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A Brief History of Baseball Cards

Baseball cards have been a part of American culture for more than 150 years. They’ve been printed on paper, metal, wood, and fabric; distributed by tobacco, gum, magazine, and food companies; and been the focus of financial chicanery and theft. The cards started out as childhood favorites, and schoolyards were transformed into trading grounds and three-ring binders became filled with plastic sheets to preserve these prized possessions.

Here’s a look at the industry’s winding path to its current heyday, where, thanks to the internet, buying and selling baseball cards continues to be a booming business.

Beginnings to Tobacco Cards

Joe Mulvey, third baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, poses in a studio for a cabinet card photo issued by Goodwin & Co, for Old Judge Cigarettes in 1887
Credit: Mark Rucker/ Transcendental Graphics via Getty Images

Historians are divided as to when the first baseball cards surfaced, but many feel the distinction belongs to the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings team cards produced by sporting-goods company Peck & Snyder. As described in Dave Jamieson's Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, it was common for manufacturers of the era to advertise by way of trade cards featuring war heroes or other famous figures, with Peck & Snyder being the first to recognize the potential of a sport that was rapidly growing in popularity.

By the 1880s, tobacco makers like Duke and Allen & Ginter realized that they could boost cigarette sales by inserting numbered cards that would entice consumers to collect every item of a themed set. The N167 cards, which were included in Old Judge cigarettes starting in 1886, featured 12 players on the New York Giants (now known as the San Francisco Giants), and are considered the first true set of baseball cards. Old Judge then followed with the ambitious 2,300-card N172 set, produced between 1887 and 1890.

After Duke and the competition combined to form the American Tobacco Company in 1890, there was little need to continue with what had become an expensive method of advertising. However, American Tobacco revived card production in 1909 amid legal challenges to its monopoly, and the company churned out 524 cards of its famous T206 set.

The Rise of Gum Cards

Full length color lithograph portrait of George Herman "Babe" Ruth swinging a bat used as a trading card.
Credit: Transcendental Graphics via Getty Images

Tobacco companies weren’t the only ones cashing in on the marketing. Candy makers like Cracker Jack and the American Caramel Company became the primary distributors of baseball cards during and immediately after World War I. But the next major frontier in the industry arrived with the invention of bubble gum in 1928.

Marrying the two worlds together, Boston, Massachusetts-based Goudey Gum Company began including cards of popular ballplayers like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mel Ott with its Big League Chewing Gum in 1933. The colorful collectibles were a hit even as most Americans struggled through the Great Depression, with Goudey enticing children to mail in purchased gum wrappers to receive other prizes.

By 1939, Gum, Inc. had joined the party with its Play Ball - America set. Play Ball ceased production after two years before returning in 1948 under the banner of Bowman, which became the dominant baseball card brand for the next few years. The torch was then passed to Topps, which cornered the market by the mid-1950s thanks to its popular designs.

The “Junk Wax Era” to Industry Revival

1979 Topps baseball card of Andre Dawson with the Montreal Expos.
Credit: Erin Cadigan/ Alamy Stock Photo

By the 1970s, card collecting was transforming from a popular hobby into a business investment. Dealers began traversing the country to scoop up boxes of cards from unsuspecting owners, and shelling out peanuts for what could eventually be sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars

Topps became the leading seller of baseball cards, and in 1975, trading card company Fleer Corporation sued Topps, claiming that Topps had an unfair monopoly over the industry and was violating antitrust laws. Topps eventually lost the lawsuit in 1980. The loss opened the door for competitors like Fleer and Donruss to enter the market, but it also paved the way for what became known as the "Junk Wax Era." With the value of older collectibles surging, companies began overproducing cards for the buyers eager to snap up what seemed to be a surefire investment. By one estimate, some 81 billion trading cards were annually produced by the early 1990s. Combined with the unpopular Major League Baseball players' strike of 1994, the oversaturation took a lot of steam out of the business, and sales of new cards dropped from a reported $1.5 billion in 1992 to $200 million in 2008.

However, the industry bounced back in the 2010s via innovations like limited-edition sets and the inclusion of game-used memorabilia with cards. Fueled by online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay, card sales.

Most Valuable Baseball Cards

 T206 Honus Wagner baseball card.
Credit: Chris Hondros/ Newsmakers via Getty Images

In 1939, electrician Jefferson Burdick made the earliest known attempt to classify and value baseball cards with the first annual collectors catalog. Much of his classification system remains in use, including the "T" designation for tobacco cards and "PC" for postcards.

The problem with Burdick’s system was that there were still no set standards on how to find the market value of a card. In the ‘70s, Bowling Green University statistics professor James Beckett III picked up where Burdick left off by assigning card valuations as the market was beginning to take off. His 1979 Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide eventually turned into the ubiquitous Beckett's Baseball Card Monthly magazine, which further refined industry grading by defining cards from "mint" (perfect condition) to "excellent" and down to "poor."

The T206 Honus Wagner has long been considered the "Mona Lisa" of trading cards. For reasons that remain unclear — the Hall of Fame shortstop either was reluctant to promote smoking or was seeking more compensation for his image — production was quickly halted on this unassuming card, and only around 60 are known to exist in the modern market. One T206 Wagner in good condition sold for a record $6.606 million in August 2021.

Not far behind is the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, which arrived early in the career of the star New York Yankees outfielder. While not a "rookie card," which usually fetches the highest prices, this one received a boost from its scarcity, as Topps infamously dumped thousands of cards from the 1952 set into the Hudson River. Before the August 2021 Wagner sale, a near-mint '52 Mantle held the record when it was sold seven months earlier for $5.2 million.

Rare cards of other early Hall of Famers, like Ruth and Ty Cobb, also regularly feature among the industry's most sought-after items. However, it was the 2009 rookie card of a 21st century great, Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout, that briefly topped the competition when it was sold for $3.93 million in August 2020.

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