Celebrating America’s Pastime: The Early History of Baseball Cards

“Take me out to the ball game,

Take me out with the crowd;

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks....” 

-Take Me Out to the Ball Game, 1908


Baseball season is in full swing, and what better way to celebrate than to talk about the early history of baseball cards. James L. Gates Jr., Library Director at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, explains that baseball cards first appeared in the 19th century when companies inexpensively printed colorful cards to promote their products like shoes and tobacco.

Photos courtesy of Jim Gates

Photos courtesy of Jim Gates


 Gates says that experts differ on what constituted the first baseball card, but he considers those printed in the 1880s by dozens of tobacco companies as the first examples since they were “mass produced for the purpose of collecting.” Early cards were often lithographic prints instead of photographs. In 1911, Obak tobacco was the first company to include baseball statistics on the back of cards, and other companies quickly followed suit. But baseball cards weren’t the only cards printed at this time: birds of the world, stamps, and even cards featuring attractive women could turn up in a pack of tobacco.

 Jefferson R. Burdick (1900-1963), an avid collector who amassed 303,000 items of baseball ephemera now at the Metropolitan Museum, developed a popular classification system used by many collectors today: a letter representing the business that issued the card is paired with a number. For example, “T” cards represent 20th century tobacco companies, and “E” cards signal 20th century candy companies.

 Most cards from the 19th and 20th century were printed on cardboard to help stiffen up the packages of tobacco. In the early 20th century, other materials such as silk and leather were used for premium cards, which could be obtained by mailing coupons or proofs of purchase to the manufacturer.  Gates notes that after WWII, baseball card companies slipped special cards into the packs to increase sales.

 Baseball card scholar and collector Michael Peich explains that one of the most collectible sets is American Tobacco Company’s T206, aka, “The Monster:” 524 cards from 1909-1911. Some of the most valuable cards ever issued hail from the Monster, including the famous Honus Wagner card, which has fetched as high as $3.12 million at auction. Only 40-60 Wagner cards were printed before the shortstop stopped the American Tobacco Company from printing further cards featuring his likeness because he disapproved of marketing tobacco to children.

Photos of Cobb and Evers courtesy of Michael Peich

Photos of Cobb and Evers courtesy of Michael Peich

T206 Cobb red protrait .jpg

 When it comes to collecting, Peich recommends collecting what interests you, such as cards from a particular company or region. Older cards will be worth more since they are fewer of them. Usually the better the condition, the more valuable the card. However, Peich points out: “Some card sets are so scarce, like E222 (A. W. H. Caramels, Virginia League, 1910), that they are expensive in any condition, even lower grade exemplars that may have significant creasing. Remember, kids in 1911 weren’t concerned about the condition of their cards.”

 Fame or an unusual event such as a small print run, tends to make cards valuable. In March 2019, a 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card by Topps sold for $120,000 at auction. “The 1952 Topps set [the first to be issued by the company] is one of the most prized modern baseball card sets because it was such a departure from older sets and paved the way for the modern baseball card format,” Peich says. Mantle was a star that year, and Topps “constructed scarcity” of the cards. “There is even a legend—most likely untrue—that Topps’ founder, Sy Berger, threw a number of Mantle cards in the Hudson, thus making the cards scarcer,” Peich explains.

 Many baseball card collections are private, but great institutional baseball collections can be found at the Library of Congress, the University of Georgia, and the Met’s Jefferson Burdick collection. The Baseball Hall of Fame will be debuting a baseball card exhibit later this year called “Shoebox Treasures” that will explore America’s passion for baseball cards.

 Elisa Shoenberger is a researcher and writer. She has published articles and essays at the Boston Globe, the Rumpus, MuseumNext, and other outlets. She is a regular contributor to Book Riot and is the co-editor and co-founder of The Antelope: A Journal of Oral History and Mayhem.