The history of baseball cards in Illinois dates back over 150 years. Some of the earliest baseball cards were produced in the late 1800s as a promotional item by tobacco companies based in Illinois like Allen & Ginter and Goodwin & Company. These pioneer baseball card companies were located in Chicago and helped popularize the new hobby of collecting baseball memorabilia.
Allen & Ginter is considered one of the first companies to mass-produce baseball cards as part of their tobacco products in the 1880s. Their cards featured early baseball stars like Cap Anson and Pud Galvin and helped drive interest in the growing sport of professional baseball. Goodwin & Company soon followed with their own baseball card offerings in the late 1880s and early 1890s. These early Illinois tobacco companies played a major role in creating the first baseball card sets and culture of collecting that still exists today.
In the early 20th century, several major baseball card companies had roots or operations in Illinois. In 1910, the American Tobacco Company began including baseball cards in its cigarette packs. While based in New York, American Tobacco had large printing facilities in Chicago that produced billions of tobacco era cards over the next few decades. In 1911, Chicago-based cigarette maker Piedmont also issued sets featuring stars like Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson.
Perhaps the most famous early 20th century baseball card company based in Illinois was the Chicago Card Company. Founded in Chicago in 1913, they issued sets under the brand names of T206, T207, and T208 that are among the most valuable and desirable vintage cards today. Chicago Card Company cards were included in packs of Sweet Caporal cigarettes and featured top players across multiple years. Their detailed illustrations and photography helped establish modern baseball card design.
In the post-war era of the 1940s-1960s, several iconic baseball card sets had Illinois connections. In 1948, Bowman Gum began including cards in packs at stores across the country. While based in New York, Bowman gum was manufactured in Illinois. Their 1948 set is one of the most valuable vintage issues. In the 1950s, Topps Chewing Gum Co. became the dominant baseball card maker. While Topps was East Coast based, they used a large printing plant in Illinois to produce the majority of their hugely popular sets from the late ’50s onward.
In the 1970s, two legendary Illinois natives made their mark on the baseball card industry. In Chicago, entrepreneur Joel Shorin founded the Sportfolio company in 1973. Sportfolio issued high quality sets that featured multiple cards per player with statistics and biographies on the back. The company was innovative in its card stock, printing, and focus on player stats. In the late 1970s, Gary Clemmons founded the Fleer corporation in Illinois. Fleer issued groundbreaking sets in 1981 and beyond that revived competition in the industry and featured modern glossy photography. Both Shorin and Clemmons helped drive the modern baseball card boom.
In more recent decades, several major Illinois companies have played a role in the baseball card industry. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Wrigley Company, best known for its gum and candies, issued popular card sets under the brand names of Big League Chew and Double Bubble. In the 2000s, Illinois-based Leaf Trading Cards emerged as a leader with high-end releases featuring rare autographs and memorabilia. Today, Illinois is home to a vibrant vintage and modern baseball card collecting scene. Stores and conventions across the state help fuel interest in the history and business of cards. The roots of the industry planted in Illinois over 130 years ago continue to influence collectors worldwide.
From the pioneering tobacco era sets of the 1880s to modern innovations, Illinois has played a major role in the rich history of baseball cards. Early companies in Chicago helped popularize the hobby, while later iconic brands produced some of the most valuable vintage and modern issues. The legacy of innovators like Joel Shorin and Gary Clemmons still impact the industry today. The Land of Lincoln has had an outsized influence on an American pastime of collecting the cards of our national sport.