Baseball Cards: Collecting the All-American Pastime

baseball cards

Baseball Card History

In the period just before and after the Civil War both the sport of Baseball and photography were becoming very popular in American society.

The first form of “Baseball Card”, which is arguably not a true Baseball Card, were the team photographs that were printed in Cabinet Card or “Cartes de Visite” format.

True Baseball Cards began to be produced by a company called Peck and Snyder from 1868 – 1870.

The fronts of the cards featured a team photo with an advertising cartoon image advertising the Peck and Snyder Sporting Goods Store.

The 1869 set featured America’s first professional baseball team, The Cincinnati Red Stockings, and was produced in two different sizes.

baseball card

These early cards by Peck & Snyder were still not technically what collectors consider to be true baseball cards.

Collectors refer to these cards as “Trade Cards” because they were given away as opposed to be provided with a product to help sell said product.

It would still be another 20 years before the production of true Baseball Cards would begin.

baseball card team photo

The Tobacco Card Days

By the late 1800’s baseball was quickly on its way to becoming America’s Pastime

Cigarette manufacturers began using this popularity to not only sell their product, but the cards acted as a stiffener within the cigarette pack to protect the contents.

By the nature of their packaging, baseball cards were not visible from the outside and as such, were not marketed towards children but rather adults.

Early tobacco cards varied in design and format, with the typical size measuring roughly 2 5/8″ by 1 1/2″.

baseball card gypsy queen                              baseball card newsboy league


In 1886, Goodwin Tobacco (owner of Old Judge and Gypsy Queen cigarettes) created what has become known as the first official baseball card set, known as the N167 set.

The set features only twelve players from the New York Giants, not surprising given Goodwin’s New York location.

Between 1886 & 1890 Old Judge produced the N172 set in a large quantity, making them not terribly scarce today with a low-grade card having a value of about $100.

Around the same time, a company called Allen & Ginter, another popular cigarette producer, issued what are thought to be some of the most beautiful lithographic cards of the era.

The first Allen & Ginter set, N28, is one of the most popular issues of the 19th century tobacco era.

old judge card set

Allen & Ginter Tobacco Cards

allen & ginter tobacco baseball card          allen & ginter tobacco baseball card          allen & ginter tobacco baseball card

allen & ginter tobacco baseball card        allen & ginter tobacco baseball card

    allen & ginter tobacco baseball card          allen & ginter tobacco baseball card


1909 – 1915: The Golden Age of Baseball Cards

Following the lull in production of baseball cards that followed the joining and dissolution of the Tobacco Trust in 1890 – 1909, tobacco companies once again ramped up production in what is known to collectors as The Golden Age of Baseball Cards

The Landmark set of this era is the coveted T-206 set issued from 1909 – 1911.

Often referred to as the “White Boarder Set”

Each back featured an advertisement for one of the 15 brands under the American Tobacco umbrella giving collectors over 6000 front-back variations of this set.

The Honus Wagner card from this set is most recognizable by collectors and laymen alike and is referred to as the “Mona Lisa” of the baseball card industry – Wagner was removed from the line-up for debatable reasons, making this card particularly scarce.

pittsburg baseball card        cigarette box

The 1930’s 

As the economic hardships of the Great Depression hit America, baseball became something the American public could grasp onto as a last vestiges of the good times, one of those irreplaceable joys in life when you can just forget about life and watch a good game of Baseball.

Team owners began promoting Night games, giveaways to fans, began radio broadcasting and introduced the All-Star Game.

With players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams baseball’s popularity soared.

The Goudey Gum issue of 1933 is considered one of the most popular baseball card issues in history and is the largest set issued by Goudey Gum.

The most popular card in this issue…Who else but Babe Ruth who was featured on four different cards.

babe ruth baseball cards

Aside from Ruth, one of the most sought-after cards from the 1933 Goudey Gum series is the Napoleon Lajoie card which is considered one of the rarest cards.

In 1934, Goudey produced a smaller set with only 96 cards, which featured the rookie card of Hank Greenberg.

Goudey continued producing cards up until 1941, yet with varying sizes and formats over the years.

The 1938 set (R323 set) depicts cartoon images of players with a photo head. The set contains the rookie card of one “Joltin” Joe Dimaggio which features two cards of the Yankee great.

With the onset of WWII, card production came to a halt.

baseball card          joe di maggio baseball card

The Bowman Era Begins…

In 1948, Gum Inc. (who produced Play Ball Cards from ’39 to ’41) returned to producing cards under the “Bowman” brand name.

The 1948 Bowman Baseball set was a relatively small set of only 48, and not terribly attractive as the cards featured black and white images with no labeling on the front.

This issue featured the rookie cards of Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, and Yogi Berra while their competitor, Leaf produced cards in 1949 that featured the rookie cards of Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige and were the first to be produced in color following WWII.

The 1951 Bowman set, considered to be one of the crowned jewels of baseball card collecting, features the rookie cards of both Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

willie mays baseball card

Topps Gum Company

The Topps Gum Company made its way into the baseball card business officially in 1951 with its “Red Backs” and “Blue Backs” sets of cards.

The cards were designed to look like a playing card and were meant to be played as a baseball-themed card game.

The cards really never caught on and Topps decided to move in a different direction the following year.

Late in 1951, a young Topps employee name Sy Berger designed the 1952 Topps baseball card set in his Brooklyn apartment using cardboard and scissors.

Berger is credited today with having developed the modern baseball trading card and was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988.

Topps remained the leading maker and seller of baseball cards through the early 1980’s when Donruss and Fleer gave Topps a run for their money.

mickey mantle baseball card          mickey mantle baseball card

The 1980’s: The Junk Card Era  

Baseball cards were massively overproduced during this era making these cards much less valuable.

Today, cards are designed with more of a lottery-type feel.

Collectors seek that big “hit” looking for one of many autographed or jersey insert cards, some with only one version produced.

baseball card collage

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