History of Baseball Cards – Part 1: Tobacco Cards
By: Andrew Harner, Editor-in-Chief
One of the earliest and most influential developments that led to the current multi-million dollar sports card industry came about around 120 years ago as an advertising campaign.
When simple little cards depicting baseball players and other sportsmen and women were included in packs of cigarettes, a collecting phenomenon began.
The cards were used as a perk by companies for smokers to choose a certain brand of cigarette to smoke, but as time passed, they have indirectly created some of the most treasured collectibles in today’s world.
As smoking in the United States became more socially acceptable a little before 1910, the popularity of these cards increased dramatically. Hundreds of sets, not all just featuring baseball players, were being produced at this time. But a few stick out above the rest in today’s collecting world.
The first well-known set from this era was the Old Judge series.
Produced by the Goodwin and Company in New York, this large series was one of the first baseball card series ever produced.
With over 500 players from 40+ teams and over 3,500 known variations, the 1887-1890 Old Judge (N172) set is hailed as the biggest set ever produced.
Over 100 years later, Upper Deck re-introduced the Old Judge series in its 2005 UD Origins product as a 200-card insert set.
In 1888, the Allen and Ginter Cigarette Company produced two 50 card sets of “The World’s Champions” which included a total of 16 baseball players (most notably Cap Anson and Charles Cominsky).
The set was redesigned by Topps 118 years later with its release of 2006 Topps Allen and Ginter. The set went over so well that it also became a best-selling set in 2007 and may continue on for many years.
From 1910 to 1911, the Turkey Red, Fez, and Old Mill companies offered full-color Cabinet cards via mail-in coupons.
The set consisted of a 50-card baseball series in early 1910, a 25-card boxer series in late 1910, and another 50-card baseball series in 1911. The most famous card from the series is Ty Cobb which is valued at around $25,000.
Just like Allen and Ginter, Topps brought this set design back some 95 years after its initial release.
In 2005, Topps produced the first installment of Turkey Red with 315 cards complete with variations just like the originals.
The set continued numerically in 2006 to card 630. The set was identical in design and checklist composition as the 2005 version.
But, in 2007, Topps decided to scrap the living set and start over with a new design. The plans for the 2008 release have not been publicly announced.
Over the three years, the Allen and Ginter and Turkey Red sets have been two of the most anticipated releases and very powerful sellers in today’s market.
But while those early tobacco sets were very instrumental in getting the sports card industry off the ground, today’s collectors are most likely to associate the era with the T205 and T206 sets from 1909-1911.
T205 and T206
The American Tobacco Company of America issued a 525-card set in 1909 that quickly became the most popular set of the tobacco era: 1909 T206 White Borders.
The mini-sized cards were included in packs of cigarettes and the set includes the most famous trading card in history: The Honus Wagner.
Many different advertising backs and photo variants also add to the allure and value of this set.
Two years later, the same company produced a 208-card, gold bordered set that is designated as the T205.
This set is far less popular than the T206, but it is still an important issue from the era. The sets has many variants just as the T206 set does, but has far fewer well-known cards and no cards valued over $10,000.
Just as the previously mentioned tobacco sets, these cards were eventually redone by a modern company.
In 2002, Topps introduced three different series’ of Topps 206. The 456-card set featured the T206 design but on standard sized cards. Topps did include reprinted versions of the most famous T206 cards as well as several variations. Topps 206 also had a mini parallel that were similar in size to the original T206s.
The next year, Topps 205 was released based on the design of the T205 set. The 335-card set didn’t include any legends but did have its fair share of variations. Topps 205 also had a mini parallel that were similar in size to the original T205s.
Even without these reprinted sets to remind collectors of the past, tobacco cards still would have a very high demand.
The eye appeal on these cards is amazing, even if the copy is in poor shape. The artistic talents that went into these cards were phenomenal. The fact that these are mostly in full-color really adds to their appeal because many other cards from the era were done in black and white.
The number of variations found in most of these sets also gives collectors a challenge. And one of the major points about set building is “Is the set challenging to complete?” Tobacco sets answer that question with a yes. It is nearly impossible for one single collector to complete a master set, but it surely makes for a good (yet expensive) challenge.
The player selection for these sets features some of the greatest stars in the history of baseball. Players like Cobb, Wagner, Johnson, Mathewson, and Young can all be found in these sets.
The rarity of these cards combined with an increased demand for them has also driven up the values. Some variations are so rare that there are still new ones being discovered today.
Sadly, the scarcity of these cards (as with any rare cards) has lead to a certain amount of counterfeiting and reprinting. A blog appeared on Beckett this year where the story of a sad customer who thought he had an original Wagner card was shared.
And while that Wagner card sells for millions, common cards from the set can be had for around $15-$20 on eBay. Because of this, there is a certain amount of collectibility for these cards among even the smallest of card collecting budgets.
Do you have a collection of tobacco cards? Do you simply have one valuable tobacco card? Leave us a comment and share your story.
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