An Abridged History of Baseball Cards and How They Evolved into Collector's Items
Did you know that baseball cards have been around longer than Major League Baseball’s National League (NL), which was founded on February 2nd in 1876 and is the older of the two leagues constituting MLB? The first of these cards actually popped up around the 1860s and looked very different from the way they do today. They started out as trade cards; a precursor to business cards, trade cards were advertisements that were printed in bulk and freely distributed to promote businesses, products, and services.
Now, experts differ on what they believe to be the first baseball cards, but many consider the trade cards produced by Peck and Snyder — a sporting goods store in New York — to be some of the earliest. “The company was founded in 1866 by Andrew Peck and Irving Snyder, who sought to capitalize on a growing interest in sports by an America that was exhausted from the Civil War,” writes Michael Pollak for The New York Times. “Men who only a year earlier had tried to kill each other on the battlefield were now teammates on the ball field.
And so, Peck and Snyder became the first to create a line of advertising cards with a baseball theme. Premiering in 1868, the company released cards that featured its ad on one side, and a picture of the Brooklyn Atlantics baseball team on the other. But, historically, these are NOT considered to be legitimate baseball cards, because none of the featured baseball players belonged to an actual professional team, since those didn’t yet exist.
This was rectified a year later, in 1869, when the company released cards featuring the Cincinnati Red Stockings, a baseball club managed by Harry Wright (1835 — 1895) that became America’s first professional baseball team and launched the National League. “A sepia photograph is mounted on the front with a large ballplayer cartoon and advertisement on the reverse. These cards came in two different sizes, one measuring approximately 4 3/16” x 3 5/16” (large) and the other measuring 3 15/16” x 2 3/8” (small).”
Because the 1869 Peck and Snyder trade cards were given out for free, it would take another 20 years for the first official, mass produced baseball cards to hit the market. Created by tobacco companies that began printing images of actors, war heroes, birds of the world, attractive women, and athletes as a marketing gimmick, the 1 3/4” x 2 3/4” cards were included as part of the cigarette packaging to protect the structural integrity of the product.
Goodwin & Co., which owned both Old Judge & Gypsy Queen cigarettes, was one of the first to do so. In 1886, the company launched what we now regard as the first and most coveted of all official mass produced baseball cards known as the N167 set that features twelve players from the New York Giants, the home team of Goodwin & Co.. The exceedingly rare set was logged by J.R. Burdick in the historic American Card Catalog.
According to Anson Whaley writing for Sports Collectors Daily:
“The cards have a distinctive look with portrait photos of players from the team. The Old Judge name is on the front at the top, although it exists in various formats. Some have the name centered, while others have it off to the left and with a narrower font. Others have it centered but in a bowed manner, similar as to how it would be found on a banner… The N167 cards display the player’s name, position, and team at the bottom.”
Goodwin & Co. followed up N167 with N172, the largest pre-war card issue ever created in the Old Judge set. In fact, it’s so large, new cards are still being discovered. “Currently, more than 500 baseball players are known to exist but there are a few thousand cards in all since many players have several different poses. The Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards, for example, states that there are more than 3,500 baseball cards.”
The cardboard prints, however, looked very different from the vibrant, colorful, and occasionally holographic cards that are common today. In fact, the players “were presented as manly and serious — they never smiled at the camera, and they wore perfectly pressed uniforms, sometimes with a necktie,” and always without gloves, which weren’t a part of the official uniform.
Adults didn’t have much use for these cards and disposed of them freely, but they were eagerly scooped up by kids, who would have to wait for another quarter of a century and World War I to pass before businesses finally caught on to the marketing potential of this hobby. Soon, they began packaging cards along with candy, gum, cookies, and other products that were made for and primarily consumed by children.
“Like other emerging forms of commercial culture during this time period (popular music, movies, and pulp fiction), baseball cards became an increasingly important aspect of children’s lives during the twentieth century, a commercial intervention into preadolescent play during an era in which child labor laws, industrial mechanization, and mandatory schooling all extended childhood and made play an increasingly central aspect of children’s lives.”
Enos Gordon Goudey founded the Goudey Gum Company in 1919. The man that was eventually dubbed the “penny gum king of America” was a natural entrepreneur and realized the marketing potential of baseball cards for his business, so he debuted the 239-card Goudey Baseball set in 1933, making it the first sports card product packaged with bubble gum in every pack.
The 2 3/8" x 2 7/8" baseball cards, consisting of both portraits and action photos, are noted for their dramatic use of color and colorized photo images. “[They] were printed on ten different press sheets containing 24 cards apiece, and the subjects found on the first two of those sheets ("Low Numbers") are a bit scarcer than the issue's other entries.” Interestingly, the “cards were also printed on thicker cardboard stock than their tobacco card predecessors, with that thickness establishing the template for modern day cards.”
The images on the cards were now intentionally wholesome and helped position baseball as a patriotic activity for young boys in America. Goudey was also clever enough to sell the cards along with coupons that the kids could use to join fan clubs or acquire baseball equipment. “By the end of the decade, gum companies increasingly associated baseball cards with patriotic symbols, selling their product wrapped in red, white and blue paper evoking images of baseball as the ‘national pastime.’“
As America entered World War II in 1941, the production of baseball cards came to a screeching halt. Because paper and gum were being rationed, civilians couldn’t afford to invest in baseball cards for their children, and so they didn't. But, in 1948, Bowman — a brand operated by Gum Inc. that produced Play Ball Cards from 1939 to 1941 — once again began distributing cards with bubblegum. Its first “set was a small set in stature (only 48 cards), and not terribly attractive as the cards featured black and white images with no labeling on the front.”
Bowman, though, was facing competition, so it quickly adapted. “The 1951 through 1952 sets feature breathtaking color portraits, while the 1953 set used specialized Kodachrome film, a type of fine, slow grain rich color film.” But, its success would soon be overshadowed by a new player. In 1952, New York’s Topps Corporation released its now infamous 407-card set that rivaled Bowman’s product. More importantly, “Topps was able to maneuver Bowman out of the baseball card market by singing players to exclusive contracts with [the] company.”
Soon, Topps bought out Bowman and cornered the baseball card market well into the 1980s. And it managed to do so thanks to the artistic prowess of one particular person. “In the autumn of 1951, a young Topps employee named Sy Berger (1923 — 2014) designed the 1952 Topps baseball card set on the kitchen table of his apartment in Brooklyn using cardboard and scissors.” It would set the standard format for all baseball cards to come, “although the size of the 1952 set was still on the larger size.” The 1957 set marks the official start of the 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inch size common today.
Although Topps, too, would eventually fold and become overshadowed by new players, the fundamental rules of baseball card collecting were already firmly in place.
“Beginning in the early 1970s, baseball card collecting began to undergo an important change. Adult males began to create formal organizations and events surrounding the hobby of baseball card collecting. They organized baseball card conventions, published baseball card collecting newsletters, and created local baseball collecting cards. As the adult hobby grew in popularity, cards became collectors’ items that were sold for money. Until the early 1980s, adult collecting was a relatively small hobby. With the growth in the baseball card market combined with the speculative atmosphere of the 1980s, it grew extremely rapidly, becoming one of the most popular adult hobbies in the United States by the early 1990s.”
Note* Images sourced from the PSA Cards Registry and Library of Congress.