Baseball cards from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s
A baseball card is a small card printed on heavy paper stock, featuring one or more baseball players. The typical format for a card is to have an image of a player on the front, with information such as statistics on the back. While baseball cards may be of any size, the standard size in the industry is 2_½ inches by 3_½ inches (on most cards, the image is oriented vertically so that 2_½ inches would be the width, and 3_½ inches the height).
With the development of photography, baseball teams began to pose for group and individual pictures, much like members of other clubs and associations. Some of these photographs were printed onto small cards similar to modern wallet photos. As baseball increased in popularity and became an openly professional sport during the late 1860s, a sporting goods store named Peck and Snyder began producing trade cards featuring baseball teams. Peck and Snyder sold baseball equipment, and the cards were a natural advertising vehicle. The Peck and Snyder cards are sometimes considered the first baseball cards.
Typically, a trade card featured an image on one side and information advertising the business on the other. Trade cards featuring baseball players were used by a variety of businesses, even if the products being advertised had no connection with baseball. Advances in color printing increased the possible appeal of the cards. As a result, different types of cards might use photographs, either in black-and-white or sepia, or color artwork, which might or might not be based on photographs.
Although the function of trade cards had much in common with business cards, the format of baseball trade cards also often resembled that of playing cards. Some early baseball cards could be used as part of a game, which might be either a conventional card game or a simulated baseball game. While most modern cards are purely collectibles, the concept of cards that allow for a game format still recurs periodically.
Starting in about 1886, baseball cards were often included with cigarettes, partly for promotional purposes and partly because the card served to reinforce the packaging and protect the cigarettes from damage. In the baseball card hobby, these are generally referred to as tobacco cards. For a few years, many different tobacco companies produced baseball cards.
As the American Tobacco Company bought out other tobacco companies to develop a monopoly, the tobacco cards quickly disappeared. They were later reintroduced in the 1900s, as American Tobacco came under pressure from Turkish competition. The most famous, and most expensive, baseball card is a rare Honus Wagner card from this period. The card is from the T206 set, but exists in very limited quantities compared to others of its type because Wagner forced the card to be removed from printing. Although it is widely believed that Wagner did so because he refused to promote tobacco, the primary explanation lies in a dispute over compensation for Wagner, one of the star players of his day.
While tobacco cards were being reintroduced, candy manufacturers also began producing baseball cards. This reflects a shift toward a younger target audience for the cards. Baseball cards were among the first prizes to be included in Cracker Jack boxes. However, the economic effects of World War I soon suppressed baseball card production.
The modern sports card industry
Reverse side of a baseball card listing player statistics
After World War I, baseball cards gradually began to reappear with various candy products. Beginning in 1933, a chewing gum company named Goudey began producing cards, and gum became the product predominantly associated with baseball cards. Goudey produced larger sets of cards than usual, and numbered them to facilitate collecting. Goudey also released a new set annually for several years to coincide with the cycle of baseball seasons, until World War II curtailed baseball card production once again.
This time baseball cards were resurrected by Bowman, a former competitor of Goudey in the 1930s. However, another company that sold bubblegum, Topps, introduced the practice of signing baseball players to exclusive contracts to appear on its cards. After several years of competing over player contracts, Topps bought out Bowman and enjoyed a largely unchallenged monopoly for more than two decades.
The Topps monopoly ended in 1981, as Fleer and Donruss issued baseball card sets in that year. During the following years a number of other companies entered the market, saturating the hobby with cards until the 1994 players' strike caused a decline in interest and industry consolidation. In the meantime, the competition brought many innovations, such as improvements in card quality and measures to discourage counterfeiting. Companies also released multiple brands of cards, differentiating them to appeal to different types of collectors. In 2001, Wizards of the Coast introduced MLB Showdown, the flagship game of its Showdown Sports series of trading card games, adding a twist to traditional baseball cards by making them into a playable game.