Baseball cards have travelled with the history of baseball. From the early beginnings of professional baseball in post-Civil War America to the rousing success of Major League Baseball in the last century, baseball cards have had a connected yet separate journey.
One way to measure the success of baseball cards is the emotional appeal. Many think fondly of passing down treasured cards from generation to generation, or the memory of their first minor find at a young age.
On the other hand, baseball cards have legitimate investment appeal. According to Forbes, the top 500 most valuable baseball cards have outperformed the S&P 500 over the last ten years. During the Great Recession, these baseball cards were a far more stable investment than the stock market. Of course, this does apply as much to your average set from 1991.
The history of baseball cards has humble beginnings with many ups and downs. We will take you through this adventure, starting with the 19th century in the early days of baseball.
The cards evolve with mass production as they are included with tobacco, chewing gum, and candy. With the reign of Topps in the 50, 60, and 70s, baseball cards took on larger interest.
There was the sudden boom of the 80s and 90s. The bubble burst almost as suddenly. That leaves us with today as the internet dominates.
Hold on tight, and join us as we talk about everything from grading services, the evaluation of rookie cards, the industry at its peak in the early 90s, and all the way to Topps Bunt app.
Early History: Peck and Snyder
During the mid-1800s, baseball was becoming more formalized. Simultaneously, photography became more common. Teams and players were photographed frequently. The earliest baseball cards would have been these individual photos.
These were the wild days of professional baseball. Professional teams would travel to different cities to play local amateur teams. The professionals would win by 50 runs or more. One record shows that the Buffalo Niagara’s won a game 209-10!
Baseball cards were also in their early days. The owners of Peck & Snyder Sporting Goods, Andrew Peck and Irving Snyder, created the first mass produced cards. The cards featured the Cincinnati Red Stockings, and they were sold with a variety of sporting goods.
Peck and Snyder sold cards with many different teams over the years. Today, the cards are extremely rare, and they can approach $75,000.
Photography and printing continued to develop as color printing became more affordable. Shortly after Peck and Snyder, tobacco companies began putting baseball cards in packs and pouches.
Most cards had a picture and name on the front with an advertisement on the back. Other cards functioned as playing cards functioning as traditional cards or to simulate a baseball game.
Baseball cards were on the rise. They could be found across the United States as well as in other areas around the Pacific and South America. As baseball grew as America’s pastime, baseball cards were also improving in number, quality, and areas covered.
Beginning of the 20th Century
From tobacco products, baseball cards moved into many other products. This included almost every type of candy. Tobacco and candy companies were the dominant producers of baseball cards in the early 1900s.
Breisch-Williams Company was a candy company based in Pennsylvania, and it produced the first major set of baseball cards of the century in 1903. Notably, Cracker Jacks began giving away baseball cards as prizes in 1913.
Tobacco companies produced some wonderfully beautiful cards that are heavily sought after today. A major component of this was that the American Tobacco Company was split up into several companies because it was a monopoly. The increased competition, diversified companies, and regional appeal helped tobacco companies produce more cards.
Another important set is the T206 White Border from 1909 produced by the American Tobacco Company. Cards were distributed for the next three years until the company was broken up. This is such an important set because it holds the famous Honus Wagner.
To put the rise of prices in cards into context, the 1911 T206 Honus Wagner was valued at $50 in 1933. It was the most expensive card at the time. In 2016 one of these cards sold for $3.12 million.
Baseball cards prior to 1914 (the start of WWI) have legitimate historical relevance for the United States. The Library of Congress even holds 2,100 cards from this time period as historical artifacts. There were major themes expressed by the cards.
Urbanization was a rapid movement. As a result of the deepening Industrial Revolution, everything changed from economics, social aspects, and politics. The growth of professional baseball showed this largely by which cities could produce, afford, and maintain successful teams. This is a major consideration today on what constitutes a major city.
Leisure increased during the industry boom, and baseball teams helped fill the void. Baseball revealed the major changes in weekends and holidays. Also, the history of tobacco can be observed by baseball cards. Finally, cards show an aspect of Civil Rights through the lack of black players on cards.
These factors culminate into early baseball cards being important historical artifacts.
WWI, The Great Depression, and WWII
In this period from 1914-1945, two world wars and the worst global economic collapse in world history severely hampered the production of baseball cards. America and the rest of the world were busy producing machinations of war and necessities. The USA lacked the labor, resources, and buying power for baseball cards during much of this period.
As the world became more globalized, the influence of foreign cards on the American market was somewhat apparent. Also, strip cards made an appearance, and statistics were beginning to show up on the backs of cards.
The most important set from this period is the 1933 Goudey. The 240-card set is one of the most sought after to this day because it contains so many incredible Hall of Famers such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
The set broke barriers. The cards were much more colorful than anything before it. Usually, cards from this era are more conservative. Furthermore, the backs of the cards featured biographies, as well as height, weight, and birthplace.
Customers were growing more accustomed to better cards. They began to expect a larger effort on the designs, and customers wanted some interesting information on the back too.
Topps Dominance in Baseball Cards
As Bowman began producing cards in 1948 and Topps followed in 1952, baseball cards moved into a new era.
The first real attempt by Topps in 1952 was a resounding success. The 1952 Topps set is still considered one of the best of all time, and it is the strongest set in the post-World War II time frame. The #311 Mickey Mantle is the most expensive card that was printed after WWII.
After a brief period of fierce competition over the rights to players’ likeness, Topps bought out Bowman in 1956. Topps would dominate the baseball cards market for the next 19 years. Topps had no national competition. Although there were many regional sets of major and minor league teams, Topps essentially had a monopoly.
Topps set a precedent with test issues that still stands today. The company would experiment with cards regarding designs, coins, poster, special effects like 3D, and a variety of other methods. This still stands today with Topps and other companies producing these one off issues across trading cards. The popularity and price for these amongst collectors is volatile.
The only significant challenge to Topps came from the Major League Baseball Players Association. While the MLBPA is deeply powerful today, the association was just getting started in 1967.
The MLBPA found that it could raise more funds by pooling advertising rights to appear on Coca Cola bottle caps. In the process, they found that Topps was not paying them adequately.
MLBPA executive Marvin Miller went to Joel Shorin, the president of Topps, to negotiate new contracts. Topps had every MLB player under a contract of five years. Thus, Shorin rejected Miller.
After some drama over a 5 year span, including a threat to sign the union with Fleer, Topps agreed to quadruple its fees to the players.
Fleer vs Topps
Gilbert Barclay Muslin, owner of the Fleer Corporation known as the creators of Double Bubble, started an anti-trust case against Topps in 1975. Although Fleer won the case in 1980, more suits followed as Fleer joined the baseball card business.
The lawsuits concluded in an out of court settlement in 1983. Topps retained the exclusive right to sell baseball cards with gum, while other companies could sell cards or other items. Some examples include Fleer’s stickers of team logos or the puzzle pieces sold by Donruss.
The Baseball Card Boom
The introduction of many more competitors in 1983 installed a new age of popularity for trading baseball cards.
Donruss rose as Topps major competitor, and their 1984 set is still popular today. Score entered in 1988 (later known as Pinnacle Brands).
Upper Deck entered soon after in 1989. Upper Deck was known for brand new methods including a general higher quality of stock, updated foil packaging, and different types of logos. They were able to raise their prices to 99 cents per pack.
Competition flourished, and the other brands began to pursue quality cards to sell at higher prices. An arms race ensued in the early 90s as the open market flourished, and the companies offered new types of cards with inserts and refractors. The early 90s were a craze for inserts and refractors because collectors could not get enough of them.
Upper Deck took this a step further. In 1997 the company took game worn jerseys of Ken Griffey Jr, Tony Gwynn, and Rey Ordonez, shredded the jerseys, and inserted them into cards. This practice has remained a controversial practice to this day.
The classic example of this practice is Upper Deck’s Babe Ruth card from the 500 Home Run Club. The set featured every 500 home run career player. Upper Deck purchased a cracked Babe Ruth Louisville Slugger bat at an auction for $23,000 in 1998. The company proceeded to shred the bat, and Upper Deck put a piece of the damaged bat in each of the Babe Ruth cards.
On the one side, collectors love the interesting move, how it spices up a card, and that the pieces of history revolutionize the card. On the other hand, people claim that it defaces the meaning of baseball cards. Overall, these inserts increase the value of a card, but not to the level of an autograph or valuable rookie.
Consolidation of the Market
Though the hobby was booming, the market became fierce because of the many businesses, rising licensing costs of players, and expectations of intricate cards.
After Pacific joined in 1994, the number of producers licensed by the MLB had peaked.
The competitors began to drop. Pinnacle Brands (aka Score) fell in 1998. Pacific folded in 2001. Fleer was bought out by Upper Deck following bankruptcy in 2005. Donruss failed to produce cards in 1999 and 2000, losing the MLB license altogether in 2006 due to the MLBPA.
The MLBPA thought that there were too many cards produced in the market, so they successfully cut down the producers. Once Donruss was cut out in 2006, only Topps and Upper Deck remained. Although, Upper Deck continued to produce under the Fleer name as well.
Finally, in 2009, MLB gave Topps the exclusive rights for MLB trading cards. Upper Deck was able to market the likeness of players in cards because of their contract with MLBPA, they cannot use team logos. This quickly went caput for Upper Deck.
In 2013, Topps extended an exclusivity contract through 2020 with MLB. To be thorough, the only shade of competition comes from an MLBPA contract with Panini Ltd. which allows them to produce cards without team logos.
This is common across sports. Upper Deck is exclusive with the NHL, while Panini dominates the NFL, NBA, and FIFA.
The last several decades have seen a strong Topps monopoly, the rise of competitors, their fall, and the full circle return of the dominance of Topps.
Having given a general history of the production of baseball cards, it is time to look through a few themes or ideas, such as rookie cards, pricing, marketplace, and design. These are integral to the history of baseball cards, and they each deserve their own short section.
Rookie Baseball Cards
Throughout the history of baseball cards, collectors have always craved rookie cards, but the craze really picked up in the early 1980s. It helped drive the general collecting boom.
A notable example is the Nolan Ryan rookie, or rookies. The rookies consist of four cards that are nearly identical. One was produced in Canada, one was distributed in Venezuela, another was part of a trading game, and the last is more traditional. This intrigue of four versions with similar claim as the ultimate rookie of Nolan Ryan helped produce a collecting frenzy. The cards are still chased today.
Upper Deck became known on the scene for the first Ken Griffey Jr. card. On Upper Deck’s first plunge into the market, the company featured him as number one in 1989. Ken Griffey Jr. was featured in a San Bernardino Spirit uniform as he had not played a single major league game.
While other companies faltered, Upper Deck made its name from this card alone. Despite the popularity, the card is common, and it is the most graded baseball card by PSA. 70,425 cards is the current count on the PSA website.
Upper Deck guaranteed that cards with bad cuts could be returned. Due to faulty cutting processes, Upper Deck was printing Ken Griffey sheets of only his rookie cards.
A major development in recent years has been the MLBPA’s treatment of rookie cards. Players have had rookie cards while they were in the minors. They would compete in the minors with rookie cards released for years sometimes, until they made their MLB debut.
Since 2006, the MLBPA has had regulations that players need to be part of a major league roster before the rookie card is released. Then, a rookie card logo is printed on the front of the card.
However, collectors continue to argue and debate. Some follow the regulations, while many others believe that the first card issued for a player while they are a prospect is their rookie card. The debate over what is considered a “true rookie” has, is, and will continue for some time.
A Look at Pricing Magazines (and later websites)
It is important to briefly note some of the infrastructure behind baseball cards. Evaluations and grading have their own history, and they have influenced trading baseball cards greatly.
In fact, many believe that the spread of information on pricing helped develop the hobby across the country. Pricing magazines deserve plenty of credit with spreading baseball card trading as major hobby because it gave more accurate information on an underground market.
Following the fall of the Topps monopoly, magazines that offered estimated evaluations of cards rose with the influx of new brands. These new brands of baseball cards complicated pricing.
In 1984 alone, Tuff Stuff and Beckett Baseball Card Monthly started. Tuff Stuff was formed by store owner Ernie White as a resource to acquire the difficult finds. After being sold from company to company, Tuff Stuff maintained its name while merging with Sports Cards Magazine in 2000. It still exists today with pricing and feature articles focusing on baseball, basketball, football, hockey, golf, and auto racing.
Beckett Media, founded in Bowling Green, Ohio by James Beckett, started as a statistic professor’s hobby as James Beckett produced some of the first guides for baseball cards. Since then, it has grown into a company with millions in revenue and nearly a hundred employees having expanded to a plethora of other services outside of baseball cards.
The company publishes online and in print, while also facilitating sales. Additionally, Beckett is an industry leader in authentication and grading, an industry estimated at over $500 million.
Speaking of authentication, PSA Cards is owned by Collectors Universe. Collectors Universe was founded in 1986, and it is a few times larger than Beckett Media. It is traded publicly on the Nasdaq. As with Beckett Media, the baseball card services are a subset of the larger company.
Beckett and PSA Cards remain the largest companies in baseball cards for grading and authentication, while pricing is determined by the free market.
Authentication from an authority has been crucial to the modern success of baseball cards. When people buy online or through a catalog, they do not have the ability to examine the card in person. Furthermore, when the value of the goods gets into the thousands, tens of thousands, and more, not everybody is expert enough to prevent a scam.
Thus, these services of pricing and authentication have truly bolstered the growth of baseball cards. Next, it is time to look at the markets that the pricing guides helped build and support.
The Baseball Card Marketplace
In the 1970s some collectors began to realize that the price of their cards was increasing. It was common for savvy collectors to travel around the country in order to track down private collections in homes.
Others started to notice the trend. More accurate pricing magazines appeared using effective sampling. The vanguard was James Beckett, and his new magazine reached a circulation of 1 million.
The 80s and 90s saw a major boom in baseball card trading. As mentioned above, there were several brands, stores devoted to cards were everywhere, and conventions were common. The retail prices of those cards soared.
However, to this day, the more valuable cards were produced prior to the 1980s golden age of trading. Many previously prized cards of the last few decades are not worth much. Pennies on the dollar.
Most cards from that era cannot be considered a solid investment. They are closer to gambling. It is truly the value of the top cards that have consistently done well.
It was a simple manner of supply and demand. Sure, your Ken Griffey Jr. rookie is a great card. But, lower grades are more sentimental than anything. For example, today, the desirable Ken Griffey Jr. rookie could go for 20 bucks at a decent grade of PSA 8.
A combination of player lockouts in professional sports, a general market correction, millions of collectors, and the many brands led to the burst of a bubble in the mid-1990s.
Beckett Media estimates that baseball card shops have dropped from 10,000 to 200, and the conventions have fallen off a cliff. This is explained by the internet and the growth of major retailers like Walmart and Target.
Overall, the business of baseball cards has diminished substantially since the peak of 1994 down to one fifth of that size. It is estimated that the sale of new cards has gone from 1 billion to 200 million.
The future of the business is focused on kids. In the 80s and 90s, children were driving the industry. Topps claims that their exclusivity rights will help children become more interested in the hobby. They believe that the many different brands in the 90s were confusing to children.
The fear is that the emotion of baseball cards is leaving, that the hobby is becoming more esoteric, and that $400 for a Topps Dynasty box is destroying the magic for a dollar pack.
This distinction will drive the future of the baseball card marketplace. It is yet to be seen on whether it will be purely an investment of ultra-expensive cards, a completely niche hobby, a strange gambling mentality, or if the hobby will maintain the interest of kids for decades to come.
Baseball Card Design
The design of baseball cards has largely stayed the same for a century: a picture of a player with some info on the back.
Yet, to enthusiasts, the artistic expression has grown, changed, and flourished over a hundred years.
Instead of describing pictures for you, check out this link: https://www.cardboardconnection.com/evolution-topps-baseball-cards-1951-2017 It shows a card from Topps from 1951 to 2017.
As you can see, baseball cards are a form of art. The golden age of differences, risks, and expression came in the 1980s and 1990s as each company had a variety of styles, striving to be the preeminent brand. Also, each of these brands (Topps, Donruss, Pinnacle, Upper Deck, Fleer) had a couple of subset brands. So, Fleer owned Ultra and Flair, Donruss owned Leaf and Studio, and so on.
Since the consolidation, the competition has stagnated. Topps remains alone, and particularly for the past few years, some critics claim that the design is losing its edge.
The Rise of the Internet
The rise of the internet in the last couple decades has had a massive influence on the baseball card hobby. Since the turn of the millennium, brick and mortar stores have closed in droves, and trading conventions are less common.
People have gradually come to trust the internet as a secure medium for transactions. Also, prices have been much better online.
Topps and Upper Deck have jumped onto this. They both have websites that require registration. Topps started eTopps which maintains cards at its website.
Topps also started Topps Bunt, which is a trading card app. The app quickly gained millions of users in dozens of countries. Cards are maintained online, allowing a digital collection to follow the user everywhere.
It is unclear if this is the new way of baseball cards. It might be another digital phase like many aspects of the internet that we have seen. Or, baseball cards could one day be entirely digital.
Chris Vaccaro, the Director of Digital Content, makes his case, “It is a picture on your phone. But books are read on phones. Movies are viewed on phones. Bank accounts are accessed on phones. Music is listened to through apps. The world is connected and functions through mobile devices, so to extend our deeply historic and physical brand into the digital world is where we need to be as a company.”
It is an interesting contention, and we will have to see.
Baseball Cards Today
Collecting baseball cards is here to stay for the near future. However, there are plenty of questions.
We must wonder if the rise of valuable cards will sustain itself. We must wonder if the hobby will become a stronger niche. We must wonder how the internet will continue to shape the way people collect baseball cards.
In the end, the journey of baseball cards is a very real part of the history of baseball, as well as the USA. It goes back many generations, and it will likely continue for many more. Prices, companies, and stores may be up in the air, but there will always be people trying to complete a set.