Baseball cards have been an integral part of America’s pastime for over a century. Collecting baseball cards has brought joy to fans young and old for generations. While the modern baseball card game has evolved significantly since its inception in the late 1800s, cards from the early 20th century remain highly coveted and valuable. One of the most iconic vintage sets is the legendary 1887 N172 Old Judge tobacco card set. Containing a scarce 87 cards, this ultra-rare set from the earliest days of baseball cards is highly sought after by serious collectors.

Issued as promotional inserts in bags of Old Judge tobacco, the 1887 set was one of the first dedicated baseball card releases. Prior to 1887, baseball players occasionally appeared on tobacco cards mixed in with other non-sports personalities. The Old Judge set broke new ground by exclusively featuring professional ballplayers from that season. Produced by the American Tobacco Company, the cards were printed as a means to advertise their tobacco products and capitalize on America’s growing interest in the national pastime. Each card featured a black-and-white lithographed image of a ballplayer on the front with limited stats and information on the back.


Only a small number of the 1887 Old Judge set are known to still exist today, making unissued examples exceptionally rare. It’s estimated less than 50 full or nearly complete sets have survived in collectible condition over the past 135 years. The fragility of the thin paper stock and the natural deterioration that comes with age no doubt led to the loss of many cards. Those that do surface at auction or in private sales frequently set new records, with some individual cards fetching six figures due to their historical significance and scarceness. Top stars of the era like Cap Anson, Jim O’Rourke and Tim Keefe are among the most coveted in the set.

The precise roster of players featured in the 1887 Old Judge set has been debated, as records from that early period are incomplete. Most experts agree there were 87 total cards issued even if a few specific identities remain unknown. The set covered many of baseball’s earliest stars, showcasing talent from both the National League and American Association of that season. In addition to statistics and positions played, some cards included additional details such as nicknames, hometowns or previous year’s teams. The information provided, while basic by today’s standards, was groundbreaking for its time in celebrating these athletes as public figures beyond just the tobacco advertisement.


In terms of condition, obtaining a pristine 1887 Old Judge card in gem mint condition would be comparable to finding an undiscovered Rembrandt painting. The fragile paper stock and 136 years of exposure have taken their toll. Even well-kept examples from uncovered sets often grade no higher than good-very good due to inevitable signs of wear. Pricing for individual 1887 Old Judge cards is determined almost solely on condition with even lower graded pieces demanding five-figure sums. A single card receiving top grades like PSA 8 or SGC 80 could bring a winning bid in the millions of dollars at the right auction.

A few prominent auction highlights help illustrate the demand and value associated with this seminal set. In 2016, a PSA 2 Jim O’Rourke card sold for a record $657,250. In 2021, a PSA 5 Cap Anson realized $360,000 at auction. And perhaps most impressively, a nearly complete PSA 2.5 graded set (missing only two cards) achieved the staggering price of $3.12 million in 2021. With such astronomical prices, it’s clear serious collectors will pay almost any cost to obtain one of the rarest baseball card sets from the earliest days of the hobby. For those fortunate enough to have an unopened pack or complete set tucked away, it could represent a small fortune worth seven figures or more.


As interest and prices continue rising each year, it’s doubtful any complete 1887 N172 Old Judge set will ever come on the market. Those few that do surface are usually broken apart and the individual cards sold separately. Even incomplete partial sets in lower grades still sell for high five and low six figure sums. The historical and collecting significance of being among the first dedicated baseball cards almost 135 years ago ensures the 1887 Old Judge tobacco issue will always be regarded as the most coveted and valuable set from the earliest period of the hobby. While out of financial reach for most, its mystique and rarity make the Old Judge one of the most collectible cards sets in the history of sports memorabilia.

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