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    

2014 Topps Allen & Ginter Oddity Relic Daniel Nava /25 Tough Pull1991 Topps Desert Shield Chipper Jones Rookie Rc #333 Psa 10 Gem Mint (pwcc)2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Blue Refractors Mike Trout Rc Auto /150 Bgs 9.5 (pwcc)1970 Topps Ultra Hi-grade Complete Set Roberto Clemente Thurman Munson Rc (pwcc)1972 Topps Pete Rose #559 Psa 10 Gem Mint (pwcc)1975 Topps George Brett Rookie Rc #228 Psa 9 Mint (pwcc)1967 Topps Tom Seaver Rookie Rc #581 Psa 8 Nm-mt (pwcc)2009 Bowman Chrome Draft #89 Mike Trout Auto Rc Gem Mint Bgs 9.51965 Topps Jim Catfish Hunter Sp Rookie Rc #526 Psa 10 Gem Mint (pwcc)1980 Topps Cello Pack Rickey Henderson Rookie Rc Top/bottom Psa 9 Mint (pwcc)1983 Topps Tony Gwynn Rookie Rc #482 Psa 10 Gem Mint (pwcc)1980 Tcma Reading Phillies Ryne Sandberg Rookie Rc #22 Psa 10 Gem Mint (pwcc)2007 Topps Sterling Game Used And Cut Signature Roberto Clemente 1/1 Autograph2014 Bowman Chrome Autograph Jose Abreu Red Auto Refractor 3/5 ~ Gem Mint1998 Flair Masterpiece Row 2 Ken Griffey Jr 1/12006 Bowman Chrome Blue Refractors Clayton Kershaw Rc Auto /150 Bgs 9.5 (pwcc)2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Pros Refractors Mike Trout Rc Auto /500 Bgs 9.5 (pwcc)2009 Topps Sterling Game Used Memorabilia And Cut Signature Lou Gehrig 1/11987 Donruss Opening Day Barry Bonds Johnny Ray Error Rookie Psa 10 Gem (pwcc)1982 Topps Traded Cal Ripken Jr. Rookie Rc #98t Psa 10 Gem Mint (pwcc)Mike Trout Bryce Harper /10 $4000 Auto Logo Patch Jersey Sp Topps Five Star Dual2006 Bowman Chrome Draft Pick Clayton Kershaw Rookie Auto Bgs 10 Pristine (pwcc)2014 Topps Allen & Ginter Albert Pujols Metal Mini Rip Exclusive 1/1 Ssp AngelsRolex Submariner Black & Rose Gold Stainless Steel Watch W/ 18k Yellow Gold2007 Sp Legendary Cuts Leroy Robert Satchel Paige Auto Ssp 15/15 Rare Mint! 1/12014 Bowman Kris Bryant Prospects Auto Redemption Super Rare Yes Not Chrome1981 Topps Pete Rose #180 Psa 10 Gem Mint (pwcc)Clayton Kershaw 2006 Bowman Chrome Draft Gold Refractor Auto Psa 101979 Topps Ozzie Smith Rookie Rc #116 Psa 9 Mint (pwcc)Kris Bryant 2014 Bowman Chrome Black Refractor Auto /99 Rc Live 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects Mike Trout Auto Rc Bgs 9.5 Subs 9.5 10 Rare1990 Topps Usa George Bush #usa1 Psa 8 Nm-mt (pwcc)1972 Topps Hi-grade Complete Set Nolan Ryan Roberto Clemente Fisk Rc, Psa (pwcc)Hank Aaron Rookie Psa 4.52009 Upper Deck 20 Year Anniversary Ken Griffey Jr Buyback Auto 4/891967 Topps Mid-grade Complete Set Mickey Mantle Rod Carew Tom Seaver Rc (pwcc)Mark Mcgwire Cardinals 2014 Topps Allen & Ginter Booklet Jumbo Jersey Auto #d/101965 Topps Sandy Koufax #300 Psa 9 Mint (pwcc)1954 Topps #201 Al Kaline Psa 8 Nm-mt Rc Rookie Detroit Tigers Hof Card!!2014 Bowman Inception Jorge Soler Autographed Batter Logo Patch # 1/1 Alp-js1968 Topps Mid-hi Grade Complete Set Mantle Mays Clemente Rose Ryan, Psa (pwcc)2013 Bowman Chrome Draft Kris Bryant Auto Autograph From 2014 Inception CubsSpectacular 1954 Red Man Tobacco Unopened Package With Yogi Berra Card..rare!!!!Mike Trout - 2011 Topps Update Series Black Rookie #26/60 - AngelsKen Griffey, Jr. 2014 Topps Allen & Ginter Unripped Rip Card #d 1/52014 Bowman Chrome Jose Abreu Purple Refractor Auto 5/10 Bgs 9.5/101993 Sp Derek Jeter Rc Red Ink Autograph Bgs 9 With 9 Auto -one Of A Kind 12-13 Immaculate Dirk Nowitzki Vince Carter Marion Mayo Six Logoman Dallas 1/11969 Topps Johnny Bench #95 Psa 9 Mint (pwcc)Roberto Clemente 1955 Topps #164 - Rc - Hi # - Pirates - Nrmint-mint+ Stunning!!2006 Bowman Chrome Draft Clayton Kershaw Auto Rc2014 Allen & Ginter Mini Framed Auto Mike TroutMike Trout "rare" 2014 Topps Museum Game Used Jumbo Bat Barrel Nameplate Sp#1/1Derek Jeter 1992 Little Sun Auto + Prospects Rare Rookie Lot! Psa 9's Pop Of 3!!1910 T206 Cy Young Cleveland Sovereign Tobacco Baseball Card Sgc Good+ 2.5 35Huge Ken Griffey Jr Lot W/over 1775 Cards!! 41 Rookies! Inserts, Oddballs, Auto2009 Bowman Chrome Refractor Mike Trout Rc Rookie 461/500 Bgs 9.5 W/ 10 Auto1933 World Wide Gum Goudey #93 Babe Ruth New York Yankees Hof Psa 1 Pr1954 Topps Henry Hank Aaron #128 Rc Rookie ( Sgc 5.5 70 ) Ex+ Good Centering2009 Bowman Chrome Mike Trout Rookie Rc Angels Auto Bgs 9.5 W/ 10

Recent News: Baseball Cards

Source: Google News

Birmingham sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews gets own Topps trading card
al.com, July 10th

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Birmingham surgeon to the stars Dr. James Andrews has operated on so many athletes, he's got his own baseball card. Andrews.JPG Dr. James Andrews' new Topps card, which includes a snippet of his scrubs. Andrews, who runs ...Read more

ACE Brand Launches My ACE All-Stars Baseball Card Creator
MarketWatch, July 10th

WIRE) -- Today, ACE™ Brand Sports Medicine Products from 3M Company, launched the My ACE All-Stars baseball card creator web app, giving baseball fans young and old the opportunity to create customized keepsake digital baseball cards. An official ...Read more

Novato Police Log: Lottery tickets and baseball cards stolen in vehicle burglary
Marinscope Community Newspapers, July 9th

Fraud: 500 block of Alameda del Prado. A fraud suspect was reported to be impersonated PG&E and obtaining funds via purchase of green dot cards. RP lost $800. Welfare check: 2400 block of Vineyard Road. RP states her friend, 14, is posting on social ...Read more

New Baseball Card Includes Clippings From Daniel Nava's 2013 Playoff Beard
The Post Game (blog), July 9th

Baseball cards in recent years have included pieces of jerseys, bats, hats and now ... facial hair? A group of 25 cards in Topps' Allen & Ginter "Oddity" line will contain clippings from the beard maintained by outfielder Daniel Nava during Boston's...Read more

Baseball card includes clippings from Daniel Nava's beard grown during 2013 ...
New York Daily News, July 8th

Baseball card includes clippings from Daniel Nava's beard grown during 2013 World Series win with Red Sox. The Oddity Relics line by Allen and Ginter for Topps includes other bizarre inserts, like pieces of the menu from the wedding of Kim Kardashian...Read more

Hair From Daniel Nava's Red Sox Playoff Beard Put In Baseball Card (Photo)
NESN.com, July 7th

Modern baseball cards feature all kinds of cool game-used materials ranging from pieces of player jerseys, pants, gloves and bats, among other things. One person recently opened a pack of 2014 Allen & Ginter from Topps baseball and pulled a card of Red ...Read more

GENERAL: Baseball card industry continuing its yearly transformation
The Edwardsville Intelligencer, July 4th

In March of 2013, Topps bought the licensing rights to be the only company to produce Major League Baseball cards. The deal runs through 2020, and it eliminated the rest of the competition. By that point, most companies had already gone under. Pinnacle ...Read more

Baseball Card Exchange hopes to grow hobby
nwitimes.com, July 3rd

SCHERERVILLE | Collecting baseball cards isn't quite the American tradition it used to be. Sales of cards and other sports memorabilia have been on the decline over the last decade. Baseball card shops across the nation have closed their doors as the ...Read more