The history of baseball cards is a long and rich one that can be traced back to the late 19th century. As baseball became America’s pastime, collectors and fans alike sought novel ways to engage with their favorite players and teams aside from just attending games. This led to the advent of baseball cards as we know them today.

While some collectors point to tobacco products from the 1880s containing rudimentary images of baseball personalities as the first true prototypes of modern baseball cards, most consider the 1887-1889 Goodwin Champions set as the pioneering issue. Produced by the Goodwin sporting goods company out of New York, these were printed card sheets cut into individual cards that could be collected and organized by avid baseball enthusiasts. Players like Cap Anson, Jim O’Rourke and Edward Conley had their likenesses and stats featured.

In the following decade, tobacco companies like Allen & Ginter and Old Judge seized on the popularity of baseball by inserting illustrated baseball cards into their cigarettes and chewing tobacco products. Not only did this help promote their brands, but it served as an innovative form of marketing when baseball mania took the nation by storm. The iconic T206 series from American Tobacco is considered by collectors to be the greatest and most valuable set ever released due to its massive player selection and artistic renderings.

As the first half of the 20th century progressed, major companies like Topps, Bowman and Fleer came to dominate the production and distribution of baseball cards through wax packs sold at retail locations. New sets were issued annually, chronicling each season and providing updates to player stats. Beyond the numbers and photos, card designs gradually incorporated more vivid colors and intricate illustrations incorporating action shots. Icons like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays had especially popular and sought-after cards that still command high prices on the secondary market today.


In the post-World War 2 era, the popularity of baseball cards reached new heights as the American economy boomed. Kids flocked to candy and cigar stores, hoping to pull cards of their favorites and add to growing collections. Baseball card manufacturers expanded production and card sets grew larger and more elaborate with each passing year. Meanwhile, television coverage of Major League Baseball games helped fuel even more interest across generations.

By the late 1950s/early 1960s, an unprecedented wave of interest in collecting was taking place. Now considered the “golden age” by historians and aficionados, this period saw legions of Baby Boomer kids join the card collecting ranks and buy candy, gum and snacks specifically for the baseball cards packed inside. Sets like Topps’ hugely popular 1966issue are icons from this pinnacle period. Annual circulation had skyrocketed into the billions for companies like Topps.

As the social climate changed in America through the 1960s counterculture era, the direct marketing of cigarettes to children faced increasing scrutiny. 1968 proved to be the last year tobacco companies included baseball cards in packs before being forced to cease the practice. This opened the door for gum and candy brands to fill the void and associate their products more closely with card inserts. Bowman Gum cards carried on the tradition for years afterward.


By the early 1980s, the original post-war collectors were entering adulthood but nostalgia for their childhood hobbies remained strong. Those original junk wax era cards from the late ’70s/early ’80s that had been carelessly produced and thrown away in the billions were now being rediscovered and appreciated as artifacts from a bygone era by a new generation. Alongside inflation in prices for vintage pre-war cards already, this nostalgia factor helped spark a rebirth of interest in card collecting that persists today – now as a true mainstream hobby.

Documenting this rich cultural phenomenon and following its rise and evolution through the decades is the goal of the Baseball Card Documentary film project. Launched in 2020 by husband and wife filmmakers Mike and Jane Gottlieb, it seeks to tell the complete story of the baseball card industry from its inception to modern day and explore what the collectible cardboard relics mean to both avid players and casual fans alike. Spanning over 5 hours across 3 installments, the docuseries utilizes archival footage from the Paley Center and Library of Congress as well as interviews with over 150 people involved at every level of the hobby.

Prominent collectors, industry pioneers, team executives, players and historians provide perspectives on key developments and discuss the social impact of cards. Icons interviewed include Hall of Famers such as Davey Johnson, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson and Ozzie Smith in addition to influential creators like Topps co-founder Sy Berger and industry leaders like The Steiner Sports memorabilia company. Players from new generations such as Blake Snell lend their thoughts on how modern issues differ as well. Academics supply revealing historical context around card culture and its reflection of shifts in Americana throughout the decades.


Visually cinematic montages depict entire card sets while vintage and contemporary footage allow viewers to experience firsthand how the hobby felt during its Golden Age boom versus its rebirth in the 1980s speculative bubble. The movies comprehensively cover myriad factors like World War 2 cardboard rationing, the rise of serial numbers and autographs, expansion franchises, unlicensed competitors, variations and errors in print runs over the years. Nothing is left uncovered in delving into how the medium both documented and helped shape the baseball experience for millions worldwide through its simple but collectible cardboard packages.

Upon completion in 2022, the Baseball Card Documentary aims to be the definitive cinematic archive of the entire phenomenon in one accessible collection. By honoring its roots while examining its future in an increasingly digital marketplace, the movies seek to preserve the history and illustrate the enduring passion so many have felt through collecting these mementos of baseball’s greatest names across generations past and present. Whether a card completing a set brings joy or profit, the film pays tribute to how the pieces of cardboard became chronicles of America’s favorite pastime.

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