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.

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