Baseball cards are one of the most iconic collectibles of all time, connected eternally to childhood, and fun. Over their 130-year history baseball cards have gone from something grown-ups discarded from their cigarette packs, to a fun way for kids to collect their heroes (along with some rock hard chewing gum), before morphing into a massive billion dollar bubble, then back into cheap, low tech hobby for kids. Get ready for opening day 2016 with this round-up of highlights from baseball cards past and present.
1. Baseball cards first appeared in the 1880’s packaged with cigarettes and chewing tobacco as a marketing gimmick, and meant to appeal to adults.
2. It wasn’t just baseball cards that were sold with cigarettes — tiny cardboard likenesses of actors and actresses, jockeys and war heroes were also given away.
3. The first cards created for kids were sold with more kid-friendly gum by the Goudey Gum Company in 1933.
4. Goudey’s advertising encouraged kids to collect all 240 cards in its set, but never produced a card #106 causing kids to buy pack after pack in a futile attempt at completion.
5. When parents complained to Goudeys about the missing card, the company gave in and created a card #106 featuring Napoleon Lajoie. However, it was only sent to those who wrote in requesting it, turning it into a rare and valuable card.
6. In 1952 Topps (then a candy company) released its first packs of baseball cards, flipping the gum-to-card ratio by packaging 6 cards with just one, token piece of gum.
7. A 20-year-old Mickey Mantle’s card was part of Topps's first run, but released late in the season past the point where most kids were buying baseball cards. Topps found itself with (literally) tons of late-season cards like Mantle’s which eventually found their way to a trash scow off the coast of New Jersey. Since most of his cards were trashed Mantle’s ‘52 card is one of the rarest and most coveted.
8. In 1979 James Beckett put together the first price guide, which soon came out monthly, for rare and vintage baseball cards unintentionally creating a speculative market.
9. Collectors trying to get in on the rise of the baseball card market drove up prices for rare, or even seemingly rare cards. New card makers, like Fleer and Upper Desk, got in on the action flooding the market with 81 billion cards in the early 90s. 235 baseball cards for every person in America!
10. The market of baseball cards peaked in 1992 with $1.5 billion in sales of new cards, though the bubble didn’t officially burst till 1994, helped along by the Major League Baseball strike. The market has been in decline ever since.
12. Wagner’s card is so valuable because only 200 were ever produced by the American Tobacco Company. Wagner supposedly demanded they be discontinued because he was a non-smoker, and didn’t want kids buying tobacco to get his cards. Also, kids could buy cigarettes in 1909.
13. The once-owned-by-Gretzky Wagner card was at the center of the biggest scandal in baseball card history. In 2009 Illinois auction house owner, Bill Mastro, admitted he’d trimmed the edges of the card increasing it’s value by nearly $2M! He was sentenced to 20 months in jail for this, and other fraud.
14. Want to enjoy baseball cards, but don't need to own them? The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has the largest publicly available collection with over 31,000 baseball cards!
15. Today you can buy 11 packs of Topps Opening Day 2016 for $9.99, making baseball card collecting a hobby kids can afford to do for fun again.
Feeling the itch to do some collecting of your own? We just released a series of cards featuring images from the Library of Congress's huge trove of early baseball cards that were originally sold with cigarettes and chewing tobacco. They’re too fragile to handle IRL, but you can collect and trade Ty Cobb, Charles Comiskey, and 30 more hall-of-famers for free, online on NeonMob.