A lot of men have been known to cringe when they recall the childhood games they played with their baseball cards. One of the most popular required players to take turns tossing their cards against a wall. Bam! There goes the sharp corner of a 1955 Sandy Koufax rookie card. Ouch! That 1951 Bowman Willie Mays is never going to be the same. If your Bob Gibson landed on your friend’s Carl Yastrzemski, you got to keep the Yaz. But if his Roberto Clemente landed on your Mickey Mantle, tough luck, pal.

Unbeknownst to those kids, who kept their cards loose in shoeboxes or wrapped tightly with rubber bands, a fair number of adults were collecting many of those same baseball cards, as well as ones that dated to the end of the 19th century. Today, a lot of those cards are worth hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars, thus the cringe.

The first baseball cards were distributed in 1886 in packs of Old Judge and Gypsy Queen cigarettes, both of which were manufactured by Goodwin and Company. Measuring 1 1/2 by 2 1/2 inches, these early black-and-white cards from the late 1880s depicted players posing in front of scenic backdrops set up in the Joseph Hall Studio of Brooklyn. Other cards were reproduced in color as portraits. In all, some 2,000 Old Judge cards featuring some 700 players from the National League and American Association were produced. In 1887, Old Judge smokers got an added bonus: cards featuring the previous year’s champions, the St. Louis Browns and the New York Mets.

Other tobacco companies that used baseball cards to promote their products included Allen & Ginter, which packaged cards in packs of Virginia Bright cigarettes. D. Buchner Company offered its customers a card with each purchase of Gold Coin Chewing Tobacco, and Charles Gross & Co. published cards for two tobacco brands, Kalamazoo Bats (a small cigar) and Mayo’s Cut Plug Tobacco.

At the turn of the century, baseball cards in tobacco products fell out of favor, but in 1910, American Tobacco released its legendary line of T cards, so designated by Jefferson Burdick, a noted card enthusiast of the day. Unlike earlier cards, which were rather small, these lithographed cards measured 5 3/4 by 8 inches. The T cards featured all the famous players of the era, from Ty Cobb to John McGraw to Christy Mathewson.

Honus Wagner was also included in that first set of 561 cards, but the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop did not approve of tobacco and sued American Tobacco to stop them from using his image on their cards. Wagner won and the cards were recalled, but a few made it to market. Today only a few dozen of these cards are thought to exist, making the 1910 Honus Wagner perhaps the rarest and most expensive collectible baseball card in the world.

In 1911, one of American Tobacco’s brands, Mecca, issued double folding cards. Fifty vertical cards were issued featuring 100 players. When the card of, say, a pitcher was folded...

Ten brands of American Tobacco cigarettes issued baseball cards with gold borders between 1911 and 1912—in all, some 186 major leaguers, plus 12 players from the minors, were featured. The National League gold borders had facsimile signatures at the bottom of each card, along with a portrait of each player, his team’s name, and his team’s logo. Cards for American Leaguers had no signature but placed each player’s portrait within a scrunched baseball diamond.

Tobacco cards disappeared again in 1914; they wouldn’t resurface until the 1950s in packs of Red Man Tobacco. Candy companies such as American Caramel had been producing baseball cards since 1908, but suddenly they had the field to themselves. Some of their cards were similar to those packed with cigarettes, but others were diecut, so that the player could be made to stand up, supported on either side by flaps of paper that could be folded back for stability.

Cracker Jack cards from 1914 and 1915 are among the most collectible so-called candy cards, thanks to their hand-colored photographs, distinctive red backgrounds, and handsome graphics. Finding one in good shape is difficult, though, because the cards were packed unwrapped in the box with the caramel corn, so most cards from this era are sugar stained. Ty Cobb Cracker Jack cards are the most desirable, followed by cards depicting Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Frank Chance.

The first baseball cards packed with bubble gum came along in 1933, when the Goudy Gum Company of Boston issued its Big League Gum series. George Herman (Babe) Ruth, as he was named on the card, was part of that first series (in fact, Goudy printed four different Babe Ruth cards that year), as was Lou Gehrig. Unfortunately, the company neglected to print a card for one of the stars of the day, Napoleon Lajoie. A small number of 1933 Lajoie cards were printed in 1934, making these among the rarest cards in baseball.

Even though 1933 was the first year for Goudy cards, the ones from 1934 are often more expensive. Another highly collectible Goudy series was called Heads Up, named for the way photos of ballplayer’s heads were collaged onto cartoon bodies. Two cards were issued for each of the 24 players in this small set, including Joe DiMaggio. Goudy had a good run, but 1941 was the last year it printed baseball cards.

Other baseball-card producers from this period included National Chicle Company, whose Batter Up cards were printed from 1934 to 1936, and Tattoo Orbit Gum (a division of Wrigley), whose 1933 set included silhouetted photos of players like Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin against yellow-and-red stylized stadium backgrounds. Gum Inc,’s Play Ball Sports Hall of Fame set from 1941 is also notable because that was the last year gum cards were produced (World War II had created severe paper shortages). Gum Inc. would become Bowman, a major baseball-card producer in the early 1950s.

Bowman got a jump on the competition in 1948, when it released 48 black-and-white cards—each sold for a penny with a single stick of gum. That same year, Leaf Gum Company of Chicago launched a color set, whose graphics bear a more-than-passing resemblance to the famous Shepard Fairey campaign poster for Barack Obama. Naturally Bowman didn’t like the idea of a competitor, so, after some legal wrangling, Leaf dropped out of the card business. For one full year Bowman had the baseball-card world to itself but in 1951 a tougher competitor arrived on the scene, Topps.

The upstart Topps Chewing Gum Company of Brooklyn was seemingly unfazed by its more seasoned rival. Bowman published 324 cards in 1951 (including rookie cards for Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle), to which Topps responded with no less than five sets of cards—a pair of 52-card sets, a pair of diecut sets featuring past and present All Stars, and a nine-card set of teams. Today the 1951 Topps All Stars, especially the ones of the former players, collectively known as the Connie Mack All Stars, are highly collectible.

Topps issued 407 cards in 1952 and increased the size of its cards. Cards from this year include Bob Feller, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, and Roy Campanella. Rival Bowman tried its best to keep up, and some consider its cards from 1953 to be the best-looking cards produced by any card company after World War II. In 1954, Bowman issued its so-called "television set" cards, named for the border on the outside of the cards, but the end was at hand. In 1956, Topps bought its venerable rival.

Fleer tentatively entered the fray in 1959, with the first of four small sets of Hall of Famers. In 1963, when it sold its first series of cards featuring contemporary players, Fleer attempted to avoid the scrutiny of Topps lawyers by advertising the gum in its packaging as a "cookie." The ruse didn’t work, Fleer was forced out of the business, and Topps was able to maintain a card-gum monopoly until 1981.

One of the most sought-after cards from that 1963 Fleer set features Maury Wills. Even though Wills had been with the Dodgers since 1959, he felt he’d been dissed by Topps early in his career, so he did not grant Topps the rights to use his likeness until 1967. This helped Fleer in 1963 because the year before, 1962, Wills had stolen 104 bases and had been named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. You wanted a Wills card? Fleer was the only company that had it. Also collectible from that set is the checklist card, which many kids simply threw away.

Three other Topps cards from the 1960s deserve special mention. First up, Pete Rose’s rookie card from 1963, which features the faces of Charlie Hustle and three other players on a card labeled "1963 Rookie Stars." Then there’s the 1967 Roger Maris New York Yankees card. Maris was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals before the start of the season, but some cards managed to find their way into the hands of a few dealers. Topps made a Maris Cardinals card right away, but the ones of the slugger in a Yankees uniform are worth about 500 times as much.

Finally, in 1968, Topps decided to shake up the staid look of its cards by producing a 3-D series. Only a dozen cards were in the set, and the cost of producing them was high, so very few sets were printed. Players in the set included Curt Flood and Boog Powell, as well as Mel Stottlemyre, Tony Perez, and Rusty Staub. But the crown jewel of the set was, and is, the Roberto Clemente card, which routinely sells at auction for tens of thousands of dollars.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Non Sports Cards: Tobacco, Gum and Candy

Non Sports Cards: Tobacco, Gum and Candy

Tom Boblitt moderates this extremely deep, collaborative site dedicated to non-sports cards (tobacco, gum and candy… [read review or visit site]

Old Cardboard

Old Cardboard

Check out this well-organized collection of 500 sets of baseball cards, each over 50 years old. Browsable by type a… [read review or visit site]

The Baseball Card Blog

The Baseball Card Blog

Ben Henry's lively vintage baseball card blog, started in January 2006, offers hundreds of great posts on (and pict… [read review or visit site]

Cardboard Junkie

Cardboard Junkie

Dave Campbell's in-depth blog on old baseball (and some football) cards lives up to it's motto: 'do cards, not drug… [read review or visit site]

Baseball Cards 1887-1914

Baseball Cards 1887-1914

Roll up your socks for this Library of Congress collection showcasing hundreds of players on colorful early basebal… [read review or visit site]

Baseball Hall of Fame

Baseball Hall of Fame

A home run for baseball collectors, this site features special online exhibits, ranging from a baseball-uniforms da… [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

2014 Panini Prizm Perennial Draft Pick Baseball Cards Multipak Cello Box - Auto1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311 Psa 2 Gd (pwcc)1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311 Sgc 4/50 Vgex (pwcc)2008 Mike Giancarlo Stanton Bowman Chrome Red Rc Refractor Auto # /5 Psa 9 Mint1963 Topps #537 Pete Rose Rookie Rc Cincinnati Reds High# Psa 7 Nm " High End "Kris Bryant 2014 Bowman Chrome Gold Refractor Auto Bgs 10 Pristine1921 Exhibits George Herman Babe Ruth Yankees Psa 4Rare 2009 Bowman Chrome Mike Trout Orange Refractor Rc Rookie Auto /25 Mvp2014 Bowman Chrome Kris Bryant Prospect Refractor Auto /500 Bgs 10 - Pristine 1963 Topps #537 Pete Rose Cincinnati Reds Rc Rookie Psa 7 Nm Centered !!1909-11 T206 Ty Cobb Red Portrait, Old Mill Psa 5 Ex (pwcc)2013 Bowman Chrome Refractor Auto #bca-kb Kris Bryant Rookie #282/5002013 Bowman Chrome Kris Bryant Orange Refractor Rookie Auto 20/25 Bgs 9 Mint RcKris Bryant 2013 Bowman Draft Aflac Bgs 9.5 10 Auto Rookie Gem Mint Rc. Look!!2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Mike Trout Auto Rc 1st Rookie Autograph2009 Bowman Chrome Mike Trout Auto 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle Rookie Rc #253 Bvg 4 Vgex (pwcc)Mike Trout 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Autograph Auto2013 Bowman Chrome Kris Bryant Rookie Auto 1909 E101 Set Of 50 Honus Wagner Batting Psa 5 Ex (pwcc)2014 Bowman Chrome Refractor Kris Bryant Rc Rookie Auto 049/500 Chicago Cubs1964 Topps Baseball Complete (587) Card Set (psa) ... Mantle, Rose, Aaron, Mays1976 Topps Baseball Card Complete Set 660 Pack Fresh Nm/nm-mt Nice! Brett Yount1968 Topps #177 Nolan Ryan Rookie Rc New York Mets Hof Psa 7 Nm " High End "1948 Bowman Yogi Berra Rookie Rc #6 Psa 8.5 Nm-mt+ (pwcc)2013 Bowman Chrome Kris Bryant Rookie Auto 1938 Goudey Joe Dimaggio Rookie Rc #274 Psa 6 Exmt (pwcc)2013 Bowman Chrome Draft Kris Bryant Rc Auto Refractor /500 Bgs 9.5 10 Autograph2013 Bowman Chrome Kris Bryant Rc Refractor Auto #/500 Hot Item.2013 Bowman Chrome Refractor Auto #bca-kb Kris Bryant Rookie 154/500Original 1965 Topps Baseball Empty Wax Pack Display Box Koufax Mantle KillebrewKris Bryant 2014 Bowman Chrome Prospect Green Refractor Auto Bgs Pristine 101933 Goudey Babe Ruth #144 Psa 2 Gd (pwcc)1910 E93 Standard Caramel Setbreak Ty Cobb Psa 5 Ex (pwcc)1953 Topps Baseball Mickey Mantle #82 Psa 5.5 Yankees Ex+ Hof1975 Topps Pete Rose #320 Psa 10 - Gem Mint! Centered. Pete Rose Set BreakPete Rose Rookie Card - 1963 Topps #537 - Reds - No Creases - Great Card2013 Bowman Chrome Blue Refractor Kris Bryant Rc Auto /99 Bgs 9.5 10 Rare1967 Topps #581 Mets Rookies Tom Seaver Rc Rookie Hof Psa 8 Nm-mt " High End "1933 Goudey #53 Babe Ruth (hof) Bvg Fair 1.5, No Reserve, $0.99 Starting Bid1948 Leaf Jackie Robinson Rookie Rc #79 Psa 3 Vg (pwcc)Original 1959 Fleer Ted Williams Baseball Card Empty Wax Pack Display Box Nice!1933 Goudey Jimmy Foxx #29 Psa 8 Nm-mt (pwcc)1963 Topps Pete Rose Rc #537 Psa 8 - Pete Rose Set BreakCarlos Correa 2013 Bowman Chrome Rc Gold Ref Auto(/50) Bgs9.5/10 Gem Mint $2500+2013 Bowman Draft Kris Bryant Rc Aflac Auto /235 Bgs 9.5 (all 9.5 Subs) Gem Mint2014 Bowman Chrome Refractor Kris Bryant Chicago Cubs Rookie Rc Auto /500 Psa 102003 Donruss Classic Combos Babe Ruth & Lou Gehrig Game Worn Jerseys 1 Of 11963 Topps Baseball Complete (576) Card Set (psa) ... Rose Rc, Mantle, Mays1941 Play Ball Joe Dimaggio #71 Psa 4 Vgex (pwcc)1911 T205 Gold Border Complete Set W/ Ty Cobb Mathewson Johnson Cy Young (pwcc)Hank Aaron Babe Ruth Willie Mays 1999 Ud A Piece Of History 500 Club Triple Bat1941 Play Ball Mid-grde Complete Set Ted Williams & Joe Dimaggio, Psa Sgc (pwcc)2013 Bowman Chrome Byron Buxton Blue Refractor Rc Auto #/150 Bgs 9.5 10 Gem Mint1909-11 T206 Ty Cobb Green Portrait Psa 4 Vgex (pwcc)2014 Bowman Chrome Julio Urias Orange Refractor Auto Bgs 9.5/10Kris Bryant 2014 Bowman Silver Autograph Auto /35 Bgs 9.52014 Panini National Treasures Satchel Paige Laundry Tag Relic Ssp #1/1 Wow (mw)2013 Bowman Chrome Byron Buxton Rc Auto Autograph Bgs 9.5! 0.5 From Pristine1909-11 T206 Walter Johnson Portrait Psa 4.5 Vgex+ (pwcc)

Recent News: Baseball Cards

Source: Google News

Connecting The Past To The Present With Baseball Cards
The Sports Quotient, March 27th

Card-Collecting: a timeless hobby that allows us to compare current players to some of the greats. History and Tradition- two of the most important aspects of baseball. From my childhood, one thing linked me to these two aspects of baseball—baseball...Read more

Local veterans to be put on baseball cards
WPDE, March 24th

As part of Military Appreciation Days, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans are looking for local veterans to feature on a set of baseball-style cards. The cards will showcase the military history and photos of 36 local veterans and will be handed out to the...Read more

A History of the First Mass-Produced Baseball Card
New York Times, March 20th

Q. While waiting endlessly for Opening Day, I got to wondering: What was the first baseball card? A. While the date of the absolutely oldest card is uncertain, what is believed by many collectors to be the first true mass-produced baseball card was...Read more

Fan Finds Scot McCloughan Baseball Card
Redskins.com (blog), March 20th

Imagine looking through some old clippings for college basketball history between Kansas and Wichita State and coming across a baseball card of the Redskins' general manager. Yeah, this tweet seems puzzling at first but the result is pretty cool. If...Read more

Chambersburg auction to feature rare, vintage baseball cards
witf.org, March 18th

(Chambersburg) -- The auction of an extensive collection of rare and vintage baseball cards is expected to draw considerable interest from collectors near and far. The collection features cards almost as old as baseball itself as well as other...Read more

Why a newly-acquired Rocky Bridges baseball card is important to Jeff Banister
Dallas Morning News (blog), March 17th

Texas Rangers manager Jeff Banister speaks to the media following a Major League Baseball spring training game against the Kansas City Royals at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona Thursday March 5, 2015. The Rangers lost to the Royals 4-5...Read more

Market for baseball cards ain't what it used to be
Burlington Times News, March 13th

During the '80s, the number of baseball card collectors exploded. Cards collected in the '50s and '60s became a national craze, some individual cards fetching hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Baby boomers had fond memories of their collections ...Read more

Beloved Houston baseball card shop joins list of businesses we'll miss
Chron.com, February 27th

This week the Houston Chronicle's David Barron talked to Larry Dluhy at his store Sports Collectibles of Houston, which closes up shop this weekend after 36 years of supplying Houstonians young and old with baseball cards and memorabilia. At one point ...Read more