There was no bubble gum and it wasn’t packed in waxy paper but when Harry Wright decided he needed to do something special to get patrons into the St. George’s Cricket Grounds in Hoboken, New Jersey in the late summer of 1863, he ordered and distributed an item that many consider the first baseball card ever produced.
Nearly 150 years after Wright’s promotional vehicle brought fans to see a blossoming sport up close, the only known example of that card is among the headliners in Robert Edward Auctions’ upcoming catalog sale.
The photograph itself is nearly as perfect as the day it was printed. The corners of the card have been clipped.
“This is an unbelievably exciting piece,” said REA President Robert Lifson. “There has long been debate among collectors and historians about the answer to the question of what is the very first baseball card. While one has to define what a baseball card is to answer this question, if a baseball card is an image of a ballplayer on a collectible card available to the general public, especially if it is intended to advertise and promote the sale of a product other than itself, then The 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit card of Harry Wright unquestionably qualifies as the first baseball card.”
The card, it seems, may be even more important than previously recognized by many collectors and scholars.
Picturing Wright, the father of baseball, in a full-length studio pose, this card was created to promote attendance, and the sale of admissions, to a special series of games held in September of 1863. Harry Wright was a member of the New York Knickerbockers from 1858 to 1863, and this card was sold to allow attendance to a series of three games: the first two were cricket matches; the third was a baseball game.
Regular tickets were a quarter but those who invested 50 cents received a photo of Wright or one of several other players that granted them admission. The players themselves personally sold the cards in an attempt to drum up interest—and because they were the recipients of the funds. The cricket matches took place as scheduled but the ball game was rained out, and played the following day. It marks the first time such photographic cards were made available to the general public for the purpose of promoting a product.
The promotion, it seems, was a hit. Over $130 worth of the cards were sold, a large sum at the time. The players received the proceeds generated by the sales of the regular tickets and the photo cards.
Wright kept an accounting ledger that documents the cost of the cards’ production ($25 for the photographs and $7.20 to have them printed) and a record of the number of cards sold by each of the four beneficiaries. The ledger is in the New York Public Library and a copy of Wright’s record is included with the lot as well as copies of the news coverage the contests received.
While it was common for cricket players to be considered professionals during this era, baseball was still considered an amateur game and the fact that Wright and the others were openly compensated for their participation lends credence to the remarkable connection between the earliest professional baseball games and the first baseball card.
According to REA:
“The several benefit games of the early 1860s that were organized by Harry Wright were the very first recorded open transactions of players accepting money for playing baseball ever. The production and sale of the 1863 Grand Match at Hoboken cards therefore represent not only the very first baseball cards, but their sale also literally represents the Birth of Professional Baseball.”
Originally, the Wright card was included in a collection purchased at a (non-baseball related) Fine Books & Manuscripts auction conducted by Butterfield’s Auctions in California in 1997. The entire lot, which included materials ranging in date from the 1860s to the 1930s, apparently originated from a Wright family member, as it contained mostly family photos and no baseball photos or content with the exception of two 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit cards (one of Harry Wright and one of Crossley). These facts strongly suggest the possibility that these very cards were personally used for admission to the St. George’s grounds by members of the Wright family.
The 1863 “Grand Match at Hoboken” Harry Wright card was last sold in 2000 when it brought $82,000. “It may bring more or less today, that’s for the market to decide,” noted Lifson. “We think it’s an amazing card. Just as important, we hope the additional background information and research assembled will have meaning to the world of baseball cards and to the understanding of the history of the game itself.”
There is more information about the research assistance on the Hoboken games and Wright’s efforts to promote them on the Robert Edward Auctions website.
The auction is slated to begin around April 18 and conclude one month later. It will include hundreds of other vintage and rare sports cards and sports memorabilia. To register and receive a free catalog when they become available, visit RobertEdwardAuctions.com.