HISTORY OF BASEBALL CARDS COLLECTING

The history of baseball card collecting dates back to the late 19th century when cigarette and tobacco companies began including illustrated cards with pictures of professional baseball players in their products. These early forms of baseball cards helped promote both the tobacco brands and emerging superstars of the national pastime.

Some of the very earliest known baseball cards were inserted in packages of cigarette tobacco produced by the America Tobacco Company in 1874. It was the appearance of cards produced by the more prominent tobacco brands in the 1880s that are largely credited with popularizing baseball cards and beginning the hobby of collecting them.

In 1886, the Allen & Ginter tobacco company began inserting portrait cards of baseball players into their cigarette packs. Their cards featured photos on one side and brief biographies on the back. This innovation helped capture the interest of both smokers and the growing legion of baseball fans nationwide. Around the same time, the Peerless cigarette brand also began including baseball cards in their products.

The combination of attractive graphics featuring ballplayers, short bios with statistics, and wide availability through cigarette/tobacco purchases helped transform baseball cards from mere promotional inserts into highly collectible items. Young fans eagerly sought out the cards of their favorite ball club and players. Having the cards served as an inexpensive way to own a small piece of the game.

In 1888, the Goodwin & Company produced what is considered the first major set of baseball cards ever created. Containing 54 cards with photos and backs with player statistics, the Goodwin set helped established the template that would be followed by tobacco card issues for decades. Between the late 1880s through the early 1900s, cigarette brands like Sweet Caporal, Fatima, Cycle, and Old Judge produced hundreds of baseball cards as promotional incentives. During this time period, the tobacco cards were one of the primary ways for average fans, especially children, to learn about the players and rising stars of baseball’s early professional era.

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In 1909, tobacco manufacturer American Tobacco Company hired Benjamin Koufman to design a large set of baseball cards that became known as T206. Numbering over 500 unique cards produced between 1909-1911, the iconic T206 set featured intricate color portraits and biographical information on the rear. The large scope and visual appeal of the T206s made them hugely popular collector’s items even during the time they were first distributed. Many experts consider the rare and coveted T206 collection as the high point of tobacco era baseball cards.

After the breakup of the tobacco industry monopolies due to antitrust laws around 1911, fewer baseball cards appeared in cigarettes in subsequent years. While some occasional smaller sets were still issued, the so-called tobacco era ended as a dominant production source for baseball cards. The popularity of collecting the old cigarette cards only continued to grow throughout the 1920s-1930s. The tobacco cards, especially the famous T206 set, were already highly valued by collectors seeking specific players or rare variations.

In 1933, the depression-era Goudey Gum Company sought to fill the gap left by tobacco companies and capitalize on the growing collector demand by issuing their own modern set of baseball cards as premiums inside gum packs. The Goudey cards featured attractive color photos on both sides and marked the first true “modern” era of baseball cards. In subsequent years through the late 1930s, Goudey produced additional baseball sets that are recognized today as some of the most coveted vintage issues for collectors due to their high production quality.

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In the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, the baseball card collecting hobby truly exploded in popularity among America’s baby boomers. Bowman, Topps, and other companies began mass producing candy, bubble gum, and food premium cards on a scale never seen before. These flashy, colorful cardboard pieces suddenly seemed to be everywhere for youngsters. Star ballplayers of the day like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron appeared in their uniforms on the cards. The aggressive marketing and readily available distribution through grocery stores, pharmacies, and card shops allowed collectors to easily track current seasons and events through the latest card issues.

By the 1960s, card collecting had become a widespread pastime for countless American boys. Crowds would form outside stores eagerly awaiting new shipments of the latest baseball card releases. Meanwhile, young entrepreneurs set up businesses to buy and sell cards, assess their growing values, and publish hobby periodicals. The immense popularity through the 1950s-1960s era enshrined baseball cards as an all-American icon of summer, childlike enthusiasm, and the ever expanding business of baseball itself. Icons like 1954 Topps Mickey Mantle, 1957 Topps Willie Mays, and 1966 Topps Hank Aaron rookie are among the most coveted and valuable vintage cards due to their historical significance.

While production dipped somewhat in the 1970s with competition from other types of collectibles, baseball cards continued attracting legions of devoted collectors. The 1980s marked a boom period anointing the birth of the modern sports card collecting industry. High tech production, flashy photography, and insert cards of current superstars attracted many new collectors. Michael Jordan’s rookie card from 1984 Topps became one of the most iconic cards in any sport due to his tremendous sales impact on the basketball card market.

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By the late 1980s, the increasing speculation in certain vintage cardboard from the early decades caused values for many rare and sought-after old issues from T206, Goudey, and 1950s Topps to skyrocket. Stores popped up focused solely on the burgeoning card show and convention scene. Mintage numbers printed on packs helped collectors determine a card’s scarcity. While overproduction caused a bubble that eventually burst in the early 1990s, card collecting then entered a mature phase where condition sensitive collecting drove the high-end market.

Today, baseball cards remain a multi-billion dollar business powered by collectors young and old. Veteran players and stars, rookies, relic cards, autographs all drive interest in pursuing and trading today’s cardboard.Yet it is the pursuit and appreciation of the old tobacco and vintage issues from the dawn of the baseball card era that drives the highest prices and passion among dedicated collectors worldwide. Cards like the Honus Wagner T206 remain the holy grails that started it all over 130 years ago. The history of baseball cards represents the intersection of America’s pastimes of baseball and collecting that shows no signs of ending.

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