By Frank Ceresi and Carol McMains
Literally millions of people worldwide either currently collect or have collected baseball cards sometime during their lives. Most of us who grew up in the 50's and 60's fondly recall the heyday of bubble gum card collecting when the Topps Company reigned supreme. What many people don't realize is that baseball card collecting didn't start out as a fun and leisurely pastime for Little Leaguers but was originally part of a corporate marketing strategy to sell tobacco products. The decision to use images of ballplayers to sell tobacco over a century ago made sound business sense then and, incredibly, the cards remain extremely popular even today. For even in the current market, although collectors still attempt to assemble sets from card companies that flourished after 1950, there is a very strong collectible market for the "granddaddy cards" . . . tobacco baseball cards which were originally produced over 125 years ago! We predict that interest in the cards will even get stronger. Read on!
The Birth of the Card Industry
Card collecting was introduced in this country by tobacco companies as long ago as the 1870's. There were several card sets produced during that time period that featured not only baseball players but other sportsmen and women of the time. Between 1887 and 1890, the Goodwin and Company of New York produced the first true series of baseball cards, numbering several hundred which featured sepia toned photographs of baseball players. The series, popularly called The Old Judge cards, were quite popular with a public that was increasingly interested in the game of baseball. Baseball was, after all, entrenched as our national pastime.
It was no coincidence that the popularity of tobacco cards grew as the country was becoming a premier industrial nation. By and large, Americans worked hard, leisure activities flourished, and cigarettes became not only socially accepted but, at least for men, smoking was "the thing to do." By 1912 there existed a full-fledged card collecting frenzy with nearly 75 different baseball series issued. Additionally, hundreds of non- sport cards series were issued as tobacco companies executed mass advertising campaigns to capture the burgeoning market.
The T -206 and T -205 Tobacco Card Sets
In 1909 the stage was set for the release by the American Tobacco Company of America's famous T -206 series of baseball major and minor leaguers. The set received its designation from the American Card Catalogue years ago and it is still considered by far the most popular card tobacco set of the 20th century. Even today as we cruise various online auctions we see many cards offered from this antique set even though it was issued nearly a century ago. Although millions of T -206 cards were originally issued worldwide, of the 524 different cards in the series it is estimated that only a modest number of cards survive today because of their age (after all, many people threw out the cards as they fished out of the pack the commodity they really wanted -- the cigarette), and because of the massive paper drives during the two world wars. However, even today there are still plenty of cards available for what is considered fertile territory for the discerning collector.
Following the success of the T-206 white bordered set, the American Tobacco Company issued another set in 1911, designated T-205 in the American Card Catalogue, that is also still extremely popular. To contrast the two sets of cards, the T-206's are nicknamed the "white bordered" set and their cousins, the T-205's, are called the "gold borders." While the cards are approximately the same size, they are quite different in appearance. The main difference is, as the name suggests, that the T-205 cards have delicate gold leaf borders. The borders are quite attractive but because of their fragile consistency, today's collector should be aware that the comers and edges of the cards are often chipped or cracked.
Similar to their white bordered counterparts, the T-205 set advertised on the backs of the cards several different producers of tobacco, all of them being under the American Tobacco Company Umbrella. Romantic sounding tobacco company names like Carolina Brights, Hindu, Drum, Sweet Caporal and American Beauty elegantly adorned the backs of the cards. As with the T-206's, some of the advertisements on the backs of the gold bordered set are much rarer and tougher to find than others. There are dozens of variations of tobacco advertisements on the back of both card sets which, as expected, serve to even further entice the hoards of collectors and enhance their collectibility. The chase, after all, is in the hunt and what better way to enjoy the hunt is to search for collectibles with dozens of variations!
Why are the cards still so collectible in today's market? Both the T-206 white bordered set and the T-205 gold borders have several advantages over other collectibles that has kept collecting interest in them strong. We predict with the excitement generated by the Wagner auction (see below) interest will continue to grow.
- First and foremost, they are extremely attractive and have much eye appeal. Even though mothers and grandmothers everywhere thought they were worthless junk decades ago, the front of these nifty cards feature colorful and poignant studio or action poses of the various ballplayers.
- Second, because the cards were printed on thick string-mulch pressboard paper stock, even though they shared space with cigarettes crammed into a pack, today's marketplace abounds with tobacco cards that are remarkably clean and clear. Simply put, they remain relatively sturdy considering their age.
- The cards have remained popular also because they are a convenient compact collectible in that both cards measure about 1 1/2 inches wide and 2 1/2 inches high. They don't take up much space and fit nicely in notebooks, scrapbooks and other similar holders.
- The sets have remained popular not only because of their stunning and colorful fronts but because the various different backs are, as mentioned, quite interesting. Because the backs advertised the various cigarettes, collecting examples from the many cigarette brands is challenging yet rewarding whether the collector is a novice or expert.
- Finally, the cards enjoy continued popularity because the sets feature some of the greatest ballplayers of the deadball era. Namely, Hall of Famers like Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance (who were the subject of the wildly popular baseball poem featuring the double play prowess of "Tinkers to Evers to Chance"), Ty Cobb and, of course, Honus Wagner.
The Wagner Card
The T -206 card set will always generate enormous collecting interest because it contains the famous Honus Wagner card. We believe this interest will increase the public's awareness of the classic tobacco sets and new fans of these little gems will abound. First, let us tell you about the famous T -206 Honus Wagner card.
Estimates are that only 20 or so Wagners still exist today and even superstar collectors such as Wayne Gretzky consider the card their premier collectible. The Wagner card is undoubtedly the most prized of all baseball cards in the world because of its controversy and rarity. Some have called it "the Mona Lisa" of baseball cards and as you study Honus' bemused expression and gaze at the portrait's vivid colors on the card, you can readily see why.
Why is the card so rare and controversial? We know that it was mysteriously and without fanfare pulled from general circulation by the American Tobacco Company shortly after its release, but why? Many have speculated that the company was sensitive to Honus Wagner's own objection to the production of the card because, it is commonly believed, he was reluctant to allow his image to be associated with any tobacco-related products. He did not, the legend continues, believe in promoting tobacco consumption that might unduly influence impressionable children.
However, this perception has been challenged by baseball historians who have posited that Honus had a more commercial reason to complain to the card manufacturer and ultimately force the card's virtual disappearance. Because there have been examples where Wagner actually advertised for tobacco products prior to the production date of the card and several photographs have been unearthed that show the great ballplayer enjoying a clump of tobacco chaw at the ballpark in full view of his adoring public, children included, the more cynical view is that Wagner's public disdain for tobacco consumption was merely a cover for his anger at not receiving compensation for the use of his image to promote cigarettes as a popular product. He was, after all, known to be a sharp business negotiator.
Was Wagner anti-tobacco long before his time or did he simply have a sharp business sense? Who knows but the controversy continues and, as expected, has served to only increase the card's allure and charm. Gretzky bought his card at auction for over $400,000. It was purchased and subsequently auctioned again for over $600,000. It will shortly be auctioned again in July by Rob Lifson, of Robert Edward Auctions, a division of Mastronet.com. What will it bring? Will it be the first million dollar baseball card? Stay tuned!
Tips for Today's Collector
Okay, we all can't own the Wagner card but what about some of the less expensive examples from these great card sets? What is their value in today's market and are they sound investment items? We generally are loathe to call any collectible a sound investment . . . it's too risky. But we make an exception here. Actually, despite the Wagner card and a few extremely rare and expensive card variations, we believe that the T-205 and T-206 cards are actually undervalued and under-appreciated by the general collecting public. They are terrific items to collect!
First, let us explain to you why we believe tobacco baseball cards are currently under-appreciated. Though cards of the major stars in both the T-205 and T-206 sets can cost several hundred dollars in great condition, non-stars (commons) can be purchased, even in great shape, for as low as $25 to $50 a piece. Believe me, that is a bargain when one considers the exorbitant prices being charged for this year's "chase" cards in any of the major baseball card sets. Does anyone seriously believe the "rookie" card of a major league ballplayer who started their career within the last five years is a sound investment item? We doubt it. That's like picking a winning horse in a race with a blindfold on!
Next, we'll tell you why we believe the cards are undervalued in today's ever- increasing collectibles market. First, the modem cards are, by anyone's estimate, overabundant and will therefore always be plentiful, especially when today's hotshot becomes yesterday's news. That is certainly not true of the classic tobacco cards of the past. Sure there are still thousands around but many are closely held onto by experienced collectors and remember that they were produced en masse when your grandfather's father was around. Now is the time to wisely begin to build up a tobacco card collection. Second, at least to us, the T -205's and 6's are extremely attractive whereas most modem cards are garish looking, not very creatively designed and considered "old" and "out of date" after only a year or two. That certainly is not true for the classic tobacco cards from a hundred years ago.