In the early 1890s, entrepreneur Harry Stevens changed the way fans watched live baseball games by inventing the scorecard (also known as a roster card), which identified each player by numbers on a grid. Programs containing these scorecards soon followed, offering teams more space to crow about their accomplishments on the field.
Tobacco companies, banks, and other businesses quickly realized that having their ads on the same piece of paper that fans were staring at for three hours at a stretch might be a very good idea, so they bought advertising space on the cards. Programs offered even more room for these advertisers.
One of the more interesting niches for baseball-memorabilia collectors are vintage programs and scorecards published in the first half of the 20th century by Ivy League colleges. Many or these documents printed for games played by Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth were nothing more than scorecards, but sometimes full-fledged programs were published. In the 1930s, the going rate for these programs was usually a quarter.
Another subset of baseball programs are those printed for Negro League games played between the world wars. Negro League ephemera is quite rare and highly sought-after, both by sports fans and historians, who prize such printed materials for the details and statistics they offer scholars.
Among professional teams, Yankee programs and scorecards are always in demand, thanks to the team’s large fan base and legendary roster of players, from Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle. Other former-New York teams, the Giants and Dodgers, are also collected, owing to their roots in the Big Apple, as well as their new fan bases in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively.
Programs printed for season openers are usually more sought after than those from the rest of the season, while special programs published for an All-Star Game or World Series are most valuable of all.
One of the many interesting aspects of baseball programs is the way in which the graphics on their covers changed with the times. For example, programs from the 1920s resemble nothing so much as political campaign posters, especially those that were designed as jugates, with one player framed on the left and an opposing player framed on the right...
During World War II, patriotic imagery was often incorporated into the design of the program—a flag, soldiers listening to a game on the radio, etc. Programs from the 1950s tended to be illustrated, while many of those from the 1960s had a Mid-century Modern look to them. By the 1970s, color photography and bold graphics had largely taken over.