Readers of one of the first American sports publications couldn't get enough of it. Today's collectors wish more of those early 20th century fans might have taken The Sporting Life up on its offers to put baseball cards in their mailboxes.
"The Sporting Life" was born from the mind of Francis Richter, who believed America was crazy about its games. With a successful career in journalism by 1883, he set up "The Sporting Life" that covered all sports but focused in on the wildly popular game of baseball. By the latter part of the decade, The Sporting Life had a circulation of 40,000.
Richter's weekly newspaper was extremely influential in the development of baseball. Thanks in part to his reporting, players who pushed for better salaries often had an influential ally. The Sporting Life wasn't just a promotional rag, though. It chronicled the Black Sox Scandal and the arrival of the Federal League, among other topics, during its heyday.
"The Sporting Life," like some of its contemporaries in the tobacco and candy business, issued baseball cards as a promotional tool and to compete with their primary rival, "The Sporting News." The sets were offered through the mail to subscribers. Today, those sets are among the most popular and scarce Pre-War cards in the hobby, regularly selling for thousands of dollars.
One of the unique sets the publication released was in 1906 as a set of team composite postcards. Each of the sixteen teams from the American and National Leagues had one and players not commonly featured on other cards can be found on these. Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and Johnny Evers were among the collections of faces found on the set, available then for 10 cents worth of stamps.
The most widely collected set of Sporting Life cards is the 1910-11 M116 issue. The paper issued a total of twenty-four series with each featuring twelve cards. The M116 series featured an eye catching design with a solid rendering of a player's portrait against a background colored in pastels or in blue. Players appear in either a team uniform or a suit. The backs featured promotional ads of different types that related to the newspaper. The last three series are much harder to find than the first cards in the set. Cards with a pastel backdrop are highly valued, but if a card features a blue backdrop, the value shoots up dramatically. One rare card that was recently discovered was a Amby McConnell Chicago card. Another rarity is Ty Cobb's card featuring him in his team uniform for the Detroit Americans. He appeared in both the pastel colored version and the blue backdrop version. The pastel version is worth about three times that of the card with a blue background.
The W600 series that were issued from 1902 to 1911 feature studio cabinet portraits. The cards showcased each player's club, name and position along with the classic portraits. Honus Wagner's two images--one in streetclothes and the other in uniform--are among the hobby's best early 20th century issues. The photo of Wagner in uniform was taken by photographer Carl Horner and is the exact photograph also used in the T206 card series. At the bottom of the cabinet cards, the words "Sporting Life Philadelphia" are encased in white lettering. Flourishing lines below it read "The paper that made base ball popular." The camera work, though, is what really draws collectors to this series.
Frank Richter's newspaper not only influenced baseball as a whole with his creative, everyman style of writing and support for the players, but also the baseball card world with the high quality and now extremely popular sets that were issued. "The Sporting Life" cards are some of the best pre-War examples available, packed with Hall of Famers, scarcities and variations, but also with a great story to tell about pro baseball's early years.
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