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The History of Baseball Trading Cards

Written by TrevStone

The world is an ever-growing melting pot of hobbies that can range from finding and planting seeds, talking, collecting, and playing computer games, postage stamps, and currencies, and one of the most loved and lucrative collecting cards hobby. In this article, we are discussing specifically the Baseball cards and how this hobby came into play.

In recent times, the pandemic exponentially boomed in favor, but did you know it all began in the 1800s as “Cigarette Cards”? More notably, some historians predate this genre to the early Victorian era, where the fascination started with the recent color printing. So let’s dive deep and explore the wonderful world of baseball cards and their history. 

The Origin of Trading Cards

The original trading cards started with Tobacco cards, inserted in cigarette packs to promote different brands. Later on, candy packaging started including them in their packages. Then, from the 1870s until the early 1900s, the cards were categorized as lithographic printing cards and started the trading we see today. 

It wasn’t just in tobacco or gum packs but also in food items. As these were colorful and vibrant, the consumer started collecting and storing these cards in albums to show to friends and family. Soon after, as colored printing became quite common, these cards lost their initial popularity, but the practice of collecting cards had already started.

A Short Overview History of Collectible Trading Cards

Let’s discuss the overview of the history of collectible trading cards history first before diving deep into each era.

1800-1899

  • 1837 – Godfrey Englemann started the color age by introducing and producing lithography work on cards. The lithograph cards stayed immensely popular until colored printing became commonplace.
  • 1846 – More and more people were enjoying the sport, catapulting it into the hearts of millions and becoming America’s favorite pastime.
  • The 1860s – Printing started for the first-ever baseball cards.
  • The 1870s – Baseball cards started to be included in cigarette packs.
  • 1886 – Companies introduced color cards.

1900-1989

  • In the 1930s – Gum packaging started including them with player biographies on the backs.
  • 1938 – American Leaf Tobacco formed the Topps Chewing Gum company, which would create a big monopoly in the future.
  • 1952 – The evolution of Baseball Cards into the modern era by Topps Gum Company.
  • In the 1980s – Panini America is the new player emerging in the market to break the Topps Gum monopoly. 

2000-Present

2020 – With too much time on their hands, the collecting card genre and hobby massively becomes popular, flooding the market with a new slew of cards. It also allowed new categories to be included and refined with time. 

Pre-1900 Cards

Pre-1900, it all started with Cabinet Cards as they were printed in 4×6 inches while being showcased in typical cabinets in one’s home. They are well known for being produced in the mid-19th century, where initially, Baseball and photography were ever more popular and were the talk of the town. 

You could argue that they look nothing like the latest generation of baseball cards as they mostly had the whole team sitting together in the frame for it. But, in retrospect, we are talking about them because they inspired the later iterations. At that time, as photography was expensive and few could afford it, it paved the way for becoming collectible items in coming years. 

They neither had a single baseball player in them nor were collected to make money off them, and no one could produce them en masse. At that time, these were part of a marketing campaign sold on items such as cigarettes, hence Cigarette Cards. Companies also sold them along with many boxed edibles and even postcards.

It all started in the 1860s when a sporting goods company made official baseball cards Peck and Snyder. The front of the cards had an image of your favorite team, while on the back was a cartoon depicting the publishing company. They were the first trading cards in history, and a good 20 years took to make a portrait of a single player.

The Tobacco Card Era

This era dates to the late 1800s, when Baseball was becoming a more popular and favorite pastime of Americans. It got its Tobacco era name because cigarette packs held players’ portraits. Tobacco companies first used these cards to promote cigarette brands and provide a stiffener to these packs. However, as you only found these cards in cigarette packs, they were targeted toward adults. It took 20-30 years for them to become more popular with kids.

In the start, these cards measured 2 5/8″ by 1 1/2″, roughly the size of a cigarette pack, and became famous by Goodwin Tobacco company. The published cards are now famously called the Old Judge N167 set under the cigarette brands called the Old Judge and the Gypsy Queen. The later generation of N172 Old Judge cards had a massive collection of up to 3,000 variations for over 500 players. 

In recent years it has been challenging to find these old cards in good condition as fading and rebacking are pretty standard. The old judge cards were rivaled by the Allen and Ginter cigarette company, which started making lithographic cards that were beautifully illustrated. These cards were top-rated in the early 19th-century tobacco era and became known as the N28 set.

Like the N172 cards, they are easy to find, and around 3,800 in this category have been graded by the PSA. These cards can easily bag you up to $300 compared to the N172, which can get you only $100. The only problem with N28 cards and others of that era is that they were mostly glued on albums, and finding a tip-top shape is quite hard these days. 

Grading of Baseball Cards

Now that you have read about the early eras of Baseball Cards, let’s overview how the grading of these cards works. This cataloging has helped to grade these cards into different periods and types of cards. It was first published in 1939 by Jefferson Burdick, and some of the popular categories are as follows:

  • D – These cards were famously distributed with different bakery items.
  • E – These cards were in the early 1930s and were distributed with candy and gums.
  • F – These cards were packaged with different food items, and they became popular with kids as most were included with cereals.
  • M – M cards became popular as they were packaged with magazines, newspapers, and, in recent years, even comic books.
  • N – Our famous tobacco cards came along with cigarette packs.
  • R – They started coming post-1930s when they were packaged with more modern candy and gum items.
  • T – The T cards are the post-1900s tobacco cards.
  • W – These cards are known as strip cards.

The Golden Era Of Baseball Cards from 1909 to 1915

The term golden era of cards was coined by David Cycleback as he has done a lot of research on these cards in his blogs. Even though the Tobacco card production and sales slowed down in recent years but with the breakup of American Tobacco Company, they sourly needed the sales. So the production of tobacco cards started anew. The most popular set of this era, T-206, was published between the years of 1909 to 1911. 

There is another term for these cards owing to their white borders around these cards. This white border is why they are known as the “White Border Set.” These cards have multiple variations as they were packed in different sub-brands of American Tobacco and had different adverts for each. These variations amount to around 6,000 front and back and are called the monster set of cards. 

One of the most famous cards in this collection is sometimes touted as the “Mona Lisa” of basketball cards as it stopped being produced early. Some say it was due to Honus Wagner not being entirely ok with being associated with tobacco, or some saying not being compensated enough. Unfortunately, only a handful are still in good condition out of 75 published. 

The Amazing and Roaring 30s Era

The era started with the great depression as the stock markets crashed and baseball promoters feared a complete shutdown. So they started promoting free nighttime games and all-star baseball matches to lure the masses. In these challenging times, this was one of the citizens’ most loved activities and helped keep the spirits high. The promoters and organizers started using the legends such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig to draw as many people as possible to their games.

The popularity increased as packs of cards were sold with bubble gum packs to involve the younger generation. The Goudy Gum issue is one of that era’s most famous vintage collections. They were 240 cards in total, beautifully colored, and included major league players. The legend Babe Ruth was the only player having four cards in this collection. These cards are one of the hardest to come along, especially the yellow one numbered #53.

The Beginning of the Bowman Era

The Gum incorporated came back to produce cards in 1948 with a new name, Bowman gums. They originally sold and made cards from ’39 to ’41. There were only 48 cards in this collection, and they were black and white without any markings or labeling. They were the highest competitors of the leaf who produced colored and landscape cards at that time.

Unlike the ’48 set, the ’51 card set was considered the most famous and crowned jewel of Baseball Card collectors. This set featured the rookie cards of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. These rookie cards can now fetch you easily a starting sum of $5,000. 

The Monopoly of the Topps Gum Company

In 1951, the Topps Gum company entered the market with red backs and blue backs sets. It was a new way of selling baseball cards as they were marketed as part of a game that was themed around baseball sports. Unfortunately, they didn’t become popular, so the Gum company had to improvise to stay in the competition.

The new era of trading Baseball Cards started in 1951 when one of the employees of Topps Gum designed the most recent iteration till this day. These cards contained the player’s portrait with the team logo and signature near the bottom of the front. In addition, on the backs of these cards were each player’s stats, including height, weight, and game stats, and even a small biography of each player. They later entered this employee Sy Berger into the Baseball hall of fame for “the development of the modern baseball trading card” in 1988.

That was just the start; Topps Gum bought out Bowman, their only competitor, for $200,000 and started the Topps Gum monopoly. No other company could compete with them for another 25 years. This monopoly was finally broken in the 1980s by a lawsuit against Topps Gum, allowing Fleer and Donruss to enter the market. With that, the “Junk Card Era” began to stay competitive and overthrow the other; massive inclusion of Baseball Cards took place.

The Modern Era

The modern era owes it to the gacha or lottery mechanic prevalent in the industry with big names such as the pokemon cards. In this era, you buy a set of cards having a chance of rare cards among other more common ones. They also contain jerseys and other cards, which have changed the landscape of Baseball Cards. 

The modern era also started the digital cards in which consumers and fans can have their favorite players on their mobiles. As a result, more and more apps are springing up that cater to this fandom but only provide digital cards. 

Ending Note

Even though initially trading cards were part of marketing for tobacco and food items, no one knew that it would become a proper hobby. Furthermore, no one also knew that it would become a whole industry of trading and selling vintage cards. As money is involved and trading is paramount, most still wonder what impulse pushes a collector to go for card collection. The most straightforward answer to this question is becoming part of a community of like-minded people and enjoying together something of value. Same as some people would want to play real money online blackjack, build new cars, play computer games, and so on.

About the author

TrevStone

Trevor 'TrevStone' Uren founded Pro Sports Extra in 2011 at the age of 13. He's hosted a podcast since 14 years old and continues to grow each month! He's currently 24 years old and has interviewed hundreds of professional athletes, business owners, and others who are shining online! Uren has built Pro Sports Extra to over 5M monthly visitors.