Autograph June 2010

1869 Peck & Snyder Cincinnati Red Stockings card, considered the first baseball card, found in a box by an antique dealer. While not unique, these cards are extremely rare. This card sold in for over $75,000 in a Memory Lane, Inc. auction in February 2009. Photo courtesy PSA.

Baseball cards have become part of American tradition and folklore. For autograph collectors, it’s hard to imagine a more compact or attractive way to capture player’s signatures. Even Forbes documents the value of the Top Ten Baseball cards.It was generally believed that baseball cards were first issued in 1887 by a few of the existing tobacco companies. However, in 2008, a lady in Fresno, Calif., Bernice Gallego, set the record straight.

In late December 2008, Bernice Gallego, who along with her husband Al, operated an antique store in the Tower District of Fresno, dug into a box and pulled out a card. Looking at it, the card read “Red Stocking B.B. Club of Cincinnati.” She put the card on eBay with a $10 price tag, deciding against a $15 price tag because it would have cost her twenty more cents. After getting a few inquires on the first day of posting about the authenticity of the card, she figured she might have more than just your average card.

Gallego had the card inspected by PSA, and it turned out to be an 1869 card of the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The card is thought to be one of the first baseball cards ever.

In 1887, a New York company, Goodwin & Company issued the N172 series in Old Judge and Gypsy Queen cigarette packs. More than 500 players are pictured, and as some players were pictured in several poses, nearly 3500 different variations are known to exist. This set was issued between 1887-1890, as were other sets issued by other tobacco companies, notably Allen & Ginter. Cards issued in that time period were usually quite small, sometimes as small as 1 ½ x 2 ¾ inches.

1888 Allen & Ginter N28, Adrian C. Anson card. Photo courtesy PSA/DNA.

It should also be noted that one company, Green and Blackwell (G & B) of New York, included chewing gum with their baseball cards, the first time that idea had been implemented.

Not much happened on the baseball card front until the years 1909-1915. During that period baseball cards became very popular, and were issued by such diverse companies as tobacco, candy, and bread manufacturers, as well as sports magazines.

During this time the American Tobacco Company issued the famous T206 set from 1909-1911. Of course, the Honus Wagner card, the jewel of baseball card collectors is included in this set. Again, some players, such as Ty Cobb, are depicted on several cards with different poses. Other tobacco companies, such as Ramly, Hassan and Mecca, also issued cards, as did candy manufacturers such as American Caramel, Cracker Jack, and Zeenut candy.

In most cases, the cards would be included with the product, but not always. One exception was the set of cards issued by Sporting Life magazine, which could only be ordered by mail.

During the 1930s there were many card sets, primarily issued by gum companies. The Goudey Gum Company issued cards from 1933-1941, and the Bowman Gum Company issued the Play Ball sets in the late ’30s and early ’40s. During that time, and even as late as the 1960s, Exhibit cards were prominent and were very distinctive, printed in black and white on thick card stock.

The 1932 U.S. Caramel company issued a set, which could then be exchanged for a free baseball or glove. It was not until the 1980s that card No. 16, Lindy Lindstrom, was discovered—only two such cards are known to exist today.

Leaf, another gum company, issued a card set in 1948, and Topps produced its first sets in 1951. Topps has been producing cards ever since. During the 1950s the two major issuers of cards were Topps and Bowman. However, other companies such as Red Man Chewing Tobacco, Mother’s Cookies, Wheaties Cereal, Wilson Weiners, Esskay Meats, and Red Heart Dog Food, among many others, all issued cards. In 1955 the Topps Company bought out Bowman, and through 1980 dominated the card market. Other companies such as Post Cereal, Jello, Hostess, Kahn’s Weiners, Milk Duds, and Hire’s Root Beer issued cards, but did not match Topps’ popularity. Finally, the Fleer Corporation slowly began to make a dent in the Topps domination.

American Tobacco T-206 Ty Cobb card. Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions.

After Topps bought out Bowman it was the only company issuing major league baseball card sets from 1956 through 1980. It was quite successful in signing virtually every major league player to an exclusive contract, and only companies promoting products such as cereal, meat products, and soda were able to fall outside the exclusive Topps agreement, and promote baseball cards. For the next couple of decades, manufacturers such as Fleer tried to get around the Topps agreement with players, but to no avail. Finally, after court decisions in 1980 and 1981, Fleer and Donruss could issue cards, but not with gum. Fleer issued cards with team logo stickers, and Donruss issued cards with puzzle pieces.

Topps has successfully produced variations of baseball cards, such as with special inserts, baseball coins, and posters. It has also been successful in distributing other sports cards, as well as sets of non-sports issues, such as of astronauts and presidents.

The Fleer Corporation started in 1914, and ironically, in 1928 one of its employees Walter Diemer invented bubble gum. The first bubble gum was called Dubble Bubble. When it was first made, the only food coloring at the plant was pink, and therefore, at first, bubble gum was pink.

Through the years Fleer issued various types of cards, such as of movie stars, the Three Stooges, Hogan’s Heroes, and football and basketball players. In 1959 it produced its first set of baseball cards, a Ted Williams set. Fleer was eventually bought out by Upper Deck.

The Donruss Company started in 1958, and was named after its two owners, Don and Russ Wiener. Donruss also produced various types of sets of cards, based on television shows and musical groups, and in 1981 issued its first set of baseball cards. Eventually Donruss bought another card company, Score, but Donruss itself was bought by Panini America, a newcomer in American sports trading cards, in early 2009.

Upper Deck first started issuing cards in 1989. Its cards have been unique in that the Company included a hologram on the back of each card as a deterrent to counterfeiters. Even though the price of the Upper Deck cards has been higher than the price of its competitors’ cards, Upper Deck cards are very popular.

1933 Goudey Babe Ruth chewing gum card. Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions.

However, on August 6, 2009, Major League Baseball announced that it signed a multiyear exclusive arrangement with Topps. Surprisingly, in defiance of Major League Baseball’s action, Upper Deck proceeded to issue sets in early 2010 which included logos and uniforms. Major League Baseball immediately sued Upper Deck, and the quick settlement in March of this year resulted. Upper Deck agreed to pay a “substantial sum of monies” for unlicensed cards released. In addition, Upper Deck agreed to pay $2.4 million in license fees for 2009 cards.

Upper Deck and other companies still produce cards, but Topps is the only company that can use team names and logos. Major League Baseball justified its action as a way to bring order to the declining baseball card market.

Hopefully, it will. The number of card shops has declined from about 5000 in the U.S. in the early ’90s to about 500 now, along with a corresponding drop in revenue

Let’s see if the recent ruling will bring back the fun in collecting baseball cards. Maybe youngsters will start trading cards with their friends and building sets again. Now as far as putting cards on their bicycle spokes…well, I doubt if that will every happen again.

I’m often asked how I started my journalism and radio career. Simple answer. My mother never threw away my baseball cards.