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Old Judge Launched Early Baseball Card Craze

An excerpt from the book Mint Condition by Dave Jamieson

It wOld Judge baseball cardas 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.”

Old Judge baseball cardThe  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.”

1887 Old Judge baseball cards store advertisingIn 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 Old Judge Cornelius Doylelaw 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.

Old Judge Billy HamiltonOf  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.

Buy ‘Mint Condition’ at Amazon.com

 

About Rich Mueller

Rich is the editor and founder of Sports Collectors Daily. A broadcaster and writer for more than 30 years and a collector for even longer than that, he's usually typing something somewhere. Type him back at [email protected].

Trackbacks

  1. […] late 1800s baseball cards and other trading cards are little card photographs. The little 1880s Old Judge baseball cards sold in packs of cigarettes, are card photos with thin paper photos attached to cardboard backing. […]

  2. [...] TheOld Judge cards were issued in massive numbers, updated to reflect players changing teams and featuring studio poses that make for some very unique images.  While rather dull in color, their studio posed pictures paint an interesting picture of uniforms of the period and are a passion for 19th century collectors, who delight in finding unknown variations of the set.  A large book, issued recently, catalogs most of the known Old Judge cards of the era. [...]

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