For example, if Ken Griffey Jr (born in 1969). is the subject of the card, you know that it can't be from the 1930's.

At this point, all you want to do is make your best guess, even if it may turn out to be totally wrong.

2)Find out the date of the card: Look around on the card and see if it says when the card was made. Sometimes this date is written on the card somewhere. Sometimes, there is no date written, and you have to use the other information on the card. For example, they may talk about last year's season and mention the year. Or they may provide player statistics which give an indication. Sometimes, you don't even get a hint of the year of the card.

3)Find out its 'brand': All cards are referenced by its brand name and/or catalog name. Somewhere on the card it should say who made or promoted the card. This is like the 'Ford' name or symbol on cards made by Fords. Most but not all cards shows its brand.

4)Figure out its 'letter type': If you can tell that the card was made after World War II, you don't have to figure out its catalog type as these cards are listed by their brand name, rather than their catalog designation. But as many Pre-World War II card are listed by their catalog designation, it is helpful even necessary to figure what type of card it is. If you can tell on the card that it was sold with gum or candy or tobacco or bread, than you can go figure out its catalog type. There is no way to figure out the numbers that goes with the letter type. Knowing the letter type will help you find it in the price guide.

4) Look for any other identification that will prove helpful: The most important thing is to see who is depicted on the card. Usually it's a single player. Sometimes it is two or more players or a team. Sometimes, no person is depicted. The other thing you want to look for is the number of the card if it is numbered. Many cards were individually numbered.

5) Use a Price Guide or other reference. If you think you know what card it is, look it up in the Price Guide to make sure. Or if you aren't sure exactly what it is, use the above clues to identify it in the Price Guide.


Let's now try to identify some cards.

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Card #1:

As you may expect, the first example is the easiest one to identify.

First, look at he card and try and guess the year or era. What does the style of the card indicate? Do you know when the player played? The answers to the questions may be obvious at this point, but answering these questions will prove to be more difficult with other cards.


Next, try and date the card. Look on the card for indications of date. This one is easy, because on the front it says '90.' If all cards were dated like this, life would be easy.

Next, try and get an indication of the descriptive name. Again, this is easy. Both on the front and on the back, it boldly says 'Score.' Score is popular card brand name, started in the late 1980s.

As this card is obviously well after World War II, there is no need to try and figure out its type or letter.

Next, look for any helpful details, in particular look for the player or players depicted and a card number if it has one. Obviously, the card depicts Sammy Sosa. On the top right of the back of the card it says '558.' This means this was the 558th card in the set.

So we know that this card is from 1990, was made by Score, is numbered 558 and depicts Sammy Sosa.

Let's take these details to the Price Guide and see exactly what we have.

The price guide lists the cards in alphabetical order by descriptive name or catalog designation. As this card is Post-World War II, it should be listed by its descriptive name. So look up 'Score' under 'S.' Then find Score from 1990. Score has made card for a number of years, and within the listings for Score the cards ordered by year, oldest to newest. When you find 1990 and Score you find that there are actually a number of 1990 Score issues. There's one that's just titled '1990 Score,' another '1990 Score Rookie Dream Team', and others.

Within the 1990 Score issues, we have to figure which one matches our card. Look at the pictures provided with the specific issues. Which one looks similar to ours. Looking at the pictures, you will find two of them look similar in style to the card, while the others do not. The '1990 Score' and '1990 Score Rookie/Traded.' Neither picture shows our exact card, but the style looks the same. Read the descriptions of the cards, and see how they match our card. Both descriptions pretty much match our card. So it looks as if the card is either a 1990 Score or a 1990 Score Rookie/Traded.

To confirm which issue our card belongs to, we will use the number of our card. We know the card of Sammy Sosa is numbered #558. You will notice that the Price Guide lists each and every card in all issues, giving both the number and player(s) of each card. You will notice that there are only 110 cards in the 1990 Score Rookie/Traded, numbered 1-110. Obviously our card #558 cannot be a part of that set. Further, Rookie/Traded card has a 'T' (for 'Traded') after each number, our card does not have a T after the 558.

If you go over to the 1990 Score and go down the card numbers, you will find a card #558 and next to it you will find Sammy Sosa.

You have identified your card. It is a 1990 Score #558 Sammy Sosa.

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Card #2


card size: 2 3/8" X 2 7/8"

First, try to guestimate as to what era this card comes from. Look at the style of the picture on the front, the style of uniform. Have you heard of the player, Lyle Tinning? Do you know when he played? Hint: this card smells a bit musty.

Now we try to date the card. Is the date written anywhere. If look at the lower left corner of the front, it says 1934. On the back it says '1934 Series' in the upper left. And 1934 in the lower right. The card must be from 1934.

Then look at what brand the card is. At the bottom it saws, 'Big League Chewing Gum/ Goudey Gum Co., Boston.' One would guess that the card's name is 'Big League Chewing Gum.' Or else it is 'Goudey.' Or maybe a combination of the two.

This is a Pre-World War II card, so the card may be listed by its catalog designation. It is important to guess its type or letter. It fairly obvious that it is a gum card, possible sold with gum. According to the chart above it is an 'R' card: 'gum and candy after 1930. We can only guess what are the following numbers.

So in the price guide it should be listed under 'R,' 'Big League Chewing Gum' or 'Goudey.' And within one of those three, it will be listed under 1934.

You can go straight to the Price Guide and look under 'R,' 'B' and 'G' until you find your card. To cut to the chase, I will tell you that this card is listed under 'Goudey.'

Find Goudey, then find 1934 Goudey.

Under 1934 Goudey, there are three issues: 1934 Goudey, 1934 Goudey Premiums and 1934 Goudey Thum Movies. From both the individual pictures and descriptions, our card looks to be a 1934 Goudey. The 1934 Goudey Premiums is much bigger than card, has a gold border and easel on the back. There are also only four cards in the set: depicting three teams and Babe Ruth. Our card is #71 (presumably the 71st card in the set) and is of Lyle Tinning. The 1934 Thum Movies, is also a different size than our card, are little booklets, and there are only 13 booklets.

The 1934 Goudey seems to match our card. The picture looks similar to our card. The description describes a similar card with the exact same size. And if you go down the list of cards, you will find that the card number 71 is Lyle Tinning. If the card #71 wasn't of Lyle Tinning, we wold be looking a the wrong issue

We have identified our card: 1934 (R320) #71 Lyle Tinning.


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Card #3

This certainly is an interesting-looking card. On the front shows a the whole of a player. The back shows a part of a player and he is upside down. You may also notice that there is a perfectly straight and neat crease across the card. It is common for old cards to have damage, including creases or wrinkles. Perhaps this crease is damage, but it looks as if it was purposely put there. Perhaps a line on the back gives us a clue: 'Base Ball Folder Series.' Puzzling?

Try and date it by its appearance. What era does it look comes from you? Does the uniform and overall card style help you? One thing I notice is that on the back it says 'Base Ball' as two words instead of the usual one-word 'baseball.' I also notice that the two players are from 'Columbus' of the 'Amer. Assn.' I'm not familiar with that team. Do they still exist? Were they a minor league team? I also notice something usual about the player statistics on the back. While they have the usual statistics and normal abbreviations (G for 'game,' H for hits, etc), it says 'Per Cent' instead of 'batting average.' I've never heard batting average called per cent. Some of the names, phrases and spelling on this card are out-of-date. That tells me something.

Okay, now lets see if the card has a date, or indication of a date on it. There's nothing on the front. And on the back it doesn't have a specific manufactured date-- no 'issued in 1977' or 'Copyright in 1956.' You may notice that the batting statistics for the players is from 1910. This indicates to me that the card is from 1911. Why 1911, and not 1910 like the statistics? Ordinarily a cards were issues just before or at the beginning of a season. This means that the statistics on a card are from the year before. This is ordinarily the case. If the last year of a player's statistics is 1963, the card is probably from 1964. So, my guess is that this card from 1911. I may be wrong, but this is my guess.

One note here: Always be careful when dating cards. If a card says 'Made in 1948,' or "Copyright in 1956,' that is usually pretty cut and dry. However, in other circumstances you shouldn't jump to hasty conclusions. You have to use the indicated date in context with other information. For example, I date the card as 1911 only in part because of the statistical year provided. To determine date, I also use the look of the card, , the style of uniforms, the fact that I know when the players played, the out-of-date grammar, etc. However, a 1990 card of Babe Ruth might show his statistical year as 1938. Obviously, the card is not from 1939. It's just that his last playing year was 1938. Similarly, a 1995 card commemorating the 1921 World Series Champion might say on the front '1921 Yankees.' Even though it says 1921, it is obviously not an old card. This is a common mistake amongst novices. Novices assume that if Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle or Ty Cobb is on it, it must be old. These novices don't take the time to look over the whole card. Often these 'old' card have a modern copyright date, or say something like 'This is a reprint.' Or if they looked it up in a Price Guide they would find that it was made in 1993. Using all the information, and some detective work like we are doing now, will almost always result in a correct identification.

This card is a reprint of a 1958 Topps Cards. On the back it states that it is a 'commemorative' card made in 1997

Anyway, back to our card. Now that we have a strong guess at a date, let's figure out what is its name. The indication of a descriptive name is the 'Mecca Cigarettes' on the back. Also, as it clearly says 'cigarettes' and is from the early 20th century, it must be an early 20th Century tobacco card-- a 'T' card. The card does not have a number like our other cards.

The information we have is that is from 1911, should be listed in the Price Guide under 'T' or 'Mecca,' and has the players Fred Odwell and Jerry Downs. Lets take this information to the Price Guide. Start by looking under 'T' or 'Mecca,' your pick.

Under 'M' there is no Mecca listed. Under 'T' you will find 1911 T201 Mecca Double Folders. The picture and the description of these foldable cards, matches ours. There is no card number to match, but if you go down the list of individual cards you will find our two players on one card.

We have identified our card: 1911 T201 Mecca Double Folder Jerry Downs and Fred Odwell.

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From the above that three cards, you have gotten the jist of identifying cards. Sometimes, identifying card takes some work. Sometimes, the manufacturer is a mystery and/or there is no hint at all as to date. At this point, you have to use what you clues you have. If you know the brand, for example, but have no clue as to year, you should go to the brand in the Price Guide and look at all the pictures under the brand until you see your card. It sometimes takes some elbow griese. Sometimes, you have to go to a dealer for help.

As you becomes more experienced with cards, identification is easier. Just looking at lots of cards is great experience. I've handled so many cards that I know a 54 Bowman and a 63 Topps and a T207 just from first glance.

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Before we go on to the next chapter, I offer a few hints and examples for identifying cards to help you identify cards..

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The manufacturer or sponsor of a card is not always clear on cards. Below are a few acronyms of other names used for common 20th century manufactures.

T.C.G. = Topps

B.G.H.L.I. = Bowman

F.H.H = Fleer

Sports Novelties Inc = 1960 Leaf

O.P.C. = O-Pee-Chee

1963 Topps #41 Charlie Lau

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Starting in 1965 OPC made versions of the Topps for the Canadian market. The cards look very much similar, with similar design and photos. The cards can be distinguished in different ways. The numbering of the cards is not always the same (for example 1985 OPC #273 Orel Hershiser versus 1985 Topps #493 Orel Hirsheiser). Most OPCs have backs written in both English and French. The OPCs and Topps are made out of different card stock. The OPCs, for example, are made out of a thicker and coarser stock than he Topps. An OPC from this time will often have rough edges, while the Topps will be straighter and smoother. The stocks are usually a different color or shade.

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The 1913 National Game cards were cards to a game. The date of the issue was deduced by the date to the game patent on the back

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The Red Man tobacco cards were issued over several years in the 1950, and have similar size and design throughout the years. A Red Man card is dated by the redemption offer on the back. The redemption ends in the year after the card was issued. On 1954 card the back states 'This offer expires March 31, 1955'. The cards are numbered, making verification easier in a Price Guide.

1952 Red Man Stan Musial


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