The Origins and Popularity of Baseball Cards

Baseball cards have been popular with adults and children enamored with the game and the focus of collectors since they were first distributed. These cards were originally produced as a marketing vehicle, but with the rise in baseball’s popularity, these trading cards have evolved into a more valuable commodity.

Baseball became a professional sport during the late 1860s at about the same time that photography was also gaining recognition. Baseball clubs soon began posing for group and individual pictures which were printed onto small cards. These cards were about the size of wallet photos and used by a variety of companies to promote their business. The products being advertised had no connection to baseball until in 1868 a sporting goods store in New York named Peck and Snyder, began producing trade cards featuring baseball teams. The typical card featured an image on one side and the advertising on the other.

By the late 1800s, cards with images of baseball players could be found inside cigarette packs. This was not only done for promotional purposes but also to protect the cigarettes from damage. By the early 1900s tobacco companies and confectionery companies started producing and distributing baseball trade cards with their products. A caramel company named Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein was one of the first to include prizes in boxes. In 1914 they produced the Cracker Jack card issues featuring major league players.

The production of baseball cards declined during World War I until the economy transitioned away from wartime production. The economic effects of the Great Depression also had an impact in the production of baseball cards. The popular 1933 Goudey Gum Co. issue of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig cards revived significant production once again. These cards had hand-colored player photos on the front and personal information and brief biographies on the back.

During the 1940s a major producer of baseball cards was the Bowman Gum Company. Its biggest competitor was Topps Gum Company who eventually bought out Bowman and monopolized the U.S. baseball card market over the next two decades. Other players emerged during the 1960s as Post Cereals issued cards on cereal boxes and Jell-O included identical cards on the back of its packages. During the 1970s Kellogg’s produced 3D-cards inside its cereal and Hostess printed them on its packages of baked goods.

The 1980s saw a rise in collectors entering the hobby market as higher quality card stock, tamper-proof foil packaging, and hologram-style logos fetched higher premiums for the cards. With the popularity of computers and access to the internet in the late 1990s, hobby retail shops and trade shows saw a decline in business as online transactions took away the bulk of their customer base.

Baseball cards have also been popular around the world. Canada followed in the same historical footsteps as the U.S. first selling trade cards, and then issuing them through tobacco products and later with gum and candies. Baseball card sets also appeared in Japan as early as 1898 although they used traditional Japanese pen and ink illustrations. The Topps Gum Co. issued licensed sets in Venezuela from 1959 to 1977 with Spanish text on the cards, and Cuba was issuing sets in the early 1900s.

What started out as a clever marketing ploy targeted primarily to adults, has led to a growing market of collectors and historians trading and selling, hoping to acquire a vintage baseball card worth thousands of dollars.

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