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    

1993 Sp Foil #279 Derek Jeter Yankees Rc Rookie Psa 10 Gem Mint " Pristine "2014 Bowman Chrome Red Refractor Kris Bryant Rc Rookie Auto 5/5 Bgs 10 Pristine Jose Abreu 2014 Topps Finest Rc Auto Superfractor 1/1 White Sox2014 Topps Baseball Complete Set 660 Cards '14 Topps Bb Base Cards + 5 Inserts2012 Mike Trout Bowman Sterling Superfractors Rookie Auto Rc 1/1 Bgs 9.51994 Upper Deck Mickey Mantle & Ken Griffey Jr Auto /1000 Dual Autograph Uda1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #144 Psa 6 Exmt (pwcc)1933 Goudey Lou Gehrig #92 Psa 7 Nrmt (pwcc)2014 Topps Chrome Jose Abreu Gold Auto Refractor 10/50 Just Pulled! !st On EbayLou Gehrig 1933 Goudey #92 - Rc - New York Yankees - Ex-mint+ Phenomenal!!!1993 Ud Sp Foil Derek Jeter Rookie Rc #279 Bgs 9.5 Gem MintMassive High Dollar Sports Card Collection!!! Must See!!!1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #53 Psa 1 Pr (pwcc)1916 M101-5 Sporting News Shoeless Joe Jackson Blank Back Psa 4 Vgex (pwcc)1985 Topps Tiffany Mark Mcgwire Rookie #401 Psa 10 Gem Mint1909-11 T206 Ty Cobb Green Portrait Psa 4 Vgex (pwcc)Mickey Mantle 1951 Bowman #253 - Rc - New York Yankees - Ex-mint+ Unbelievable!!Mickey Mantle 1953 Topps #82 - New York Yankees - Psa 5 - Breathtaking!!!Babe Ruth 1933 Goudey Sport Kings #2 - Yankees - Ex-mint!!! Spectacular!!!Mike Giancarlo Stanton 2010 Topps Chrome Gold Refractor Rookie Auto 1/50 1/1 Mvp1887 N172 Old Judge Tim Keefe Bat At Ready At 30 Degree Ny Psa 1 *466504Joe Dimaggio 1938 Goudey Heads-up #274 - Rc - Yankees - Nrmint!! Breathtaking!!1948 Leaf Jackie Robinson Psa 41933 Goudey Babe Ruth #181 Psa 3 Vg (pwcc)Bgs 9.5/10 2012 Bowman Chrome Jorge Soler Blue Wave Refractor Auto 44/50 Cubs1934 Goudey Lou Gehrig #37 Psa 4 Vgex (pwcc)Ken Griffey Jr 2014 Topps Finest Greats Auto Red Refractor #7/25 Rare Sp!ˆHuge National Treasure / Exquisite / Manziel / Luck / Puig / Auto Patch Rc Lot 1909-11 T206 Tris Speaker Cycle Psa 4 Vgex (pwcc)1933 Goudey #92 Lou Gehrig Psa 1.5 Gd+1968 Topps Original Baseball Series #1 Unopened Wax Pack Psa 9Mickey Mantle 1951 Bowman Rookie Baseball Card1941 Play Ball Joe Dimaggio #71 Psa 8 Nm-mt (pwcc)2014 Topps Chrome Baseball Mike Trout/albert Pujols Dual Auto 09/10Derek Jeter 1994 Signature Rookies /8650 Rookie Card Bgs 8.5/10 Auto 3436 Hits!1910-1911 T3 Turkey Red #9 Ty Cobb Checklist Back Detroit Sgc 35 *4658061933 Delong Lou Gehrig #7 Sgc 5.5 Ex+ (pwcc)1975 Topps Baseball Complete Set Of 660; Nm-mt High Grade Set! Brett, Yount Rc1887 N172 Old Judge Tommy Mccarthy Catch, Hands Cuffed Ny Psa 2 (mk) *466505Psa 9 Derek Jeter 1993 Upper Deck Sp Premier Prospects Foil Rookie #2791933 Goudey Lou Gehrig #160 Psa 4 Vgex (pwcc)2012 Topps Tribute Buster Posey True 1/1 Auto Inscription " Roy 2010 " Plus Jsy#Jose Abreu - 2014 Topps Chrome Rookie Autograph Refractor Rc Auto /499 White SoxAlbert Pujols 2001 Donruss Season Stat Line Auto Rated Rookie Rc Mint Bgs 9 102001 Donruss Albert Pujols Rookie Rc St. Louis Cardinals Signed Auto 1952 Bowman Mickey Mantle #101 Psa 8 Nm-mt (pwcc)1909-11 T206 Ty Cobb Bat On Shoulder Hof Sgc 50 Vg/ex 4, No Reserve, $0.99 Start1980 Topps Baseball Vending Box Bbce Wrapped And Authenticated2014 Topps Chrome Baseball Auto Relic Patch 02/10 Evan Longoria Autograph Rays1934 Goudey Lou Gehrig #61 Psa 5.5 Ex+ (pwcc)2006 Bowman Chrome Clayton Kershaw Blue Refractor Rookie Rc Auto Dodgers 038/5001919 W514 Strip Card Babe Ruth #2 Psa 5 Ex (pwcc)1984 Donruss Don Mattingly Rookie #248 Psa 10 Gem Mint1934 Goudey Lou Gehrig #37 Psa 2 Gd (pwcc)Flawless 1993 Upper Deck Sp Derek Jeter 279 Foil Premier Prospects Rookie Card1975 Topps Baseball Separation Proof Cards. '74 Highlights Nolan Ryan Angels2010 Topps Triple Threads Auto Relic White Whale Miguel Cabrera 1/1 !!!!!!!!1974 Topps Baseball Complete Psa Graded Registered Master Set1910 E98 Set Of 30 Ty Cobb Red Psa 2 Gd (pwcc)

Recent News: Baseball Cards

Source: Google News

PHOTO: Safeco Field's bomb-sniffing dogs get baseball cards
CBSSports.com, August 28th

At Safeco Field in Seattle, home of the playoff-positioned Mariners, important work is done by the bomb-sniffing K-9 unit. Now, said K-9 unit has been honored in the timless medium of the baseball card. Please regard, courtesy of News 10 ABC...Read more

Bucks County Baseball Cards brings nostalgia to Bristol
Bucks County Courier Times, August 27th

Bucks County Baseball Cards has been a staple in the area for over 30 years, but its recent move has helped change the focus of the store. Posted: Wednesday, August 27, 2014 11:30 am | Updated: 5:21 pm, Wed Aug 27, 2014. Bucks County Baseball Cards ...Read more

Mariners' K9 force honored with baseball cards
News10.net, August 27th

"We're here to make sure everyone has a fun experience at Safeco Field," said Williamson. "I can't imagine doing anything else. He's a great dog." Fans are encouraged to meet officers at the stadium and ask them for a baseball card. You can collect all...Read more

Why a mysterious collector chased a run-of-the-mill 1964 Curt Flood baseball card
ESPN, August 26th

Mike Hally, Curt Flood Winni Wintermeyer So-called "Flood guy" Mike Hally shows off his extensive Curt Flood baseball card collection. This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's September 15 Renegades Issue. Subscribe today! BASEBALL CARD ...Read more

My Top 10 Craziest, Costliest Baseball Cards And Memorabilia
Forbes, August 21st

I found some of the world's costliest and most unusual sports cards and memorabilia, from Lou Gehrig's 1928 World Championship watch to vintage Japanese baseball underwear. I even got to hold an example of the world' s most valuable baseball card, ...Read more

Ask The Experts: How Much Is My Vintage Dog Food Baseball Card Set Worth?
Forbes, August 18th

“These cards belong to a client of mine who has asked me to assist him in establishing a value and possible sale of the set. He has had them for quite some time and was not sure of the worth. The corners are very sharp and none of the cards are creased...Read more

Whoa: I just bought more baseball cards
CBS sports.com (blog), August 12th

Recently purchased at a leading retailer: Baseball cards sourced from Des Moines, Iowa, where the good times go to have good times! Come with me, won't you? ... Eight ballplayers who look kind of high in their baseball card photos. Numbered among them?...Read more

How The Biggest Baseball Card Scam In History Could Cost You $13000
Forbes, August 5th

About two decades later Topps Chewing Gum followed suit with its exciting line of baseball cards that are still the industry standard. In 1933 kids bought jillions of penny packs of Goudeys to complete the 240-card set. The good news is that the...Read more