Brooklyn Boro

He’s (on) a card

April 24, 2023 William A. Gralnick
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Remember the expression about being a card? It meant a person was exceptionally witty, quick-witted, and funny. Although this article is about cards, it isn’t about funny people. This article is about baseball cards.

For several years now, I’ve been writing about baseball players. Many of those chosen have come from following Pinterest’s catalogs of ballplayers. I was always interested in the players. Up until now, I’d never thought about the cards themselves. When did they start? They didn’t begin with Topps’ packages of cards and the awful gum that came with them. So, I asked myself, what’s it all about, Billy? Here’s what I found.

If you grew up after the Second World War, you grew up in the Golden Age of baseball cards. Some of you became serious collectors, particularly of autographed cards, some worth a fortune. They were worth a fortune and a half if they were in mint condition. The much sought-after 1939 Ted Williams card will go for over half a million dollars! The Robb Report estimated that the 1939 Ruth card will go for $5.2 million, making it the most expensive card ever. Ruth’s 1919 card held the previous record of slightly over $4 million. 

For us non-collectors, we traded them and pseudo-gambled with them. Flipping cards, winner takes all, was an obsession. So was sailing them up to a wall. The closest one won; a leaner took everything. This raises the question, what if you were born earlier than the end of the war, a lot earlier? Had you no cards to play with? Of course, you did, except during the war. During that time, there were no cards made because of the war effort. Things deemed frivolous were deemed not necessary.

As the iconic voice of Werner Wolf would say, “Let’s go to the tape,” my not-so-iconic voice says, “Let’s go to the web.” The first baseball cards had nothing to do with gum. If you think hard, you can probably guess in what industry they were first found. Answer is…?–  the tobacco industry. The first recorded baseball cards, as we know them, appeared on a pack of Allen & Gintner cigarettes in the1860’s. They were “loss leaders,” advertisements featuring the famous players of the day. Cards became a “thing,” and other tobacco companies and other companies’ products began producing them. In the 1880s, Goodwin and Company started their own line of cards on two of their brands of tobacco products.The idea exploded in 1909 when the American Tobacco Company started its own series of cards. Called the T-206, the set featured one of the most sought-after cards in today’s collector’s market, the one of Honus Wagner. Wikipedia reports, “in November of 2010, a group of nuns from Baltimore sold a Wagner card of $262,000 at auction to a sporting card store owner.

It is an interesting aside as to why the card is such a treasure. For reasons, historians aren’t quite sure of—not getting enough money for the endorsement, not being comfortable hawking cigarettes—Wagner canceled his contract. No more cards with his name on them would be produced. Scarcity and cost go together. It goes the other way too. Gintner produced 500 different player cards with some 3,000 variations. These cards have little value.

There has long been an argument about what cards were the first actual baseball cards. Keith Oberman puts it this way, “The nit-picking part here is that the definition of a baseball card has always been a card or similar item depicting a player on a team.” (The object was) to help sell another product. As late as 1980, there weren’t many cards made just for the sake of making them.” They were means of advertising, they were stiffeners in the packs of cigarettes, they were sold with taffy, they were found in boxes of cornflakes, they doubled as tickets, and most recently, they were used to raise one particular manufacturer’s bubble gum above all others. Can you guess which…? 

According to Vintage Baseball, the first Golden Era of baseball cards as we know them began in 1909. Both World Wars virtually killed the industry; and then came Topps.

From Topps’ own website, we learn this: Brooklyn entrepreneur Morris Shorin’s four sons—Abram, Ira, Joseph and Philip— revived the family’s struggling tobacco-distribution business by creating Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. They borrowed the now-famous Topps moniker from a small Chattanooga candy company of the same name they had bought. The name neatly doubles as their goal to be “tops” in selling penny-apiece tabs of gum called “change-makers.”

In 1949 Topps staked its first claim in American hobbyist culture with 252 Magic Photo Cards (images magically appear when blank 7/8″ x 1 3/8″ cards are moistened and exposed to light), which were freebies inside packs of gum. Among sports stars of the day are 19 baseball greats, including Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, and Cy Young.

The next year, 1950, fictional cowboy Hopalong Cassidy—popularized in books, radio, TV and movies—is the lone star for Topps’ first in a pantheon of popular culture card sets. They gave kids cardboard collectibles of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Mars Attacks!, Star Wars, Pokémon, Garbage Pail Kids and Desert Storm, as well as Wacky Packages and other sticker products.

Steaming right along, by 1951 Topps became a permanent fixture in America’s most popular sport of the day by releasing its first series of baseball cards. The so-called Blue Backs and Red Backs had 52 cards in separate sets, or decks. These were designed to let kids play a game of card-baseball. Along with a photo and bio of a player, each 2″ x 2 5/8″ card had an at-bat result, such as “single,” “double,” “fly out,” and so on. Although unique among subsequent Topps sets—and packed with taffy, not bubblegum—these historic cards established the company as the leader in the upstart baseball card game.

In 1952 Topps created its first annual set of baseball cards. It ushered in what Topps called an everlasting love affair between the company and collectors. The set featured 407 cards, each measuring 2 5/8″ x 3 3/4″. Released throughout the year in six series, they became a sensation. Topps salesman turned executive Sy Berger at his kitchen table, in Brooklyn, Sy Berger designed the standard-setting cards—the first with team logos and simulated player autographs on the fronts and bios and stats on the back. Unlike today’s computer-aided designers, he uses a ruler and scissors to cut out pieces of cardboard to mock up prototypes. Kids clamored for wax packs containing six cards and a slab of bubblegum for a nickel. 

What is the end of this story? What started as an advertising tool to sell baseball equipment has become a multi-million dollar industry that peaked in August 2022 with the record sale of a 1952 Micky Mantle Baseball card for $12.6 million. 

‘sure wish my mom hadn’t thrown all those cards out when I went off to college.


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