The History of Baseball Cards

The baseball card. A type of trading card most popular in the United States, Canada, Cuba, and Japan. The baseball card. Normally printed on some type of card stock, but sometimes lavishly printed on other types of materials such as cloth, and metal. The baseball card. A treasured piece of history and a most loved hobby.
The front of the card typically displays an image of the athlete with identifying information. This includes the player name and team. The reverse of most modern cards displays statistics and/or biographical information.

During the late 1860’s, when baseball increased in popularity and became a professional sport, trade cards featuring ball players began to appear. These were used by a variety of companies to promote their business, even if the products being advertised had no connection with baseball.

In 1868, Peck and Snyder, a sporting goods store in New York, began featuring baseball team cards. It was a great advertising tool for their company, seeing as they sold baseball equipment. The Peck and Snyder cards are sometimes considered the first official baseball cards.

One of the earliest baseball cards can date back to 1988. A “Godwin Champions” cigarette card of King Kelly. This also one of the earliest cards to use chromlithography to create multi colored images. Colored, but slightly dull.

Now, let’s fast forward a bit. In the early 1930s, production soared, starting with the 1932 US Caramel set. The popular 1933 Goudey Gum Co. issue, which included cards of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, best identifies this era. Compared to the economical designs common in earlier decades, this card set featured bright, hand-colored player photos on the front. The backs had brief biographies and personal information of the players, such as height, weight, and birthplace. The 240-card set, quite large for the time, included current players, former stars, and prominent minor leaguers. After 1941, cards would not be produced in any significant number until a few years after the end of WWII. Baseball card production resumed sometime in 1948 with Bowman Gum and Leaf Candy Company. Sometime later, Topps Gum Company emerged with their ‘Magic Photos’ set.
From 1948 to 1952, Bowman was the major producer of baseball cards. In 1952, Topps took the lead with the ‘1952 Topps’ set, which happened to have been the most sought after set after the war because of the scarcity of the Mickey Mantle card. Although it is not his rookie card (that honor belongs to his 1951 Bowman card), it is still considered the ultimate card to own of the post-war era. Topps and Bowman then competed for customers and for the rights to any baseball players’ likeness. Two-years later, Leaf stopped producing cards. In 1956, Topps bought out Bowman and enjoyed a largely unchallenged position in the US market for the next two decades.

In 1975, a whole load of drama blew out when Fleer sued Topps to break Topps monopoly on baseball cards; Fleer won. In 1981, Fleer and Donruss issued both with gum. An appeal of the Fleer lawsuit by Topps clarified that Topps’ exclusive rights only applied to cards sold with gum. Ay-ya-yay! After the appeal, Fleer and Donruss continued to produce cards issued without gum; Fleer included team logo stickers with their card packs, while Donruss introduced “Hall of Fame Diamond Kings” puzzles and included three puzzle pieces in each pack. In 1992, Topps’ gum and Fleer’s logo stickers were discontinued, with Donruss discontinuing the puzzle piece inserts the following year. In 1984, two monthly price guides came on the scene. Tuff Stuff and Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, published by Dr. James Beckett, attempted to track the approximate market value of several types of trading cards. Sadly, Beckett Baseball Card Monthly no longer exists on its own.
More collectors entered the hobby during the 1980s and as a result, manufacturers such as Score and Upper Deck entered the marketplace in 1988. Upper Deck introduced several new production methods including tamper-proof foil packaging, hologram-style logos, and higher quality card stock. In 1989, Upper Deck’s first set included the Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card. The card became highly sought-after until Griffey’s persistent injury troubles caused his performance level to decline.
Starting in 1997 with Upper Deck, companies began inserting cards with swatches of uniforms and pieces of game-used baseball equipment as part of a plan to generate interest. Card companies obtained all manner of memorabilia, from uniform jerseys and pants, to bats, gloves, caps, and even bases and defunct stadium seats to feed this new hobby demand.
The process and cost of multi-tiered printings, monthly set issues, licensing fees, and player-spokesman contracts made for a difficult market. Pinnacle Brands folded after 1998. Pacific, which acquired full licensing in 1994, ceased production in 2001. In 2005, Fleer went bankrupt and was bought out by Upper Deck, and Donruss lost the MLB license in 2006. The two companies remained were Topps and Upper Deck.
Topps and Upper Deck are the only two companies that have production licenses for baseball cards of major league players. In a move to expand their market influence, Upper Deck purchased the Fleer brand and the remnants of its production inventory. After purchasing Fleer, Upper Deck took over production of the remaining products that were slated to be released. Upper Deck continues to issue products with the Fleer name, while Topps continues to release Bowman and Bazooka card products.
Baseball cards have a pretty interesting and fiery past. It is pretty fascinating to see how our beloved hobby came about and it is entertaining to see how much struggle and competition was involved. Some of my favorite brands are no longer around, such as Pacific, or as I call them, “the Crown brand”. I am thankful that I am able to enjoy the cards that were produced ages ago. They hold so much history. So, here’s to you, the baseball card! For with out you, my life would be a little less colorful.


Filed under Baseball Cards

3 responses to “The History of Baseball Cards

  1. chemgod

    If you have the nesahk card, mail it to him and he’ll sign it for you. One of the best signers in the business.

  2. steve a

    I am looking for an informational site, that can clarify each year of Topps baseball card releases (with each series & what card they each contained). Is there such info. available ? I know the beckett annual guide is helpful, but I feel not 100% accurate.


  3. xyr0x

    Steve, Buy the “Yearly Beckett”.

    Nothing in the world is 100% accurate. Which is one thing we’ve all come to live with.

    The only accurate thing portraying baseball card’s besides the player in itself, is how much somebody is willing to pay for it in possession thereof. Thus not to forget its interesting history over corporate monopolies, hah hah.

    I’d not pay $400,000 for the 1909 T-208/10 Honus Wagner just to have it… as bragging rights; That’s for sure.

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