An excerpt from the book Mint Condition by Dave Jamieson
It was clear that Goodwin’s card makers followed the game closely, and the youngest baseball fans appreciated the attention to detail. In one of the earliest remembrances of card collecting, published in the New Yorker in 1929, Brooklyn native Arthur H. Folwell explained that, “To many a boy, back in the eighties, the pictures given with Old Judge cigarettes were the most fascinating. Birds, dudes, soldiers, flags of all nations were well enough, but miniature photographs of leading ball players in all the leagues, even the Western Association, were far and away the best. There has never been anything like the Old Judge ball players.”
The author went on to recount how stunned he was as a boy to learn that Goodwin and Co. managed to correct card issues after midseason trades between teams. On the card of celebrated outfielder and after-hours evangelist Billy Sunday, for instance, “The picture showed him, bat in hand, standing before a homeplate that looked suspiciously like a newspaper thrown on the studio floor.” Sunday clearly wore the uniform of the Chicago White Sox, but he had the word “Pittsburgh” scrawled slop pily across his chest. “Old Judge watched over us,” Folwell wrote, “and kept the record straight.”
The basic premise of baseball card collecting has always been to obtain each card in a particular set. An avid collector could spend the better part of a lifetime trying to track down every Old Judge card, and even then, as the card historian and collector Lew Lipset noted in his Encyclopedia of Baseball Cards, “completion is hopeless.” There are simply too many different cards for too many players; no one even knows for sure how many there are. Modern collectors tend to impose a discipline with Old Judges, such as pursuing all of the cards of a particular player or of a particular team. There are perhaps fewer than ten collectors in the world currently chasing the Old Judge set in its entirety. And those few must be prepared to spend an awful lot of money. In 2008, one pristine Old Judge card showing Hall of Famer John Ward sold for nearly $30,000 at auction. The set fascinates collectors in part because new cards that have never before been cataloged continue to surface in basements and attics around the country.
Conventional wisdom holds that the cigarette launched the baseball card. But one could just as easily argue that, in the United States, the baseball card launched the cigarette. News reports show that the popularity of baseball cards like the Old Judges helped win over not only smokers but tobacco salesmen as well. “I told him I wouldn’t handle cigarettes under any circumstances,” one New York tobacconist recalled telling Duke upon first meeting him. “[But] Duke began put- ting into each package a picture of a famous actress or athlete or the flags of all nations. That was a million-dollar idea, for the pictures came in numbered sets and the kids began pestering their dads for them. Soon collecting pictures became a craze and we had to order the cigarettes in quantity. I think this one stunt, more than any other, really put the cigarette over with the public.”
In response to collector demand, Duke and Allen & Ginter printed loose-leaf, string-bound portfolios into which cards could be pasted. Throngs of children reportedly showed up outside cigarette factories in New York City on the weekends, vouchers in hand, demanding new albums for their cards. Every picture card had its market value among schoolboys, and hard-to-find cards could run as high as a quarter apiece, which was several times the cost of the cigarette pack itself. Boys badgered strangers on the street for the cards from their packs. “The life of the dude is made a burden when he appears on the public thoroughfares with the end of a cigarette gingerly clasped in his pearly teeth. He is besieged on all sides with requests of ‘Please, mister, give me the picture!’ ” one news report explained. “Whenever a number of urchins can be found together, you can wager your last cent that they are comparing their treasures.”
Though they didn’t stir the unholy passions that actress cards did, baseball cards such as the Old Judges were believed to help hook children on smoking. The dangers of tobacco were a widely accepted fact in the nineteenth century, and cigarettes, due to their rapid consumption among kids, were considered a particularly treacherous form of the stuff. When a nineteen-year-old shoe-factory worker passed away in Camden, New Jersey, in 1892, the papers printed the habitual smoker’s dying words: “Tell all my friends ‘Duke’s Best’ have killed me, and beg of them never to smoke another.” It wasn’t unusual for a boy as young as ten to develop a cigarette habit. Excessive smoking was believed to damage the nerves and cause fits of madness, and con- cerned schoolchildren joined together in antismoking groups in the hope of saving their classmates. Laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors sprouted up around the country but were generally ignored, allowing a child in 1887 to buy a pack of cigarettes just as easily as an adult in many towns.
News reports of the day suggested that tobacco makers were ex- pressly targeting children with their cards. The cigarette “would lie down and die tomorrow” if it weren’t for the high volume of sales to “small boys,” one tobacco man told the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1888. Indeed, it was the fickleness of young consumers that made cigarettes among the most heavily and beautifully advertised products of the post–Civil War period. “Today he swears by the ‘Troubadour Straight Cuts,’ tomorrow he grows enthusiastic over the ‘Old Judge,’ and the next day calls loudly for the ‘Perl’s Pet,’ ” teased a reporter in 1889. Parents and teachers rummaged through their children’s pants pockets and destroyed whatever cigarette cards they found, and even some tobacco salesmen grew convinced that the pictures were instrumental in turning a generation of city boys into cigarette “fiends” in the 1880s. One dealer told the Tribune that, “It would do away with half this boys’ trade, I think, if there was a law prohibiting the giving away of pictures in packages of cigarettes.”
Politicians in several cities around the country tried to put just such laws on the books. Charleston, South Carolina, effected an ordinance in 1887 prohibiting the sale of cigarettes with baseball cards, forcing tobacconists to strip their packs of the likes of Cap Anson and King Kelly. Duke had a pragmatic take on this new law, telling a Durham newspaper that he didn’t begrudge the mayor one bit for it. In fact, he said he’d prefer to see a nationwide ban on tobacco cards: “We would give a chromo to the Mayor of Charlotte, and a nice per cent if he would stop the use of the pictures throughout the entire country, as it would save us $180,000 per year, or nearly $2,000,000 in the next ten years. Competition forced us to adopt this method of advertising.”
Duke’s competitors shared his frustration, because baseball and actress cards were brutally expensive to produce. Duke put the card costs for his own firm at about $500 per day, or about $62,000 per day in today’s economy. The most attractive baseball cards could cost Duke as much as half a pack of cigarettes to make. One Manhattan plant alone was turning out seventy-five thousand cabinet cards daily, with hundreds of workers toiling around the clock to produce enough cards to meet demand.
Of course, if cards hadn’t meant much to smokers, Duke and the other tobacco companies wouldn’t have shrunk their profit margins rolling them off the presses. As the hobby of card collecting grew, the sale of cigarettes grew with it, and Duke proved as much a master of manufacturing as of marketing. When there were rumblings of a strike among cigarette rollers at Goodwin and Co. in New York, Duke managed to poach 125 of his rival’s laborers by luring them to Durham with the promise of housing and generous wages. When smokers complained that they were mutilating their cigarettes as they pulled them from their soft packs, Duke developed a hard box that protected the smokes without prohibitively boosting their price. And to keep up with growing demand, Duke was determined to slash production costs by shifting from hand-rolled cigarettes to cheaper ones rolled by machine. For years, a mechanic from Virginia named James A. Bonsack had been tinkering with a contraption that, in theory, would be able to produce almost fifty times as many cigarettes per day as the average laborer could. After Duke bought the Bonsack roller in 1884, he and his team worked out the kinks and in their first year of using the machines rolled out 744 million smokes, which was more than the entire industry had been producing annually.
Duke then had the liberty to slash his prices, reducing a pack of ten smokes to a nickel, or about half the going rate. His competitors did what they could to stigmatize machine-made cigarettes as substandard—Allen & Ginter had foolishly taken a pass on an early version of the Bonsack roller, for fear that its customers would sneer at anything but hand-rolled cigarettes—but by the late 1880s, with Duke controlling almost 40 percent of the market, they had no choice but to adopt the same method. The massive production among just four or five tobacco companies created a handful of nationally recognized brands, nearly all of which felt compelled to give buyers more and more of the trading cards they craved.
Even so, card-collecting mania was helping to break Duke’s rivals. The five highest-producing tobacco firms were splurging a combined $2 million per year on baseball and actress cards by 1890, a staggering expense for the time. The president of tobacco company F. S. Kinney, which offered Sweet Caporal cigarettes, believed that he was peddling cardboard as much as he was selling smokes, admitting that he was “most eager to get out of the advertising madhouse” and “the damned picture [card] business,” both of which ate insatiably into his profits.
The card craze was also hurting Duke himself, who poured twenty cents of every dollar he made into advertising and marketing. He was coughing up nearly $1 million a year in advertising by 1889, much of it going to inserts and the larger cabinet cards. “Hit your competitors in the pocketbook,” he once said. “Hit ’em hard. Then you either buy ’em out or take ’em with you.”
That year, Duke decided it was high time to take his competitors with him. In typically ruthless fashion, he decided to spend even more money on marketing, forsaking his already slim profit margins just to bury the other companies beneath his advertising. His competitors realized that folding their companies into Duke’s was the only choice; a trust would eliminate the need for expensive picture cards. Even Lewis Ginter, who despised Duke personally, proved willing to join in the budding monopoly. The heads of the five major tobacco firms met at a Fifth Avenue hotel in Manhattan in April 1889 and created the American Tobacco Company. “The great question that agitated them was how to stop this picture-giving business,” the Picayune reported of the trust’s firms. “For years the small boy has collected a valuable collection of Indians, painted in their most villainous dye, of sturdy athletes, baseball players and whatnot— enough to set up a Louvre gallery of art in Smallboytown. . . . As long as one [cigarette company] gave, the rest had to do it too, to keep in the tide of popularity.”
In other words, the popularity of baseball cards helped to spur the formation of one of the most powerful monopolies in American history. The American Tobacco Company’s new president, Buck Duke, managed to drop production costs to ten cents per thousand cigarettes and was well on his way to swallowing up some two hundred additional companies. The controlling parties divvied up their territories and kept out of one another’s way. The tobacco trust had virtually no competition, and without competition there was no need for costly advertising —certainly not for elaborate insert cards, as much as the public adored them. Baseball and actress cards would all but vanish for the next twenty years.
The decency police deemed it a small victory. “They have probably concluded to kill the boys without corrupting their morals,” a Detroit Free Press editorial said of the tobacco moguls, “and for this much the country should be thankful.”
Mint Condition copyright 2010 by Dave Jamieson, reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic, Inc.
See original Old Judge cards on eBay here.