The history of baseball cards is deeply intertwined with the story of American Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While baseball had been growing in popularity since the mid-1800s, the organized production and sale of baseball cards truly took off in the 1880s as immigrant Jewish families established themselves in the sports card business.
Many of the earliest baseball card companies in America were founded and run by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Families like the Eppsteins, Fleers, and Mendelsons got their start in the tobacco and confectionery industries before recognizing an opportunity in the new baseball card craze. Seeing a relatively untapped market, these entrepreneurial Jewish families began purchasing the rights to include baseball cards in their cigarette and candy products starting in the 1880s.
One of the first and most prolific early baseball card producers was the American Tobacco Company. Founded in 1890 and run by Jewish immigrant brothers Julius and M.J. Wertheimer, American Tobacco acquired the rights to include cards featuring star players from multiple teams in their most popular cigarette brands. This helped expose the sport to a much wider audience and fueled further interest in collecting cards.
By the turn of the 20th century, several other Jewish-owned firms like Goodwin & Company, Breisch-Williams, and Fleer were also major players in the nascent baseball card industry. Fleer, founded in 1913 by the Fleer family, became particularly influential. Under the leadership of brothers Frank and Ben Fleer, the company pioneered many production innovations that helped standardize the size and design of modern baseball cards.
Meanwhile, many Jewish families were operating baseball card shops and becoming heavily involved in the growing collector community. In the early 1900s, the “Jew baseball card dealer” became somewhat of a stereotype, as Jewish merchants across America’s cities established storefronts dedicated entirely to the buying and selling of cards. Prominent card shops run by Jewish dealers like Marty and Irv Kauffman helped develop the collector marketplace.
During this time, American Jews were still facing widespread discrimination and anti-Semitism. For many Jewish baseball card entrepreneurs, the growing popularity of their products helped them gain a foothold of acceptance in mainstream American society. Their businesses thrived by catering to the same new baseball fan culture that was embracing Jewish players who were starting to break into the major leagues in larger numbers.
Stars like Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish player to win an MVP award, became icons for young Jewish fans and collectors in the 1930s and 1940s. As more Jewish athletes made their way to the big leagues, their cards became highly coveted collectibles. Meanwhile, Jewish card companies like Fleer continued innovating the industry. In 1938, Fleer issued the first modern “gum” cards included in packages of chewing gum, a packaging concept still used today.
During World War II, many Jewish families operating baseball card companies faced new challenges as sons went off to fight. Some businesses had to be temporarily shut down or taken over by other relatives. The post-war economic boom and renewed interest in baseball as a national pastime once more fueled the card collecting hobby. Icons like Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in 1947, further expanded the appeal of the sport.
In the 1950s, Fleer reigned as the top brand, competing against rivals like Topps, which had been founded in 1938. Topps eventually gained the exclusive rights to Major League players in the late 1950s, crowning it the industry leader. Meanwhile, many Jewish families sold their baseball card companies or passed the businesses down to younger generations as they assimilated into wider American society.
By the 1960s, the “golden age” of baseball cards was well underway, driven largely by the Topps brand but still with some Jewish involvement. In 1964, the Koshers Card Company began producing the first kosher-certified baseball cards, aimed at Orthodox Jewish collectors. By the 1970s, the baseball card industry had consolidated such that Jewish ownership of major companies was largely a thing of the past.
Nonetheless, the pioneering contributions of early Jewish baseball card entrepreneurs cannot be overstated. By recognizing the business potential of combining America’s new pastimes of baseball and card collecting, immigrant Jewish families helped build multi-million dollar industries while also gaining acceptance and opportunity within wider society. Their innovations shaped the baseball card experience enjoyed by fans and collectors for generations to come. And through iconic Jewish players, their products also helped foster Jewish identity and pride during times of discrimination. The deep roots of American Jews in the history of baseball cards is a story truly intertwined with the American immigrant experience.