A Brief History of Baseball Cards

What started as an advertising tool to sell baseball equipment has become a multi-million dollar industry that peaked in August 2022 with the record sale of a 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card for $12.6 million. But the origins of the baseball card have far more humble beginnings.

It was a sporting goods store in New York called Peck & Snyder that started producing baseball cards as part of a drive to promote their shop. Little did they know that 150 years later their invention would have evolved into a multi-million dollar industry dedicated to this former promotional material.

While fans today scour online auctions in the optimistic hope of discovering a previously unearthed Honus Wagner cigarette card, LeBron James 2003 Upper Deck card, or Kobe Bryant’s 1996 Topps Chrome Refractors Rookie Card, the original baseball cards were handed away for nothing as a loss leader, or as structural support to cigarette packaging.

And it would be the tobacco industry that would help to further the popularity of baseball cards in the early years, with tobacco manufacturer Allen & Ginter putting famous faces from the game in the hands of fans across the country. Attributed as the first cigarette cards for collecting and trading, stars from the day, like Charles Comiskey, Cap Anson, Jack Glasscock, and Buffalo Bill featured as a promotional freebie for the cigarette brand.

The tobacco manufacturer, Goodwin & Company, followed suit from 1886 to 1890 with their own trading collections under the Old Judge and Gypsy Queen brands. They first used sepia-toned prints, but later adopted multicolored etchings, placing the players in front of imagined blue skies and colorful backgrounds. The Old Judge set in particular proved popular thanks to its massive collection of cards, with over 500 players and 3,000 variations available.

It would take until the early part of the 20th century for the cards to gain popularity in great numbers, but in 1909, the American Tobacco Company produced the landmark T-206 set that made Honus Wagner an unwitting star for future collectors. Considered the Mona Lisa of the baseball card industry (the two icons share a quizzical expression), its value stems from the fact that the card was withdrawn early in its run at Wagner’s request, making the existing cards rare and more sought after by collectors.

The reason for Wagner’s request is up for debate, but it’s suggested that either Wagner withdrew his card due to a lack of adequate compensation, or not wanting to be associated with a smoking product. What he’d think of his face being associated with the peak of cigarette card collection is similarly open to debate.

Often referred to as the White Border Set, the T-206 cards were incredibly popular and a large number remain in circulation today. With over 6,000 front and back variations thanks to a variety of different tobacconists advertising on the reverse. PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator) notes that there are over 180,000 graded cards from the T-206 set, but its their condition that most determines their value, with many falling into disrepair over the years.

As the century progressed, candy and gum offered a somewhat healthier accompaniment to baseball trading cards, with Cracker Jack cards (1914-1915) and American Caramel cards (1909 to 1911) both proving popular.

American involvement in World War I and the Great Depression that followed meant that disposable income was extremely limited, with attendances at games plunging by 70 percent in 1931 and 1932. New ideas were needed, so ticket giveaways to fans were introduced, alongside night-time games, widespread radio broadcasting, and an All-Star Game. The approach to card manufacturing would also be revolutionised by Goudey Gum in 1933, which produced one the most popular vintage baseball card issues in history.

The 240 card set, known as Big League Chewing Gum were the first cards to be packaged with gum and targeted mainly at youth in America. Featuring Major-League Hall-of-Famers like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Fox, and Napoleon Lajoie, the 1933 Goudey cards are considered part of the Big Three of classic baseball card sets, along with the T206 American Tobacco Company and 1952 Topps sets. It was so popular that it printed four sets of Babe Ruth cards.

The Napoleon Lajoie card has particular value thanks to its scarcity and was only produced following an outcry from fans in 1934, but incredibly only those who wrote to Goudey to print out the absence receive the card. As a result, fewer than 100 of the Lajoie cards have been submitted for grading, with a high-graded Lajoie selling for $204,000 in February 2017.

Time Out

Baseball card production came to a screeching halt in 1941, as America entered World War II and the resulting rationing of paper and gum left little room for the frivolity of trading card production.

Fans would have to wait until the confectioner, Leaf, produced a series of cards in 1949. The first post-World War II set featured color pictures and the rookie cards of Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. Business was booming and the breathtaking color portraits in the 1951 set produced by gum manufacturer, Bowman’s, helped it to become a prized series for collectors, with rookie cards of both Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Finding a high-grade Mantle or Mays from this set might set you back though, with both attracting heavy hammer prices at auction. Keep an eye out for the 1953 Bowman set, which used specialized Kodachrome film, resulting in rich color cards.

The beginning of the 1950s also heralded the arrival of Topps, which would come to dominate baseball card production for the next few decades and would even require litigation to break the company’s monopoly.

The 1951 Red Backs and Blue Backs series in the style of a playing card heralded the arrival of Topps in a series that was meant to be played as a baseball-themed card game. It didn’t catch on. However, Topps employee, Sy Berger had the answer; he designed the 1952 Topps baseball card set. It made him an unlikely star who was even honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988 and credited with “the development of the modern baseball trading card”.

Berger’s 1952 Topps set was an iconic design that created a template for the modern baseball card, but it would be the 1957 set would usher in the standard size of 2 1/2 X 3 1/2 inch (6.35 X 8.89 cm) . This truly was the turning point for baseball cards. They included a player’s autograph (taken from their Topps contract), team name and logo on the front, while on the reverse was the player’s statistics and a short biography.

The 1950s for Bowman and Topps were largely spent entangled in a landmark legal case over the exclusive player contracts on their cards, with both companies spending around $100,000 a year (c.$1,2M in 2022) fighting each other. In 1956, Topps made Bowman an offer they couldn’t refuse of $200,000, paving the way for decades of sector domination by Topps.

Driven by popular demand, there were still innovations in baseball trading cards, with Kellogg’s proving the unlikely trend-setter with the introduction of 3D cards in 1970. Produced until 1983 and featuring 75 of the best players in baseball, they drew a generation of kids to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, amongst which the cards were hidden.

After Topps’ exclusivity with Major League Baseball (MLB) was successfully challenged by bubblegum manufacturer, Fleer, Fleer and the trading cards manufacturer, Donruss, issued baseball cards from 1981. These featured team logo stickers and Hall of Fame Diamond Kings puzzles. Baseball card production in the eighties fell victim to over production, but as the decade drew to a close, a reinvigoration of ideas stimulated the market.

In 1985, Lenticular and Specialty Print manufacturer, Optigraphics, obtained an MLB license and produced lenticular motion cards under the name Sportflics. The improved paper quality, action photographs, and improved writing on the backs proved popular and trading card manufacturer, Upper Deck, followed suit in 1989. Selling out of cards midway through its inaugural year, they proved so popular that Upper Deck pre-sold its entire 1990 baseball stock before 1990. Top tip! Keep an eye out for Ken Griffey Jr’s rookie card.

Pacific Cards became the fifth Major League Baseball-licensed card manufacturer in 1994, but as the millennium approached, the digital age posed a threat to trading cards and in 2001, Pacific dropped out of the baseball card business. Starr Cards had an answer for this with the introduction of the first custom baseball cards on smart phones.

Today, it’s the physical baseball cards that are still highly prized among collectors in an industry that shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, the trading card market grew by 142% in 2020, according to eBay. And, the record breaking sale of Mickey Mantle’s 1952 Topps card reflects the growing value of the global sports cards market, which is expected to increase from nearly $14 billion in 2019 to $98 billion in 2027, according to a 2021 report from Research and Markets.

Add into the mix that the MLB awarded Fanatics its MLBPA (Major League Baseball Players Association) and MLB licenses in August 2021, effectively ending Topps’ 70-year monopoly and the giving baseball card collection a future that’s potentially as exciting as its past.