Baseball Cards

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Baseball Cards

Bought and traded by the youth of America who wanted to see their favorite players and exchange the cards with other young fans, baseball cards were a symbol of bubble gum hero worship and youthful innocence during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. Serious collectibles only since about 1975, baseball card collecting has turned into a multimillion-dollar business, a transformation to commercial and financial enterprise.

The first baseball cards were a far cry from the high-tech, colorful prints of today. The Old Judge Company issued the first series of cards in 1887. They were distributed in cigarette packages and consisted of player photographs mounted on stiff cardboard. Those "Old Judges," produced until 1890, are treasured parts of many current collections. Included in those sets was one of the most valuable cards in the history of collecting—the Honus Wagner baseball card. According to legend, Wagner, a nonsmoker, was irate when he discovered his picture being used to promote smoking. As a result, he ordered his likeness removed from the set. Today, it appears there are no more than twenty-five Wagner cards in existence, each worth nearly one hundred thousand dollars.

By the 1920s, tobacco companies had given way to gum and confectionery enterprises as the prime distributors of baseball cards. Goudey Gum Company, a leading baseball card manufacturer, issued sets of baseball cards from 1933 to 1941. Goudey's attractive designs, with full-color line drawings on thick card stock, greatly influenced other cards issued during that era. Some of the most attractive and collectible cards were released in the two decades preceding World War II.

The war brought an abrupt end to the manufacture and collection of baseball cards because of the serious shortages of paper and rubber. Production was renewed in 1948 when the Bowman Gum Company issued a set of black-and-white prints with one card and one slab of gum in every penny pack. That same year, the Leaf Company of Chicago issued a set of colorized picture cards with bubble gum. Then in 1951, Topps Gum Company began issuing cards and became the undisputed leader in the manufacture of baseball cards, dominating the market for the next three decades. The Topps 1952 series set the standard for baseball cards by printing individual statistics, personal information, team logos, and large, clear, color pictures. There were continuing legal squabbles over who held the rights to players' pictures. With competition fierce during the 1950s, Topps finally bought out the Bowman Company.

It was not until the mid-1970s that the card collecting business began in earnest. One card collector stated that in 1972, there were only about ten card dealers in the New York area who would meet on Friday nights. No money ever changed hands—it was strictly trading. But several years later, the hobby began to grow. As more and more people began buying old cards, probably as a link to their youth, prices rose, and small trading meetings turned into major baseball card conventions at hotels and conference centers. By the end of the twentieth century, there are baseball card conventions, shows, and flea markets in nearly all major cities.

In the 1980s, various court decisions paved the way for other companies to challenge Topps's virtual monopoly. Fleer, Donruss, and Upper Deck issued attractive and colorful cards during the 1980s, although bubble gum was discarded as part of that package. In the 1990s, other companies followed: Leaf, Studio, Ultra, Stadium Club, Bowman, and Pinnacle. With competition fierce, these companies began offering "inserts" or special cards that would be issued as limited editions in order to keep their prices high for collectors. However, these special sets began driving many single-player collectors out of the hobby. Average prices of cards were rising to unprecedented heights while the number of cards per pack was dropping.

—David E. Woodard

Further Reading:

Beckett, James. The Official 1999 Price Guide to Baseball Cards. 18th ed. New York, Ballantine Publishing, House of Collectibles, 1998.

Green, Paul. The Complete Price Guide to Baseball Cards Worth Collecting. Lincolnwood, Illinois, NTC/Contemporary Publishing, 1994.

Larsen, Mark. Complete Guide to Baseball Memorabilia. 3rd ed. Iola, Wisconsin, Krause Publications, 1996.

Lemke, Bob, and Robert Lemke, eds. 1999 Standard Catalogue of Baseball Cards. 8th ed. Iola, Wisconsin, Krause Publishers, 1998.

Pearlman, Dan. Collecting Baseball Cards: How to Buy Them, Store Them, Trade Them, and Keep Track of Their Value as Investments. 3rd ed. Chicago, Bonus Books, 1991.

Thorn, John, and Pete Palmer, eds. Total Baseball. 2nd ed. New York, Warner Books, 1991.