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.