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”)

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]

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]

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    

1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle New York Yankees Rc Rookie Hof High# Sgc 84 Nm 7 1955 Topps Setbreak Roberto Clemente Rookie Rc #164 Psa 7 Nrmt (pwcc-he)1953 Topps Setbreak Mickey Mantle Short Print #82 Psa 6 Exmt (pwcc-he)Lot(2) 1890 Old Judge Goodwin & Co. Unopened Tobacco Pack, Very Rare, Ex+ (pwcc)Lot Of (282) ... 1983 Topps Tony Gwynn Rookies #482 ... Very High Grade1952 Topps Setbreak Willie Mays #261 Psa 5 Ex (pwcc)1954 Topps #128 Henry Hank Aaron Rookie Braves Psa 61952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311 Psa 3.5 Vg+ (pwcc)1956 Topps Setbreak Mickey Mantle #135 Psa 7 Nrmt (pwcc)2016 Bowman Chrome Green Autograph Yoan Moncada Boston Red Sox #48/992011 Bowman Chrome Gold Refractor Bryce Harper Auto Rookie Rc #44/50 Bgs 9.5Lot Of (74) ... 1982 Topps Cal Ripken Jr. Rookies #21 ... Very High Grade1955 Topps Setbreak Sandy Koufax Rookie Rc #123 Psa 7 Nrmt (pwcc)2011 Bowman Chrome Refractor Bryce Harper Rc Auto Bgs 9.5 Auto 10 #d/500 Gem2016 Bowman Yoan Moncada Gold Refractor Auto Card /501933 Goudey #181 Babe Ruth Psa 4 Vg-ex1963 Topps #200 Mickey Mantle New York Yankees Hof Psa 9 Mint " Looks Gem " 1952 Topps Setbreak Jackie Robinson #312 Psa 6 Exmt (pwcc)Lot Of (30) ... 1975 Topps Robin Yount Rookies #223 ... High GradeLot Of (17) ... 1975 Topps George Brett Rookies #228 ... High Grade1951 Bowman #305 Willie Mays Rc Psa 5 Ex1933 Goudey #92 Lou Gehrig Psa 4 Vg-ex Lot Of (281) ... 1983 Topps Ryne Sandberg Rookies #83 ... Very High Grade1952 Topps Setbreak Eddie Mathews Rookie Rc #407 Psa 5 Ex (pwcc)1963 Topps #537 Pete Rose Cincinnati Reds Rc Rookie Psa 7 Nm " High End " 1954 Topps #128 Henry Hank Aaron Braves Rc Rookie Hof Psa 4 Vg-ex1953 Topps Setbreak Willie Mays Short Print #244 Psa 7 Nrmt (pwcc)1973 Topps #615 Mike Schmidt Phillies Rc Rookie Hof Psa 9 " Super High End " 2011 Bowman Chrome Refractor Bryce Harper Auto Rookie Rc #/500 Bgs 9.5 1957 Topps #76 Bob Roberto Clemente Pirates Hof Psa 9 " Dead Centered "1963 Topps #210 Sandy Koufax Los Angeles Dodgers Hof Psa 9 " Super Hot Card "Dansby Swanson 2016 Bowman Chrome Prospects Gold Refractor Autograph Auto 23/501951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle Yankees Psa 3Lot Of (110) ... 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly Rookies #248 ... Very High Grade2016 Bowman Chrome Alex Bregman Rc Auto Blue Refractor #'d 034/1501952 Topps Mickey Mantle Rookie-card #311-psa Authentic-gorgeous-wow!1953 Topps Setbreak Jackie Robinson #1 Psa 7 Nrmt (pwcc-he)Bryce Harper 2011 Bowman Chrome Nationals Rookie Refractor Auto 213/5001951 Bowman Set Break #305 Willie Mays Rc Bvg 2.5 G-vg R203031981 Topps Joe Montana Rookie Rc Psa 10 Gem1909-11 T206 Ty Cobb Red Portrait Psa 5 Ex (pwcc)Lot Of (25) ... 1980 Topps Rickey Henderson Rookies #482 ... Very High Grade2006 Bowman Chrome Superfractor Jered Weaver Auto * 1/1 *1948 Leaf Jackie Robinson Rookie Rc #79 Psa 7 Nrmt (pwcc)2009 Bowman Chrome Blue Refractor Mike Trout Rookie Rc Auto /150 Bgs 9 Mt (pwcc)1960 Topps Complete Set (572/572) Mantle Maris Berra Mays 43871b1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #53 Psa 3 Vg (pwcc)2010 Bowman Chrome Superfractor Anthony Rizzo * 1/1 *Estate Vintage Lot 1950s 1960s 70s 12,000 Cards 4 Mickey Mantles Many Stars1982 Topps Traded Cal Ripken Jr. Rookie Rc #98t Psa 10 Gem Mint (pwcc)1921 Holsum Bread Shoeless Joe Jackson Psa 1 Pr (pwcc)2010 Bowman Chrome Usa Manny Machado Rc Buyback Autograph Auto #d/1001959 Topps #50 Willie Mays San Francisco Giants Hof Psa 9 " Super Hot Card " 2016 Bowman Chrome Yoan Moncada Prospect Blue Refractor Auto Red Sox # /1501954 Topps Hank Aaron Psa 8 Rc Baseball1939 Play Ball Ted Williams Rookie Rc #92 Psa 7 Nrmt (pwcc)1964 Topps Baseball Near Complete (92%) Card Set ... Mantle, Rose, Mays, AaronHuge 325 Card Vintage Rookie Hall Of Fame Baseball Football + Collection Lot $$1963 Topps #537 Pete Rose Cincinnati Reds Rc Rookie Psa 7.5 Nm " Pack Fresh " 2011 Bowman Chrome Bryce Harper Auto Rookie Rc Bgs 9.5 .5 Away From A Bgs 10

Recent News: Baseball Cards

Source: Google News

Jean McClelland: Baseball cards an accessible collectible for young and old
Huntington Herald Dispatch, April 30th

A baseball card can be worth a few dollars or - in the case of one of the rare Honus Wagner T206 cards from 1909-1911 - it could be worth millions. Besides rarity, other factors that influence card prices include age, condition, the player, plus...Read more

Rare baseball cards
My Eastern Shore, April 29th

Daughter June handed me two baseball cards a few days ago. It has been years since I saw one of these. I used to collect them back when I was a teenager, along with a gang of other guys who were baseball fans around here. But I soon concentrated on ...Read more

Lessons from the king of baseball cards
Business Management Daily, April 27th

Few people noticed when Sy Berger died in 2014 at age 91. But the founder of the modern baseball card left a lasting imprint on American youngsters. An executive at Topps Co. in the 1950s, Berger designed baseball cards that captured the imagination of ...Read more

Manker: Dad grows nostalgic watching his kids trade baseball cards
Chicago Tribune, April 26th

If you're ever yearning for one of those cycle-of-life moments, you'll get it when you see your children engaging in the same hobbies you did as a child. If there were one singular activity that defined my youth ages 8 to 18, it would be collecting...Read more

Baseball cards valued at $10000 stolen in broad daylight
KCCI Des Moines, April 25th

Baseball cards valued at $10,000 stolen in broad daylight. Published 10:27 PM CDT Apr 25, 2016. Tweet · NEXT STORY. Latest news on Iowa Amber Alert case issued Thursday. Text Size: ASmall Text; AMedium Text; ALarge Text. Show Transcript Hide ...Read more

Burglar nabs high-valued baseball cards
DesMoinesRegister.com, April 25th

A burglar kicked his way into a sports card store Saturday night, stealing thousands of dollars in baseball cards, police say. Police arrived at Chuck's Sports Cards, 3834 Douglas Ave., at 4:37 p.m., according to a police report. A witness told police...Read more

Celebrate Major League Baseball's Birthday With Dazzling Vintage Baseball Cards
TIME, April 22nd

It didn't take much longer for the baseball card to come around, often as an advertising gimmick that would come with a pack of cigarettes. The Library of Congress holds a collection of thousands of early baseball cards, from which the gallery above is...Read more

When Art Photography and Old Baseball Cards Collide
CityLab, April 20th

Now 40, Giorgione started collecting baseball cards in elementary school before developing an interest in photography after taking a job in a Los Angeles photography gallery in his 20s. While revisiting some of his photography books recently, he kept...Read more