When you think of baseball cards, what first pops into your head? Likely, you’re imagining bubble gum, freshly mowed grass and a 1950s subdivision. Something about baseball cards brings back the nostalgia surrounding the baby boom and the American Dream. While gum and candy companies such as Topps may have dominated the baseball card world for decades, we actually have a different industry to thank for their existence: tobacco.
As early as 1887, tobacco giants like American Tobacco Company, Allen & Ginter, and Goodwin & Company, started printing cards with pictures of sports figures to stick in their cigarette and loose tobacco packages. What better way to keep people using the same products than by creating a “collect them all” series? It proved to be a powerful incentive, and the trend spread like wildfire.
These cards are much harder to come by now, and some have even sold for millions of dollars. At Baseball Factory Sets, we put together this infographic displaying some of our favorite early baseball cards (and players). If you have trouble viewing the image, you can see the information in the text below.
First introduced as a way to market tobacco products, these early cigarette cards featured some of the best players of the day, and set off a trend that would soon become popular worldwide. Distributed by many cigarette brands, these cards were used as trading games, and were an effective tool for keeping customers coming back for more. It’s a trend that may have continued, but with World War I came paper rationing, putting an early end to the cigarette card. By the 1950s, the baseball card industry had been taken over by gum and candy companies, leaving no room for the tobacco industry in the business. Now these cards are popular collectors items, for their rarity, history, and artistic designs. Do you recognize these players?
1887: TIMOTHY KEEFE
- Allen & Ginter
- Worth Up To $10,000
Fifty cards were printed in this series by Allen & Ginter highlighting the world’s best athletes, but only 10 were of baseball players. Timothy Keefe made the cut.
- New York Giants
- ERA: 2.62
- Strikeouts: 2,562
A three times ERA leader (1880, 1885, 1888), Timothy Keefe enjoyed a 13-year career in the major leagues, playing from 1880 to 1893. During his time with the New York Giants, he designed the all-black “funeral” uniforms the team donned in 1888, and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964.
1888: MICHAEL “KING” KELLY
- Goodwin & Company
- Worth Up To $50,000
One of the “Goodwin Champions” series, this card was one of the earliest cards to use chromolithography to make the image multi-colored.
- Catcher & Right Fielder
- Boston Beaneaters
- Batting Average: .308
- Home Runs: 69
Considered to be one of the first celebrity professional athletes, King Kelly was an entertainer both on and off the field. A two times NL batting champion, he also performed in vaudeville during baseball off-seasons, and authored the first baseball autobiography, “Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field” in 1888. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1945.
1909-1911: HONUS WAGNER
- American Tobacco Company
- Worth Up To $4 Million
Easily the most famous baseball card of all time, it is also the most valuable. One of the White Border collection, a high-quality card sold on eBay for $1.265 million in 2000, and was re-sold for $2.8 million to a private collector in 2007. It is extremely rare, with only 50 to 200 cards ever distributed to the public. Even in 1933 it was valued at $50 – the most expensive baseball card in the world at the time.
- Pittsburgh Pirates
- Batting Average: .329
- Home Runs: 101
In his twenty year career in Major League Baseball, Wagner was a champion player. The winner of 8 batting titles, he was nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman” for his speed, and helped his team achieve victory in the 1909 World Series. Wagner was one of the original inductees to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.
1911: OTIS “DOC” CRANDALL
Following the success of the T206 White Border collection, the American Tobacco Company released a sister line – the T205. Characterized by a gold border, this line includes the American League, the National League, and the Minor Leagues, each with a different design. While not incredibly valuable or rare, this set remains popular with collectors.
Otis “Doc” Crandall of the New York Giants was baseball’s first relief pitcher. Dubbed “the physician of the pitching emergency”, he had 606 strikeouts.
1911: CHARLEY O’LEARY
Another from the Gold Border line, the diamond shaped design framing O’Leary represents his role as a player in the American League.
Charley O’Leary of the Detroit Tigers was a shortstop, and became the oldest player to appear in a game in 1934 at age 58, remaining the second-oldest player in the history of the game.
1912: ROGER BRESNAHAN
- American Tobacco Company
- Worth Up To $7,000
The brown background line was one of the last baseball cigarette card sets distributed. While some collectors admire the set as a work of art, others are disappointed that it failed to include some of the best players of the era.
- St. Louis Cardinals
- Batting Average: .279
- Home Runs: 26
Widely regarded as one of the best catchers in the history of the game, Roger Bresnahan was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945. He is also known for being the first catcher to wear shin guards, and is credited as being the man to thank for the use of protective gear in baseball today.