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The first year that Upper Deck baseball cards were produced was 1989. Prior to Upper Deck entering the baseball card market, Topps had essentially monopolized the production of new baseball cards each year since the 1950s. In the late 1980s two entrepreneurs named Richard McWilliam and David Beckett saw an opportunity to challenge Topps’ dominance by producing a new brand of higher quality baseball cards.

McWilliam and Beckett had both worked for a toy and game company in the past and recognized that while Topps dominated the baseball card market, they felt the company had become complacent and were no longer innovating or improving the quality of their card designs and production process. McWilliam and Beckett believed that a new company could come in and produce cards that were of a higher graphical standard using newer printing technologies. They also wanted to market the cards more towards older collectors rather than just children.

In 1986, McWilliam and Beckett started working on their plan to launch Upper Deck as a new brand of baseball cards. They scouted out printing plants around the world to find one capable of supporting their vision for a higher quality card product. They eventually settled on a plant in Finland that could produce photo-quality, glossy cards on thicker cardstock. McWilliam and Beckett also hired graphic designers to develop innovative card designs that showed more vibrant colors and captured action shots of players.

They knew raising start-up capital to launch a new baseball card company would be challenging given Topps domination of the market. However, McWilliam was successful in attracting early financial backing from his contacts in the toy and game industry. With roughly $1 million in initial funding, Upper Deck was incorporated in 1988 and began preparations for their highly anticipated first set of cards to be released in 1989.

For their debut 1989 set, Upper Deck signed multi-year exclusive contracts with several star players like Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, and Nolan Ryan to only appear in Upper Deck cards. This gave them huge marketing appeal and cache among collectors. Their cards featured state-of-the-art graphical designs printed on a high quality, thicker cardstock not seen before in the industry. Each pack contained only 12 cards yet cost $1, double the price of a Topps pack, but collectors didn’t seem to mind paying more for the upgraded product.

The 1989 Upper Deck release was a massive success, vastly exceeding even McWilliam and Beckett’s most optimistic projections. While Topps sold around 3.5 billion cards that year, Upper Deck produced only 110 million cards yet captured over 10% of the entire baseball card market. The brand attracted many lapsed adult collectors back to the hobby who were wowed by Upper Deck’s graphical innovations and premium feel. Star rookie cards like Ken Griffey Jr.’s skyrocketed in value, becoming some of the most coveted modern cards ever made.

This sudden success changed the landscape of the baseball card industry overnight. After decades of complacency, Topps was spurred to action to improve it’s own product to better compete. In subsequent years both companies engaged in intense bidding wars over player contracts. By the early 1990s, most star players had shifted to exclusive Upper Deck deals. Meanwhile, a slew of smaller competitors also jumped into the market trying to emulate Upper Deck’s formula.

While McWilliam had envisioned Upper Deck as a boutique brand operating on smaller sales volumes than Topps, their early dominance stunned even him. The company grew rapidly throughout the 1990s as demand remained high. Maintaining quality control on a vastly larger volume scale proved challenging. After a decade of leading innovation in the baseball card industry, Upper Deck’s market share began declining in the late 1990s and early 2000s amid quality and production issues.

Still, Upper Deck left an indelible mark. Their 1989 debut reignited collector passion and changed baseball card design, quality standards, and business practices forever. The brand attracted a whole generation of new collectors and keeps the hobby vibrant to this day. So while its glory years may have passed, Upper Deck deserves the distinction of revolutionizing the baseball card industry when it released its trailblazing inaugural set back in 1989, the first year Upper Deck baseball cards graced the collectibles market.


The earliest recognized form of baseball cards were printed in the late 1870s, however, they were not mass produced like modern baseball cards. In 1869, the American Publishing Company produced a set of cigarette trading cards called “Trade Cards” as promotional items inserted into tobacco products. These cards featured notable personalities and events from 1869 and included some early baseball players like George Wright and Harry Wright. They were more biographical in nature and not focused solely on baseball. Most historians credit the Tobacco Card era as the beginning of modern baseball cards given their mass production and distribution method of inserting cards in cigarette and tobacco products.

The first true baseball card set was produced in 1888 and was called the “Old Judge” cigarette card series issued by the American Tobacco Company. This set featured individual cards solely dedicated to baseball players in their uniforms. Some of the names included in that pioneering 88-card set were Jim O’Rourke, Cap Anson, Dan Brouthers, Hugh Duffy and Tim Keefe. The cards were printed on thick cardstock and measured about 2×3 inches. They featured individual players in action poses and helped promote the popularity of both baseball and the tobacco products the cards were included with. This marked the first time baseball players were featured specifically on individually dedicated trading cards inserted as premiums in tobacco products.

In 1890, Goodwin & Company produced another pioneering baseball card set called the “Allen & Ginter” series. Like the Old Judge cards, these cards were also included randomly in packs of cigarettes and featured color lithographed individual portraits of baseball players in uniforms. This colorful 86-card set helped baseball cards really take off in popularity as collectors began avidly seeking to complete sets. Some of the players included were Buck Ewing, Eddie Grant and Kid Nichols. In 1891, two additional tobacco manufacturers – Mayo Cut Plug and Peck Cigarettes – began producing their own baseball card sets as premiums to compete with Allen & Ginter in the emerging baseball card collecting hobby.

From the 1890s onwards, nearly every major tobacco manufacturer released annual or semi-annual baseball card sets as premiums to boost tobacco sales. This ushered in the golden age of tobacco era baseball cards which lasted up until the 1950s. Many early star players like Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb first appeared on cards during this time period. The inserts became highly anticipated by collectors every year. Some significant early 20th century issues included T206 (1909-1911), E90 (1911), M101-1 Thoroughbreds (1912), C50 Cabinets (1912), and Napolean Dynamite Cigarettes (1914). Production was suspended during World War 1 and World War 2, but picked back up each time.

In the postwar 1950s, baseball card production moved away from tobacco sets due to declining cigarette sales and health concerns. Topps gained control of the baseball card market and began annually issuing large wax-packed sets from 1952 onwards. These hit cards went beyond tobacco-era basreliefs and began including more statistic and baseball action photography. Although tobacco sets still had occasional niche issues, Topps became the dominant force. They established the modern baseball card format of annual wax-packed issues that remains essentially the same today. While tobacco cards kicked off the entire baseball memorabilia collecting hobby dating back to the late 1880s, Topps took it to new heights and kept it thriving for generations of young collectors.

The very first baseball cards emerged in the late 1870s and were loose-leaf premiumed inserts. The organized early sets widely recognized to have kicked off the modern baseball card collecting era were the 1888 Old Judge and 1890 Allen & Ginter tobacco issues. For over 50 golden years, tobacco manufacturers annually issued colorful illustrated baseball cards as premiums, becoming a beloved part of the national pastime. In the 1950s, Topps revolutionized the modern format and took over production, ensuring cards remained a crucial connecting point between the sport and its vast fanbase. Today, those pioneering tobacco cards remain some of the most prized possessions in the collections of both dealers and everyday fans alike.


The earliest recognized commercially produced baseball cards date back to the late 1800s. The oldest complete baseball card set known to exist is the 1887 N172 Old Judge tobacco card series produced by the American Tobacco Company. It is believed that some earlier prototype baseball cards may have been produced on an experimental basis in the 1870s as the baseball card collecting hobby began to take shape.

In the post-Civil War era of the late 1860s and 1870s, baseball was rapidly growing in popularity across America. Cigarettes and other tobacco products were also starting to become widely popular consumer items. Several enterprising tobacco manufacturers sensed an opportunity to gain new customers by marketing their products toward baseball fans. In 1868, the American Colored Tobacco Company reportedly issued a set of thirty-six promotional photo cards of baseball players. While no examples are known to survive today, contemporary newspaper advertisements make reference to this pioneering effort, which are considered by historians to be the first true baseball cards produced specifically for promotional purposes.

In the mid-1870s, tobacco companies experimented further with baseball-themed promotions. The Allen & Ginter Tobacco Company issued various test baseball cards as part of their larger series of carte de visite photograph cards distributed through their cigarette packages. A small number of rare examples featuring stars like Al Spalding and Cap Anson from this developmental period still exist today. These did not constitute a complete dedicated baseball card set and were produced on a limited trial basis rather than mass-marketed nationwide.

The first true nationally distributed complete baseball card set put forth as a premium offer was the 1887 N172 Old Judge issue from American Tobacco. This landmark 48-card series featured leading professional players from the National League and American Association of the late 1880s. Players depicted included stars like Hawley, Brouthers, Ewing, Rowe, and Kelly. Cards carried factual information like team, position, and batting average. Inserted in packs of Old Judge tobacco, these cardboard cards achieved instant popularity among young baseball fans of the time. The 1887 set is credited as the first to commercially standardize the format and concept that defined trading cards as they developed going forward.

Over subsequent years through the late 1880s and 1890s, tobacco companies competed fiercely to offer new and better baseball card promotions. Allen & Ginter followed Old Judge in 1888 with a popular 90-card series called “Golden Fleece.” In 1891, Goodwin & Co. unveiled a mammoth 400+ card set known as Carlisle Indian Industry Schools. Also in 1891, Britain’s Ogden’s Guerilla War Cigarettes distributed an unusual 35-card player portrait and portrait of team owner John B. Day series. In 1890, Mayo Cut Plug released one of the rarest and most iconic early issues, a 100-card Baltimore Orioles set featuring stars of the legendary mid-1890s “Oriole” dynasty teams. Production and insertions became more sophisticated, and additional information like player biographies started to be included on cards.

By the late 1890s, tobacco companies regularly inserted complete baseball card sets as premiums with their products, usually numbering around 100 cards. Notable famous issues from this era included the 1896-97 style Old Mill and Murad cigarette card sets. Many early series uniquely captured iconic players from the 1800s whose careers pre-dated photography, relying on illustrated lithography techniques which granted additional historical significance. After 1900, the baseball card collecting hobby exploded in popularity among youth, driving further expansions and innovation in the format as companies designed card promotions to appeal to increased numbers of young fans nationwide.

While crude prototype baseball cards may have been produced experimentally in the 1870s, the dawn of truly commercial mass-market baseball card issues intended purely as promotions occurred with the landmark 1887 N172 Old Judge tobacco card set. This seminal 48-card offering standardized the newly established format and concept that fundamentally defined the entire baseball cards collecting hobby as it developed rapidly through the early 1900s Golden Age and remains beloved worldwide today. Those original Old Judge cardboard cards thus represent where the tradition of baseball cards truly began on a commercial basis over 135 years ago.


The first year that Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. produced baseball cards as the standard for the collecting industry was in 1952. Before Topps entered the market, other chewing gum and candy companies had produced baseball cards as premiums and promotions to help drive sales of their products in the 1940s and very early 1950s. However, Topps is credited with beginning the modern age of baseball cards when they acquired the license from Bowman Gum in 1951 and dramatically increased production and distribution for the 1952 season.

Some key facts and details about the first Topps baseball card set from 1952:

Topps had recently gained the exclusive licensing rights for Major League Baseball players after outbidding Bowman Gum. This allowed Topps to use actual photos of the players on the cards rather than artist renditions.

The 1952 Topps set contained a total of 72 cards that featured players from both the American and National Leagues. The cards had a pink border with yellow writing and each card measured approximately 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches, which became the standard size for decades to come.

Production went from around 50 million cards in 1950 from Bowman to over 200 million cards for the 1952 Topps set, showing their commitment and resources to make baseball cards a mass-market product. Distribution included drug stores, candy shops, five-and-dime stores, and other retail locations.

Unlike previous issues that were just limited to team sets, Topps had players grouped together alphabetically by last name on the cards rather than by specific teams. This was done both for the collecting/organization aspect as well as to get players from multiple clubs on cards kids may not typically collect otherwise and spark additional interest.

While most cards featured a single current player, there were also rookie cards issued for players like Hank Aaron, Don Drysdale, Willie Mays, and Harvey Kuenn among others in their first Topps sets. These early cards of future Hall of Famers are now highly valuable to collectors.

The photography quality had improved significantly from prior card issues, with crisper images on a standard size that made the cards perfect for organization in albums. Photo selection was still evolving and not all cards included the player’s team uniform or team name.

On the back of each card was a lot of uniform and career statistics for the player such as batting average, home runs, RBI, career win-loss record for pitchers, etc. This statistical information was a big innovation to help fans learn more about the players.

While the 1952 set is not considered the most valuable overall, high-grade examples of stars like Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, and Whitey Ford have sold for well over $10,000 individually due to their significance as the first modern baseball cards.

The immense popularity of the 1952 Topps set established the company as the leader in the sports card industry going forward. They continued to sign exclusive deals and produce higher quality cards each year. Within a few short years, collecting Topps baseball cards had become a mainstream hobby for millions of American children and fans.

That original 1952 Topps baseball card set truly kicked off the entire baseball card collecting category as we now know it. The foundations they established like licensed player photos, uniform statistical info, and mass distribution methods served as the blueprint for Topps and other card companies for decades and helped transform baseball cards into both a storied part of the game’s history as well as a highly valuable collectibles category.

The inaugural 1952 Topps baseball card set was hugely significant as the first widely distributed modern issue to featured licensed MLB photos and standardized the size, design elements, and production quality that provided the framework for the entire sports collecting industry in subsequent years. While old examples can be quite rare and pricey today for the most valuable stars, the historical and cultural impact of that groundbreaking initial Topps set cannot be overstated in terms of how it popularized baseball cards as both a mainstream hobby and collectibles market.


The earliest known baseball cards date back to the late 19th century during the late 1860s and 1870s. Some of the earliest documented baseball cards were issued during this period by tobacco companies as promotional materials included in cigar and cigarette packs. These early baseball cards were not nearly as sophisticated or widespread as the mass-produced baseball cards that later became popular collectibles.

The first true set of modern baseball cards that could be considered the origin of baseball card collecting was released in 1869 by the American Card Company. This set included 29 different cards featuring individual lithographic print portraits of baseball players from that era. Each card featured a portrait photo or illustration of a player from the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, which was the first fully professional baseball team. This 1869 set helped popularize baseball and gave collectors their first opportunity to showcase and trade individual baseball player cards.

In the 1880s, several tobacco companies began including small pieces of card stock featuring baseball players in their tobacco products as promotional materials and premiums. Brands like Faro Cigarettes, Sweet Caporal Cigarettes, and Allen & Ginter included these rudimentary baseball cards in their cigars and cigarettes. Between 1886-1887, Allen & Ginter released their most notable early tobacco era baseball card sets featuring individual cards of over 100 different players. These sets helped make baseball card collecting a mainstream hobby.

The 1890s are considered the true beginning of modern baseball card production and mass popularity. In 1887, the American Tobacco Company acquired Allen & Ginter and began mass producing baseball cards as premiums inserted in their most well-known brands like Old Judge Tobacco and Sweet Caporal Cigarettes. Between 1891-1892, they issued their most iconic early tobacco era baseball card set featuring cards of over 400 different players, managers, and teams. Production ramped up in the 1890s as tobacco manufacturers flooded the market with baseball cards to drive new customers.

Collectors devoured these early 1890s tobacco era baseball cards featuring colorful illustrated lithographic portraits of their favorite players from teams like the Boston Beaneaters, Baltimore Orioles, and New York Giants. Trading and discussing players became a popular pastime. By the late 1890s, tobacco cards were inserted in nearly every pack and became a familiar childhood experience for many growing up during the sport’s rise. The tobacco era lasting until the 1910s cemented baseball card collecting as a national craze that captured America’s obsession with the growing game.

In 1909, tobacco advertising and premium cards came under threat of restrictive laws, which led manufacturers to reduce sizes and find new premium options. In 1912, the American Tobacco Company issued what are considered the final great tobacco era baseball card sets before production halted due to the increasing legal pressure and expense. Through the late 1910s and 1920s, baseball card production mostly ceased as the sport transitioned between eras.

Starting in 1933, the Goudey Gum Company launched their pioneering modern gum card era by including baseball cards as premiums with their chewy gum products. The 1933 Goudey baseball card set reinvigorated the market and became one of the most coveted vintage issues due to the iconic Hall of Famers featured like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx. Baseball card production continued rising due to their growing popularity as a mass-produced premium in gum, candy, scrapbook, and various kids’ products.

By the late 1930s, several additional competitors joined the market like Play Ball from Fleer and Bowman Gum. As World War 2 shortages hit, card production halted again. But it resumed in a major way in the post-war 1950s as companies boosted output to keep up with the increased demand from the era’s booming interest in cards, fueled by America’s growing focus on family entertainment and pastimes. The explosive growth in the 1950s ushered in the modern golden age of sets which still retains huge nostalgia and demand to this day among collectors.

The rise of the internet age and online collecting community since the 1990s has brought unprecedented interest in all eras of vintage baseball cards from the formative tobacco era through the post-war golden age. While the boom and bust cycles have altered the market, today’s massive collectibles industry owes its origins to those first innovative baseball card releases from the 1860s-1870s that helpedspark a national phenomenonintertwining America’s two great 20th century pastimes – baseball and collecting.


In the 1870s, baseball was rapidly growing in popularity in the United States. Entrepreneurs began printing trade cards, which were small cardboard pieces that advertised various products such as tobacco, food items, and other consumer goods. These trade cards often featured famous baseball players of the day on them in addition to advertisements. While not the earliest, the consensus is that a tobacco manufacturer named Goodwin & Company was the first to distribute baseball cards as part of their cigarette packages in 1869.

During the following decades, tobacco companies like Ogden, Sweet Caporal, and Old Judge became major producers of baseball cards included with their products. These early baseball cards served as advertisements and helped generate interest in both the players featured and the tobacco brands themselves. The tobacco cards linked baseball to a widely consumed product which helped promote both the sport and baseball stars to a vast American audience. For children especially, the cards offered access to collecting and learning about different ballplayers even if they couldn’t attend games.

In the 1880s, drug stores and general merchandise shops also started giving out or selling sets of baseball cards as premiums to draw in customers. One of the more famous early sets was called the Mayo Cut Plug Tobacco cards from 1891, which remains highly valued by collectors today. Through the 1890s, production and trading of baseball cards grew steadily along with the booming popularity of pro baseball leagues like the National League.

Into the early 1900s, tobacco brands continued to be central producers of baseball cards due to the cards marketing effectiveness. Companies like American Tobacco Company and Winfield Scott & Co. manufactured extensive baseball card sets distributed in cigarette and smokeless tobacco products. The 1909-1911 T206 set is particularly prized for being among the first cards to include gum or candy with them. Around this period, companies started instituting serial numbers and printing statistics on the backs of cards to provide even more player information to consumers.

The passage of child labor laws in the 1930s banned the distribution of trading cards in cigarette packages sold in many states, since the youth market was seen being exploited. This caused tobacco companies to cease most baseball card productions. The Great Depression also weakened the public interest in collecting. For several decades, few organized sets were released until the late 1950s when the Topps company revived production of modern era cards. The colorful photographs and statistics of the post-war Topps sets fueled an explosion in card collecting that remains vibrant today.

Baseball cards emerged in the late 19th century as promotional tools for tobacco and other consumer brands. Their growing popularity reflected the sport’s rising stature in American society. While tobacco companies were long the leading card producers, child labor law changes ended that dominance by the 1930s, though Topps resurrected the hobby in the post-WWII period. Early era tobacco cards remain exceedingly rare and sought after by collectors as part of our national pastime’s history.


The First Collector Series

The format and distribution model for modern sports cards was established in the late 1980s with the introduction of the Topps wax pack series and Donruss and Fleer soon following. These new issues were marketed directly to collectors rather than being included as incentives or prizes in other products. They featured player photography, statistics, and biographical information designed to appeal to an enthusiast audience rather than just kids opening packs for fun. The boom in popularity and rising valuations of vintage cards from the 1950s and 1960s fueled high demand.

Post First Series Expansion

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, card companies expanded output dramatically to try and capitalize. Sets grew larger with more parallels, inserts, and specialty cards. Brands like Upper Deck entered the market competing directly with the established Topps, Donruss and Fleer. Production quality rose with glossier stock, sharper photography and additional security measures like holograms to combat counterfeiting concerns as values increased. Card designs became more flashy and modern. The bubble soon burst as an oversaturation diluted the market.

During this period, the scope of sports portrayed also expanded greatly. Beyond the traditional baseball, basketball and football offerings, companies launched sets highlighting hockey, soccer, rugby, auto racing, golf, tennis and wrestling. Celebrity and non-sports sets featuring movies, music and pop culture became more prevalent as well trying to broaden the collecting audience. Some companies even branched into non-card collectibles like sticker albums, puzzles, figurines and video games.

Special Editions and Parallel Sets

Along with standard base sets, card companies launched a variety of special and parallel issues at higher print runs or longer production runs. Gold and silver parallels offered shinier foil versions of base cards. Refractors featured layers creating a rainbow sparkle effect. Autograph and memorabilia card inserts granted swatches of game-worn jerseys or signed stubs. Ultra premium prospects sets spotlighted top minor leaguers at the start of their careers before they made the majors. These high-end, limited edition releases helped companies generate extra revenue and sustained interest in the hobby throughout the year rather than just a short season.

Strategic Partnerships and Licensing Deals

In the 1990s and 2000s, card companies sought strategic licensing agreements to associate themselves with major sporting organizations, events and teams. Deals with the NFL, NBA and MLB granted top tier photoshoot access and official league marks. Partnerships with the MLB Draft each June and MLB All-Star Game boosted those sets. Agreements were also made with the Olympics, World Cup, UFC and NASCAR to diversify content. Manufacturers pursued individual team deals as well to produce specialized club-themed releases. These sponsorships boosted authenticity, improved brand visibility and enabled new experimental concepts.

New Insert Types and Parallels

Along with standard base sets and autograph/memorabilia inserts, card companies invented many novel insert types appealing to specific collector niches. ‘Rookie & Stars’ highlights young prospects alongside household names. ‘Hall of Fame’ salutes retired stars. ‘Parallels’ picture similar cards at different rarities. ‘Refractors’ and ‘Jersey Numbers’ utilize technological printing tricks. Rainbow foil,’Nebulas’ and ‘Galaxies’ parallels satisfy the premium market. ‘Retired Numbers’ pay tribute to legendary franchises. ‘Turn Back the Clock’ captures vintage uniforms. Insert sets within base issues add bonus cards and encourage pack searching. This slate of innovative inserts expanded in parallel with collector interests.

Major Authentication Advances

As values ascended and concerns grew over counterfeiting, card companies implemented stricter quality control and authentication measures. Early examples included holograms, seals, special inks and embedded codes. These could still be copied or removed. Around the late 1990s, trading card authentication services emerged like Beckett Authentication and PSA/BGS providing professional grading of condition and authenticity backed by guarantees. Cards receiving high grades from these authorities commanded significant premiums. Today, cutting-edge technology like digital matching, ink analysis, watermarking and embedded RFID chips have made counterfeiting near impossible, securing the value of premiere certified cards.

Modern Market Forces

In the internet age, online auction sites like eBay blossomed as a secondary marketplace for collectors to buy and sell cards to expand their collections. Websites emerged cataloging production details and tracking population reports and market values. Card shows and conventions dot the calendar where enthusiasts can meet, view displays and make direct trades. Mass grading services handle consignments from dealers and individual collectors for a fee, then market the certified pieces to eager buyers worldwide. Influential social media presences and Youtube breakers also impact trends and influence speculative demand cycles. Behind the scenes, PWCC and Goldin Auctions facilitate multimillion-dollar transactions of ultra-rare vintage cards.

As the hobby evolved, card companies had to innovate constantly to retain collectors amid evolving technology and shifting interests over decades. The First Series established the successful modern sports card business model which sustained growth through periods of expansion, collaboration, experimentation and market adaptations. Demand today remains robust across generations as collecting culture diversifies yet the roots can still be traced back to the early pioneer cardboard issues of the 1980s.


The Humble Beginnings of a Baseball Card Giant: Topps’ Inaugural Set in 1952

The Topps Company is synonymous with baseball cards today, having dominated the market for over 60 years. Their entry into the baseball card industry was humble, to say the least. In 1952, Topps released their first set of gum-backed baseball cards, featuring photos of players from the previous 1951 season. At the time, it was a relatively small endeavor for the Brooklyn-based confectionery company best known for producing Bazooka bubble gum. Little did they know it would become the foundation for a multi-billion dollar sports and entertainment empire.

Prior to 1952, the main producer of baseball cards was the Bowman Gum Company. The 1951 Bowman set would be their last, as rising production costs forced them out of the baseball card business. This opened the door for Topps, who saw an opportunity. Led by brothers Joel, Ira, and Arthur Shorin, Topps acquired the rights to players’ photos and team logos to produce their inaugural set. Unlike modern sets with hundreds of cards, the 1952 Topps set totaled a modest 111 cards. It introduced the now-familiar format of a gum-backed card protected by a thin piece of cardboard.

Included in the set were stars of the day like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson in his fifth season breaking baseball’s color barrier. Notable rookie cards included future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente in their first MLB seasons. The photos were black-and-white images supplied by various photographers, with players’ names and teams printed below. On the back, stats from the previous season were listed along with the Topps company information and copyright. While production values were basic, it captured the essence of what baseball card sets would become.

Distribution of the cards was also humble. Topps relied primarily on independent candy and tobacco shops to sell the packs of five cards each, along with a stick of Bazooka bubble gum. Major grocery and drug store chains were not involved at this early stage. The packs retailed for a modest 10 cents each, or two packs for a quarter. While sales figures are not precisely known, it is estimated Topps sold around 50 million packs in that first year, a respectable figure considering the fledgling nature of the enterprise.

What made the 1952 Topps set particularly notable in retrospect is how it captured the end of an era in major league baseball. Many of the players featured were in their late career years or would retire shortly after. Stars like Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and Warren Spahn only had a year or two left. The set was a snapshot of the last vestiges of the 1940s/early 50s before a new wave of talent emerged. Within a few short years, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, and Clemente would lead baseball into more modern times on the field and at the turnstiles.

While humble in scope, the 1952 Topps release proved there was a market for affordable sports cards to be distributed and collected by kids. It set the company on a path to dominate the baseball card industry for decades to come with bigger and better annual sets. The first year cards are highly coveted by collectors today, with gems like the Mantle and Clemente rookies fetching six-figure prices. Though a small start, Topps had laid the foundation to become a household name in sports and pop culture for generations of fans. Its first set may have been modest, but it began a legacy that would help shape our culture’s relationship with baseball.


The Origins of Baseball Cards

The earliest known baseball cards date back to the late 1860s, shortly after the Civil War. This was during the infancy of both professional baseball and the trading card industry. The first widely produced baseball cards came in the form of trade cards inserted in tobacco products.

In 1868, the American Tobacco Company began including lithographed trade cards featuring baseball players in their cigarette and chewing tobacco packages. These early baseball cards were printed as a promotional tool to help sell tobacco products. The cards featured individual player portraits with basic stats and biographical information printed on them. The production quality was rather crude compared to later baseball cards.

The following year in 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, considered the first fully professional baseball team, had their players featured on trade cards inserted in plug tobacco made by the Goodwin & Company tobacco manufacturer. These are considered the first authentic baseball cards focused solely on promoting a specific team.

In the 1870s, several tobacco brands started regularly including baseball trade cards in their products. Allen & Ginter was a leading tobacco manufacturer that issued some of the earliest notable baseball card sets. In 1886, they produced what is considered the first major baseball card set featuring over 100 individual player cards from both the National League and American Association.

These Allen & Ginter cards are prized by collectors today for their high-quality lithographic images and rich colors on thick cardstock. They helped popularize the new sport of professional baseball with consumers across America through their promotional baseball card inserts. Other tobacco brands like Old Judge and Sweet Caporal also issued baseball card sets during this early period.

The Golden Age of Baseball Cards

The late 1880s through the early 1900s is considered the Golden Age of baseball cards when tobacco companies churned out hundreds of new baseball cards each year featuring the biggest stars of the day. Major tobacco brands like Allen & Ginter, Goodwin & Company, and American Tobacco Company produced elaborate color lithographed sets on thick cardstock to promote their products.

In 1886, tobacco maker Buck Card issued what is considered the first mass-produced baseball card set. It featured over 400 individual cards inserted randomly in tobacco products. This helped establish the modern concept of trading and collecting baseball cards that could be found in cigarette and chewing tobacco packs.

In 1887, Goodwin & Company issued what is regarded as the first complete baseball card set with over 200 cards of players from the National League and American Association. This helped standardize the format of baseball card sets that would continue for decades.

By the 1890s, tobacco companies were producing baseball cards featuring the biggest stars of the era like Cap Anson, Cy Young, and Honus Wagner. The colorful lithographed images and ornate designs made these cards highly coveted by children and adults alike. They helped fuel the growing national passion for America’s pastime.

The tobacco industry’s dominance in producing baseball cards continued into the early 20th century as the sport’s popularity exploded across the nation. Major League teams started forming true farm systems to develop players on minor league affiliates. This led to an explosion of new baseball card issues featuring players from every level of professional and minor league ball.

In 1909, the American Tobacco Company issued what is considered the most significant early baseball card set – the iconic T206 series. Featuring over 500 different player cards inserted randomly in packs of cigarettes, it included the first known cards of legends like Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. The stunning color images and rarity of certain cards like the famous “Black Face” Honus Wagner made the T206 set one of the most coveted in the hobby.

The Golden Age established baseball cards as a mainstream collectible and an important part of the sport’s culture and history. It helped drive interest that would fuel Major League Baseball’s rise to becoming the national pastime throughout the 20th century.

The Rise of Modern Baseball Cards

In the 1930s and 1940s, the baseball card boom continued as tobacco companies issued elaborate new sets on a yearly basis. Goudey Gum Company became a major issuer of colorful bubble gum cards featuring the biggest MLB stars of the era. Their 1933 Goudey set included the first cards of legends like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx.

After World War II, the Bowman Gum Company became the dominant issuer of baseball cards included in their popular chewing gum packs. Their 1948 set featured the first cards of future Hall of Famers like Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams. Robinson’s inclusion was a landmark as he broke baseball’s color barrier that year.

In the 1950s, Topps Chewing Gum became the industry leader after acquiring the rights to produce cards from other companies. Their 1954 set is one of the most iconic in the modern era, featuring the likes of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Hoyt Wilhelm. Topps produced highly anticipated new sets each year through the decade.

The 1960s saw the rise of colorful action photos and creative design elements incorporated into the cardboard. Topps continued to lead annual issues but was challenged by Fleer and new entrant Leaf. The decade also saw the introduction of the first modern rookie cards for stars like Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, and Carl Yastrzemski.

This established the template for the baseball card industry that still exists today with annual set releases, rookie cards, and autograph and memorabilia inserts fueling demand. Baseball cards went mainstream and became an essential part of the sport’s culture, history, and fandom for generations of collectors. The origins of this phenomenon can be traced back to those earliest lithographed tobacco inserts from the late 1860s.


The First Year of Donruss Baseball Cards (1981)

In 1981, the Donruss company launched its first ever baseball card set, introducing itself as a new competitor in the baseball card market. At the time, Topps had long been the dominant brand producing annual baseball card sets for decades. Donruss saw an opportunity to challenge Topps’ monopoly and create an alternative for collectors. Their inaugural 1981 baseball card set helped usher in a new era of competition that would change the industry.

Donruss’ entry into the baseball card scene was not without challenges. Topps had the established distribution channels locked down with stores and retailers. However, Donruss was able to negotiate deals and get their cards onto shelves alongside Topps for the 1981 season. The set size and design also had to stand out to attract collectors’ attention away from Topps. Donruss went with a 660 card base set plus inserts to match Topps’ offering that year in terms of quantity.

On the design side, Donruss cards had a clean and simple look. The photography showed the players in action shots from the previous season. Perhaps the most notable design element was the team logo prominently displayed on a dark blue banner at the top of each card. This helped collectors easily identify each player’s team. Stats on the back of the cards were also kept straightforward. The aesthetic had more of a classic, traditional baseball feel compared to some of Topps’ more experimental designs in the early 1980s.

Distribution of the inaugural Donruss set was strong out of the gate. Many collectors, excited to try something new, eagerly sought out the rookie cards and stars from the upstart brand. Key rookie cards that hold value to this day include Fernando Valenzuela, Cal Ripken Jr., and Rickey Henderson. Stars of the era like Mike Schmidt and Nolan Ryan also received prominent card designs that captured the eye of collectors. The design simplicity allowed the photography and players to really stand out.

While the rookie class of ’81 helped drive initial interest, one of the biggest hits from the first Donruss set ended up being a card showing two players who never even played in the majors – Bill “Spaceman” Lee and Bill Lee. The card depicted the two pitching legends dressed in astronaut suits with a UFO in the background. Its whimsical nature connected with collectors’ sense of fun and humor. To this day, it remains one of the most iconic and sought-after cards from that inaugural Donruss release.

In the years since, the 1981 Donruss set has developed a strong cult following among vintage collectors. Its status as the original Donruss issue gives it desirable nostalgia and history. Key rookies like Ripken, Henderson, and Valenzuela that went on to Hall of Fame careers only add to its allure. The set is also notable for featuring future stars like Wade Boggs and Kirby Puckett in their true rookie cards before they made their major league debuts the following season. For collectors looking to start a vintage baseball card collection, a full or partial 1981 Donruss set in high grade remains a worthwhile investment.

While the 1981 Topps set still tends to overshadow Donruss’ first effort monetarily, for the impact it made on the hobby and its historic significance, the debut Donruss release holds a very important place in the timeline of the baseball card industry. It proved there was room in the market for competition and helped fuel an era of innovation, excitement and expanding popularity for the hobby in the following decades. For those achievements alone, the 1981 Donruss set deserves recognition as a true landmark release that changed the game. For collectors and fans of vintage cardboard, finding and enjoying the stars, designs and stories from that original Donruss set continues to be a thrill over 40 years later.