June 6th, 2012

Rhapsody in Cardboard

The first businesses to exploit baseball players to promote their products were tobacco companies. It seems strange now to see advertisements featuring such Hall of Famers as George Wright, King Kelly, and Hoss Radbourn endorsing Red Stocking Cigars, but those were the days when smoking was an unalloyed pleasure. The largest card set ever issued—numbering over 2,300 separate images—was a photographic series produced by the Goodwin Company for its Old Judge brand in the late 1880s.

The Goodwin Round Album, a spectacular chromolithographed 1888 premium, featured the most popular players of the day in eight circular pages with anywhere from one to four stars per: Cap Anson, King Kelly, and Charlie Comiskey each occupies a page of his own. The page shown here has some of the New York National League team, such as manager Jim Mutrie, third baseman Art Whitney, and pitcher Ledell Titcomb, who was graced with the splendid alias of “Cannonball.” The “mascot” was a young boy; in years to come the fashion in good-luck charms ran to street urchins like Detroit’s “L’il Rastus,” dwarfs like the Philadelphia A’s Louis Van Zelst, and gently demented souls like the New York Giants’ Charles “Victory” Faust.

Baseball cards continued to be identified with tobacco products into the 1910s, when confections like Colgan’s Chips and Cracker Jack got into the act. Gum cards were next, and they ruled the hobby from the 1930s to the 1980s (Goudey, Fleer, Topps). Finally, a court decision broke Topps’ virtual thirty-year monopoly on trading cards by permitting Donruss to distribute trading cards without gum. The go-go decade of card collecting was in gear, as other companies joined the industry (Score, Pacific, Upper Deck, a reinvigorated Fleer). Cards were not just for kids anymore, for the first time since the days of the tobacco cards; grown-up collectors spent big bucks to recapture their youth or, with often unhappy results, to invest for their own kids’ futures.

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What is the first baseball card? Learned knights of the cardboard may dispute this point. I believe that if the definition of a baseball card is to be understood as an item mass produced for sale, then the first would be the illustrated ticket to the inaugural soiree of the Magnolia Ball Club, an event that took place in 1844 to celebrate the club’s founding the year before. Others may advocate for a view of the Atlantics of Brooklyn team of 1868, distributed free by Peck & Snyder Sporting Goods to their customers. Featuring such luminaries as Joe Start, Dickey Pearce, John Chapman, and Bob Ferguson, the Atlantics were champions of the baseball world in that year, as they had previously been in 1864, 1865, and 1866. In fact, the Library of Congress collections contain a small photograph of the 1865 team with a printed mount, and the Baseball Hall of Fame has another small photograph of the Unions of Morrisania of 1866. But both are better described as cartes de visite, or calling cards, commissioned by the teams themselves for distribution to their close followers. What makes this card of “The Atlantic Nine” a true baseball card is its wide distribution to the public as a “trade card,” with its clear intent to promote the sale of products in some real trade, namely sporting goods. And yet  … recent research indicates it may not have been issued in 1868 but instead 1871. This wrinkle would make the 1869 Peck & Snyder card of the Cincinnati Red Stockings the first baseball card mass produced for sale.

I say “real trade” because today the sale of the cards themselves is a real trade, but it was not always so. Even in the 1940s and 1950s card manufacturers like Topps, Bowman, and Fleer used the cards to help sell the bubblegum, not the other way around. 

Trade cards, generally of the comic illustrative sort, continued to be the form which the baseball card would take until the mid-1880s, when the age of the baseball hero was dawning and chromolithographed cards of individual players came into being as promotional inserts in packs of small cigars. Before long cigarette manufacturers, too, jumped on the bandwagon and issued colored cards promoting such evocative brands as Gypsy Queen, Buchner Gold Coin, Old Judge, Dog’s Head, Mayo Cut Plug, Allen & Ginter, Duke of Durham, Newsboy, and other cheap smokes of an era gone by. The incredibly extensive Old Judge set—512 players, each in multiple poses—was not a printed set but consisted entirely of sepia-toned photographs. Even a century later collectors continue to find previously undocumented cards in this set, cataloged as N172.

Old Judge cards could be collected and redeemed for handsome larger premiums, referred to as “cabinet cards” (cataloged as N173). John Ward of the New York Giants is shown here in a Newsboy cabinet card and Jim “Deacon” McGuire in an Old Judge regular issue of 1887. McGuire wound up playing in twenty-six major league seasons, suiting up for his final game a century ago on May 18, 1912, at age forty-eight (and getting a hit). In that memorable game he was the catcher for the Detroit Tigers because their regular team was on strike, in support of Ty Cobb, who had been suspended by the league for attacking a heckler in the stands. (The toothless Tigers filled their lineup with recruits from the Philadelphia sandlots such as pitcher Aloysius Travers and lost to the A’s 24–2.)

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Baseball card images from the period before World War II are not realistic, they are romantic … and that is the essence of baseball fandom. We preserve for ourselves the illusion that we could be down there on the field alongside our heroes (or, totemically, in place of them). These cards are magical tokens, permitting us to shuttle back and forth between fantasy and reality with utter safety; it’s just a game, after all.

Once photographs of our favorites ceased to be a novelty, trading card companies looked for inspiration to the painted cards of the past. Dick Perez created the long-running series of Diamond Stars for the Donruss company beginning in 1981. Topps and other companies revived the look and feel of vintage sets.

In the first decade of the last century, a golden age of baseball cards, candy manufacturers competed with cigarette companies for the hearts and minds of American youth. Let the names of the candy card sponsors roll off the tongue, and savor them: Nadja Caramels … Mello Mints … Colgan’s Violet Chips … Zeenuts … Texas Tommies … Juju Drums … Cracker Jack. The greatest of all candy sets was issued by the American Caramel Company from 1909 to 1911, and its most valuable rarity is the card of Mike Mitchell of Cincinnati.

The American Tobacco Company, a huge trust of interlocking manufacturers, issued not only the above-mentioned Turkey Reds but also the classic T206 set of cards (1909–11), the giant of tobacco issues and the set that includes the hobby’s most valuable card, the Honus Wagner. Listen to the roll call of just a few of the T206 producers: Sweet Caporal … Piedmont … Old Mill … Polar Bear … Hindu … Tolstoi … Cycle … American Beauty … Ty Cobb (yes, he was a subject of the front of the card and, in a handful of cases, the sponsoring tobacconist on the back).

In 1911 the trust added the Mecca folder series to its burgeoning roster of baseball hits, here depicted in the Gabby Street card which, when folded up, reveals battery mate Walter Johnson, sharing a pair of legs with his catcher. In that same year the trust issued its classic T205 set (Gold Borders). In the following year there were the Hassan triple folders (cleverly reproduced in the 1990s by Upper Deck with modern players).

By the 1920s the popularity of the cards among youngsters prompted the tobacco companies to back out of the baseball-card business, and candy and ice-cream manufacturers had the field to themselves, issuing such shabby yet appealing issues as the garishly colored strip cards and Frojoy’s grainy photo reproductions. The 1930s marked the end of the candy-caramel period and the beginning of the bubblegum phase, which lasted into the 1980s. The Goudey set of 1933 is the classic gum-card issue, its most prized card that of the retired Nap Lajoie, issued in limited numbers. That set was followed by another in 1934 featuring the “Lou Gehrig Says” subset of baseball tips. The four-player card of Pirates Paul Waner, brother Lloyd, Guy Bush, and Waite Hoyt had a piece of a much larger puzzle on the back. In the hobby this set has come to be known as the “4-in-1.”

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It is the cards of the 1950s that forever linked my generation with its baseball idols. Author Luke Salisbury called them “cardboard madeleines,” à la Proust. Even today, on the dark side of midlife, I cannot hold a 1952 Topps card like the Robin Roberts card shown here without feeling, in a sensual way, the heat of a Bronx sidewalk, the thrill of fanning the cards to see “who I got,” the taste of a Mission orange soda, the smell and peculiar feel of the pink slab of bubblegum, and the thrill of flipping my hard-earned prizes toward the wall of our apartment house, hoping to win my pal’s Jackie Robinson card. 

I learned how to read by studying the backs of those baseball cards, but I suspect my story isn’t that unusual. Baseball cards were tickets permitting entry into neighborhood society and the larger American culture for many other immigrant boys, too. The other, more important arena for which these cards proved a ticket of admission was the world of my own imagination; what a marvel of compactness these cards were—the visage of a hero, the chronicle of his heroics, perhaps a tidbit of odd information or an amusing cartoon, a team logo, an autograph–and all on a piece of cardboard you could hold in your hand! I have sometimes thought the curriculum vitae of millions of American men, the trail of their occupational records, might start not with that first job out of high school or college, but here, in a loving gaze at a baseball card on a sidewalk on a hot summer afternoon.

The second World War shut down the baseball-card industry, but it came back strong in 1948 when the Leaf Company issued a set of 168 cards. Son we had the classic painted Bowman set of 1951, and the remarkable Bowman set of 1955, which pictured players inside a TV screen, thus commemorating the stormy marriage between baseball and television broadcasting. (Dig that line “Color TV” on the brass plate!) Bowman was fading as a brand, unable to sign the up-and-coming stars to contracts, and this quirky set proved the company’s last. Aside from historical sets from Fleer and regional issues for wieners or ice cream or gasoline, Topps came to dominate the field. The Brooklyn-based company issued wonderful cards during its more than two decades of dominance, but the hobby of card collecting didn’t skyrocket until new brands brought innovation and competition.

Here we see a Donruss card from 1981 featuring Reggie Jackson, the first complete set since the early 1950s not to bear the name of Topps … and not to include gum. In the next decade card manufacturers such as Upper Deck began to apply new technologies: impressive gold stamping and 3-D designs and die-cutting abound; hologram cards which, held to the light just so, depict the player in action for three and a half seconds; a card with an actual speck of dirt from Cal Ripken’s infield; and, most amazingly, a set of cards that had the smell of that old, brittle bubblegum that blessed the wrappers of our youth.

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