The Dawn of Baseball Cards

Mint Condition:  How Baseball Cards Became an American ObsessionThe following is an excerpt from Chapter One of a new book entitled “Mint Condition:  How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession”.  Written by Dave Jamieson, the book chronicles how baseball cards were born and also profiles many of the men who played a significant role in how the hobby evolved and changed over the years.

Among other topics, Jamieson chronicles the tribulations of the ‘grandfather’ of baseball card collecting, Jefferson Burdick, the rise of Topps as a dominant force in the industry and how the Major League Baseball Players Association forced the company–and baseball–to pay more for the rights to produce cards.

He also delves into the rise of auction houses and how the skyrocketing value of vintage cards, like those launched in the cigarette products described below, has created issues in the industry but also earned them respect within the realm of antiques and collectibles.

While there is no shortage of books on baseball cards, Jamieson’s effort is the first concentrated history of the hobby from a modern perspective.

We’ll have the second part of Chapter One tomorrow and also an interview with the author.

“Please, Mister, Give Me the Picture!”

Although  an estimated  five thousand  Union  soldiers would eventually die of starvation  and disease inside its wooden  stockades,  the Confederate-run prison camp at Salisbury, North  Carolina,  was a great  place for a  ball game.  Created  seven months  after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter  in 1861,  Salisbury was one of the primary destinations for Yankee prisoners of war early in the Civil War. The only war prison in the state, the modest  sixteen-acre compound included  a cotton  factory,  a  blacksmith’s shop,  and enough  of an open  field to accommodate a pair of baseball nines when weather  and the warden permitted.

The  first 120  Union  detainees  arrived  at Salisbury shortly  before Christmas 1861,  and by the following spring there  were a still manageable  fourteen  hundred prisoners  sleeping  in the  camp’s tenements. In these early days Salisbury, with its oak trees and water barrels and ample breathing room,  was a rather  pleasant place to suffer one’s wartime cap- ture.  One  Yank remarked  that  it was “more  endurable  than  any other part of  Rebeldom.” As several prisoners’ memoirs  bear out,  this agree- able atmosphere  had a lot to do with baseball. According to the diary of imprisoned  doctor  Charles  Carroll  Gray,  prisoners  played ball nearly every day that  rain or cold didn’t  prevent  it. They even celebrated  the Fourth  of July of 1862  by reading  the  Declaration  of Independence aloud  and playing a few innings  on their  makeshift diamond.

Baseball took  hold  at other  encampments in both  the  South  and the  North, especially during  the first half of the war. The game pro- vided a  respite from the wretchedness  of battle  and camp, with regi- mental soldiers routinely  playing ball among  themselves,  their games sometimes  broken  off by the fire of cannons,  muskets,  and carbines. J.G.B.  Adams,  a member  of the Nineteenth Regiment  of Massachusetts,  wrote  that  during  his  stay at  Falmouth,  Virginia,  “baseball fever” broke  out  among  both  Yanks and  Rebs,  with Adams and  his comrades  close  enough  to  their  enemies  across the  river to  cheer them on. “We would sit on the bank and watch their games, and the distance  was so  short  we  could  understand every movement   and would  applaud  good  plays.”

The war would  temporarily  cripple organized  baseball as players in the  North  left their  clubs to enlist,  but  it also helped  to spread  the game  to  new  parts  of America.  As the  New  York  Clipper noted  in 1865,  “When soldiers were off duty, base ball was naturalized  in nearly every state  in the  Union.” What  had  been  a Northern gentleman’s game closely associated with Brooklyn became a fixture in many cities in  the  South  and  West,  with  new clubs  sprouting  in pockets  of the former  Confederacy,  such  as Richmond,   Virginia,  and  Galveston, Texas,  where  the  best  local team  took  the  name  of Robert  E.  Lee. After the  war, the game began  to blossom  not  only as a professional, revenue-churning entertainment  but  also as a fixture  of blue-collar urban  life. In his landmark 1911  book about  early baseball, America’s National Game, Albert G. Spalding, the pioneering  pitcher and latter- day  sporting-goods mogul,  traced  the sport’s dawn to the war, arguing  that  the  spirit  of  the  game  was inextricably  linked  to  military conflict—and relief from it. The game, he wrote,  “had its early evolution when soldiers, North  and South,  were striving to forget their foes by  cultivating,  through   this  grand  game,  fraternal  friendships  with comrades in arms. . . . And then, when true patriots of all sections were striving to forget  that  there  had been a time of black and dismal war, it  was a beacon,  lighting  their  paths  to a future  of perpetual  peace.”

Among those Northern patriots returning  from the war in 1865 was a baseball  enthusiast  named  Andrew  Peck.  Hand  later sent  upstate  to  work for a shopkeeper.  After the  start  of the war, he enlisted with the Union  army and was sent to the front with the federal Army of the  Potomac,  which included  Major Abner Doubleday among  its  ranks and was renowned  for its fondness  for baseball. One soldier  described  the  camp  as “alive with  ball-players,  almost  every street  having its game.”  Once  home,  Peck started  working  as a street salesman in Manhattan, hawking baseball equipment, knickknacks, and games  he  created  himself, some  of which  he managed  to sell to the entrepreneur and showman  P. T. Barnum.  He also began manufacturing baseballs on the top floor of a building at 109 Nassau Street, where the following year he opened  a sporting-goods store with his partner, W. Irvin Snyder.

Before  being  bought   by competitor A. G.  Spalding  &  Bros.,  the Peck &  Snyder  Base Ball and  Sportsman’s  Emporium  would  have a profound  impact on the leisure culture of nineteenth-century America. The  company  not  only produced  some  of the  very first baseball bats (“fine stock, clear of knots,”  a catalog proclaimed)  and molded  rubber baseballs  (“which  for finish, durability  and superior  workmanship  are not surpassed”),  it also put out the first modern  canvas tennis shoe and helped  make the  magic  lantern  slide projector  a fixture  in American homes.  And  with  its small series of cards  depicting  ball clubs,  the sporting-goods company  is believed by many to have given America its  first baseball cards.

During  the 1869  baseball season, Peck & Snyder produced  a small advertising  card,  measuring  just  three-and-a-quarter inches  by four- and-a-half  inches  and  bearing  a glue-mounted photograph depicting the ten members  of the first explicitly professional baseball team—the Red Stocking Base Ball Club of Cincinnati,  whose president  was Union army veteran Alfred T. Goshorn  and whose catcher, Doug Allison, had reportedly  learned  to play as a soldier  in war encampments. On  the back  of the  card is a cartoon  showing  a ballplayer with sagging  eyes and a wispy beard,  his back hunched  as he hauls an armful of baseball bats,  cleated  shoes,  and  uniform  belts.  The  cartoon  is signed  at the bottom:  “Yours Respectfully,  Andrew  Peck.”  The  ballplayers on  the front of the card, lined up five to a row, were dour,  hairy fellows with nearly all-white  uniforms.  Save for the  knee-high  socks, they  looked like a group of convicts. Under  the guidance of their British-born  cen ter fielder and team captain, Harry Wright, the Red Stockings recruited players from  across the  country,  signed  them  to exclusive contracts, and  instituted  organized  team  practices  at which  the  club  developed innovations such as the relay  throw.  Traveling  some twelve thousand miles by rail and  boat  to play  before  a couple  of hundred  thousand people,  the  Red  Stockings  logged  a  57–0  record  and  a net  profit  of $1.39  on the season.

Peck & Snyder produced  at least half a dozen baseball cards between 1865 and 1870,  though  they were hardly the first manufacturer to dole out  free “trade  cards”  to promote  its products.  The  advertising  tech- nique had originated  in London and been growing for more than a century  before  hirsute  American  infielders started  popping  up on  cards. Pushing household items such as Merchant’s  Gargling Oil Liniment  and Lautz Bros. Soaps, trade  cards featured  either  photographs or drawings of everything from actresses and war heroes to comic scenes and pasto ral settings; either woven into the image or on the back of the card would be  an  advertisement  for the  company’s  wares. The  earliest  baseball- themed cartoon  trade cards reflected the rough-and-tumble style of the post–Civil  War game.  Players are carried off the  field battered  and  in bandages, as  they were in real life. On  some cards, umpires  are shown being  attacked by mobs  of fans who hadn’t  liked their  calls.

Baseball cards may well have been just one more piece of forgotten ephemera  had it not  been for another  novel activity made popular  by the  war: cigarette  smoking.  Pioneering  cigarette  manufacturers  would soon  discover that  coupling  their  smokes with the  likenesses of ball- players was an exceptional  way to move tobacco.  The  card-collecting hobby  had  no innocent  beginnings.  It was the  by-product of a marketing technique  used to establish the cigarette  in the lives of Ameri cans,  particularly  young  boys.  And  within  just  a few years of first appearing in cigarette  packages,  baseball  cards would  help  spur  the creation  of the greatest  tobacco  monopoly  in American history.

Before  the  Civil War,  Americans  had  been  availing themselves  of more tobacco  per person than any other  country  in the world, thanks in  large part to an agreeable  climate for growing  and a massive sup- ply of  slaves to  work  the  fields. The  tobacco  capital  of Richmond, Virginia,  alone  laid claim to some  fifty factories devoted  to its production. Yet  the  tobacco  that  many  Americans enjoyed  went  either into their pipes or between  their jaws as plug chew, for the cigarette was considered  a  bastardized  form  of the  cigar  suited  only  to  the lower classes. That perception  persisted until pipes and cigars proved too  cumbersome  for  soldiers  on  the  move.  As the  war progressed, more and more cigarettes made their way from factories in the Southern states to military  encampments. Pre-rolled  smokes continued to grow  in popularity  after  the  war, inspiring  a good  deal  of hysteria among  the guardians  of public health.  Weighing  in on an 1884  proposal  to  criminalize  the  sale  of  cigarettes  to  minors,  a New  York Times editorial  suggested  a ban on selling them even to adults: “The decadence  of Spain began when the Spaniards adopted  cigarettes,  and if this pernicious  practice obtains among  adult  Americans the ruin of the Republic  is close at hand.”

Such  pronouncements had  no  effect on  James  Buchanan  “Buck” Duke,  who  recognized  the  massive sales potential  of cigarettes  better than anyone. His father, Washington  Duke, had fought  for the Confederacy  and  served time  at a POW  camp  before  walking 135  miles to his Durham,  North  Carolina,  home  after the war’s climactic close.  His parents  having  died when he was a baby, Peck was raised in a New York City orphanage.  The  elder  Duke  sent  young  Buck to New York City in
1884 to help open an additional  factory for the family tobacco company. Even  then,  Buck Duke’s ambition  was to make the cigarette  America’s go-to form  of tobacco.  Although  he personally  preferred  a substantial plug to the dainty sticks, he viewed cigarettes  as his family company’s only  chance  to  wrest  American  tobacco  dominance  from  rival Bull Durham. Managing the Manhattan plant by day, he was known to spend nights walking the city streets picking up discarded  cigarette  packs of all brands, studying  their packaging and trying to calculate what percentage of  the  market  Duke  Bros.  had  managed  to  secure.  By all accounts  he  worked  ungodly  hours  obsessing  over  advertising  and marketing.  “I hated  to close my desk at night,”  he once said. “There ain’t a thrill in the  world  to compare  with building  up a business and watching  it grow before your eyes.”

Duke  soon  came to understand the promotional power  of celebrities,  particularly  buxom  stage  women.  Duke  Bros.  salesman Edward Featherston   Small, an advertising  mastermind  who  is credited  with inventing the  cigar-store  Indian,  had  obtained  permission  to  use a lithograph  of Madame  Rhea,  a curvy French  actress on  tour  in the States in 1884,  for advertising in Georgia.  The company superimposed  a  pack of Duke  smokes into her extended  right  hand,  above the cap- tion “Atlanta’s Favorite,” a ploy that helped Duke sell nearly a million cigarettes in what  had  previously  been  an impenetrable   market  for him.  The  front  office was thrilled  with  Small’s tactic,  dashing  off a letter to him:  “We think  you made  a happy hit  with Rhea.  Give the Bull’s tail another  twist.”  Small procured  many more comely ladies to promote  Duke  cigarettes,  putting  them  on  advertising  posters  and having them sell cigarettes on streets around  the country.  But the next big  twist  to Bull Durham’s  tail would  come  in the  form  of picture cards. Duke and Small wanted to put the likes of Madame Rhea inside their  cigarette  boxes, not  just in their  ads.

The idea was simple: give the buyer a collectible card to go with his pack of smokes, and he’ll buy more  cigarettes  in hopes of completing the set. Duke  and the other  tobacco  makers who followed him wisely numbered their collectible cards, usually twenty-five or fifty to an issue, which hadn’t  been  done  with earlier trade  cards. It helped  to create brand  loyalty, and  as a bonus,  collector-smokers  would  be advertising the company to anyone they showed their cards to. It was one of the most ingenious  marketing  ploys of the nineteenth century. And advertising aside, the  cardboard  served a practical function  by stiffening soft packs so that the cigarettes wouldn’t  be damaged  while stuffed into a  smoker’s pocket.

To make sure that the country  was blanketed  with his cigarette pack- ages and trading cards, Duke dispatched employees to New York’s Castle Island immigration  station, where they handed  out free smokes to newly landed immigrants,  who would then carry Duke’s name off to all corners of  America.  Duke’s competitors were quick to follow, and the  cards they issued gave many Americans their first glimpses of exotic animals, far-off lands, and celebrities they’d read about in the newspaper, including ballplayers. They also helped the public equate tobacco with anything and everything American: state governors,  heroes of the Civil War, river steamers,  Indian  chiefs, billiards stars, race horses,  yacht clubs, and (in what must  have been  the  dreariest  of sets) newspaper  editors.  As one collector of such cards later recalled, “There  were no newsreels, no roto sections,  no picture  newspapers.  A good  cigarette  picture  was no mere plaything  for a boy.  It was life. No  wonder  Mr.  Munson,  next  door, would  pore  over my scrapbooks  of a winter  evening,  using his reading glass under the parlor lamp.” Still, some cards were of particular interest to kids, who pined after such sets as the Horatio  Alger-esque Histories of Poor Boys Who Have Become Rich and the Terrors of America, which depicted  all-American boys causing mischief.

Duke and his fellow card makers grasped the fact that children,  then as now, have a say in where the household’s  discretionary income goes. Even  though  adults collected tobacco  cards, the pursuit  appealed pri- marily to kids. The children,  Duke recognized, would beg their parents to buy whichever  cigarette  brand  issued the  card series they  desired most. And with a foresight that would reshape popular advertising Duke determined that,  of all potential  tobacco-card  images,  two could  un- failingly shill for a product  that  even then  was known  to kill people: scantily clad women  and great  athletes. When it came to the former, simple headshots  wouldn’t  suffice. The full-body  photos  on  tobacco  cards showed  robust  young  women  in elaborate  yet meager tasseled dresses and calf-high boots.  The models and actresses were thrown  across chairs and sofas, fanning themselves,  arms  placed  unnaturally  behind  their  heads  and  cigarettes  dangling from their  mouths.  The cards featuring  these “cigarette  beauties”  in- spired an 1888 ode in the Chicago Tribune:  “Who  are these beauties, fresh and fair with  ebon  locks and sun-kissed hair! Whose that  brow of alabaster  that  makes  the heart  thump  quick and faster! What their names! Where their  abode!”

The  sexual nature  of the  cards  prompted   the  wrath  of religious leaders  and  public-morality  groups  such  as the  Woman’s  Christian Temperance  Union  and  the  Society for the  Suppression  of Vice. A Methodist minister in Washington,  D.C.,  decried them as “indescribably  fiendish.  To  defile the  body  with  tobacco  is vile enough,   but when  all the  processes of modern  ingenuity  in printing  and picture- making  are brought into  use to stimulate  and  start  the  fires of un- holy passion in innocent  children,  the crime becomes  inhuman  in its baseness.”

Perpetrators of the card craze even earned a rebuke from the White House  when  a tobacco  maker  had  the  gall to print  a card featuring the comely Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of President  Grover Cleve- land and then the youngest  first lady ever. Another  inflammatory  card was  erroneously  believed  to depict  Jeannette  Halford,  the  daughter of E.  W. Halford,  the  president’s  secretary.  Cops  raided  the  studios where  cigarette  beauties  were shot  and  sometimes  hauled  photogra- phers  away  to jail. When  a reporter  for the  New Orleans Daily Pica- yune asked a young woman on the street if she’d ever allow her photo to be taken for a “cigarette  picture,”  she bridled,  “What  a horrid  suggestion!  Only  actresses, baseball  players, and  other  dreadful  people have such things taken.”

To young card collectors,  those dreadful ballplayers were every bit the prize as much  as the pretty  stage ladies, and the advertising war insti- gated  by Duke  would  usher  in the  first golden  era of baseball cards. The  first tobacco  company  to put  a baseball player on an insert  card was probably Duke’s competitor Allen & Ginter,  a Richmond  firm that had entered  the cigarette market in 1875.  (It’s also possible that company president  Lewis Ginter,  a former Confederate army major known for his  marketing  savvy, had started  putting  trading  cards inside cigarette  boxes  before  Duke  did.)  Allen & Ginter  packed their  cigarettes tightly  in paper  wrappers swathed  with brightly  illustrated  labels, and the  firm’s package  designs  were so ornate  that  they were featured  in the 1876  Centennial Exhibition  of the American Republic in Philadelphia.  Allen &  Ginter’s  1888  Worlds  Champions  series included  ten early baseball cards, along  with another  forty cards depicting  boxers, billiards  players,  rowers,  wrestlers,  and  gunslingers  such  as Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill. The set could be housed  inside an album that included  more  advertising  for  “the brightest,  most  delicately flavored” tobacco  grown  in Virginia. Duke answered with a set of baseball “cabi- net cards”: cardboard-mounted photographs large and attractive enough  to be displayed behind  glass in living room  cabinets.

When  it came to insert  cards, Ginter  tried  to take the  moral  high ground,  eschewing the actresses that Duke rolled out for what he considered more  manly subjects such as athletes.  But Ginter  certainly did his  best to split the difference with his Women  Baseball Players series of 1887, which featured  staged shots of curvy ladies in snug uniforms, one of whom managed  to gaze seductively at the camera while sliding headfirst into second base. Around  the same time, the genteel  citizens of Atlanta  flooded  the  mayor’s office with  complaints  when  a local tobacconist  filled his window  with  images  of the  “luscious  baseball nine,”  a group  of bat-wielding  women  who  injected  the  game  with sex appeal. The scandalous cards and displays had originated  from an unknown  company  in New York, where a local Christian  group  and several newspaper  editorial  boards,  including  the  New  York  Sun, launched  a crusade  against  them.  The  Atlanta  dealer  drew  such  a crowd with his “female baseballists” that  police were called in to disperse  the  oglers.  “When  the  pictures  of the  female baseball  players were sent out every dealer in tobacco  in the country  was crazy to get them  as  show  window  attractions,”  the  Atlanta Constitution   reported.  The  story also noted  that  a college professor had threatened a group  of  students  with expulsion  when  they decorated  their  walls with  such  cards; the  students  retaliated  by putting  a blind  horse  in the  professor’s  apartment.

For  baseball  fans,  the  timing  of  the  tobacco  advertising  battles couldn’t  have come  at  a better  time.  By the  1880s  the  sport  had emerged  as a far-reaching  commercial  force.  Just  a few years earlier amateur  players and their fans were bemoaning  all the money creeping into the game—the  National  Association of Base Ball Players, the first governing organization in the  sport,  had debated  whether  to declare professionalism  “reprehensible” as recently  as 1870.  But  the  game’s purists were fighting a losing battle, as more fans turned  out for games and  players demanded  more  compensation for their  play. The professional  National  League  (NL)  formed  in 1876,  with  the  Philadelphia Athletics  and Chicago  White Stockings among  its eight  charter  members. A rival American Association (AA) was founded  in 1881  and included teams  from Cincinnati  and  Louisville. Players and  fans of the priggish  NL  sometimes  sneered  at  the  AA, whose  games  were  renowned  for low  gate  fees and  copious  amounts  of booze,  earning  it the nickname  the  Beer and Whiskey League.

As star-powered  clubs became  increasingly profitable,  team owners often poached  top players from rosters in the other  league. This practice stopped  with the landmark Tripartite  Agreement  of 1883,  in which the two leagues, along with the Northwestern League, agreed to honor one  another’s  contracts.  But  the  agreement  also set the  stage  for a nearly century-long  battle  between  players and  owners  by cementing  the  all-important  “reserve  clause”  in baseball.  The  rule  gave a team owner  the  right  to “reserve”  a player for another  year at the  end  of each  season,  in effect binding  the  player to his squad  in perpetuity.  (The Tripartite  Agreement  also prevented  teams from picking up players  that  had  been  blacklisted  from  other  clubs,  further  limiting  a player’s  movements.)  The  reserve clause was widely despised  among players, even though  salaries rose during the decade; by 1885 the mini- mum annual haul of a player was a working  man’s $1,000, with a cap of  $2,000.

The agreement  between the leagues may have been controversial,  but it  brought the  sport  the  stability it needed  to flourish.  The  May 31, 1886,  game between  the New York Giants and the Detroit  Wolverines marked  the  first time  a major-league  game  logged  twenty  thousand– plus  fans in attendance;  in October  of that  year the National  League and  American Association winners faced off in a world championship,  a thrilling  six-game series in which the AA’s St. Louis Browns topped the  Chicago  White Stockings in the sixth and final game,  winning  on Curt  Welch’s “$15,000 slide” at home,  so-called because of the cash prize it  brought the  St. Louis club.  To mark the  occasion,  the  Lone Jack cigarette company of Lynchburg,  Virginia, put out a picture card for each  of the thirteen  St. Louis players.

In the months  that  followed,  Goodwin  and Co.  Tobacco  unveiled perhaps the  most  ambitious  and  fascinating  set of baseball cards collectors would ever see. After a successful run of twelve cards featuring the  hometown New York Giants,  Goodwin  began  producing  a series that  would  eventually number  more  than  twenty-three hundred  cards and  depict  more  than  five hundred  players. Taken  as a whole,  the sprawling  Old  Judge  set,  named  for a Goodwin  tobacco  brand,  still stands as one of the great visual records of late-nineteenth-century base- ball and the men who played it. The company’s primary photographer, Joseph Hall, tried to take pictures of every ballplayer on the rosters of forty major- and minor-league  teams. Although  baseball scholars consider him one  of the  game’s first great  photographers, Hall  probably spent  more  time  shooting  weddings  and  portraits  than  he did  ball- players. He was a chronicler  of life in Brooklyn—one  of his only surviving works  aside  from  the  baseball  cards  is a series of  gorgeous photos  he took  of the borough’s  Green-Wood Cemetery.  The imagination  and sheer breadth  of Hall’s Old  Judge  photos,  however,  sug-gest  that  baseball was special to him.

Hall enjoyed plenty of artistic latitude  in shooting  the Old Judges. The cards were not mass-produced  prints; they were sepia-toned  photographs  pasted  onto  heavy-stock  cardboard.  He  shot  some  players in more  than  a dozen  poses.  In  the  photos,  the  mustachioed  men wear dark,  knee-high  stirrups  and  collared  jerseys buttoned to their Adam’s apples.  Most  of the players stand in solemn,  dignified poses, but  the  most  intriguing  cards  depict  staged  action  shots  set  up  in Hall’s Brooklyn  studio—runners in frozen  headfirst  slides, infielders tagging  out  opponents as they look in the  camera’s eye. Balls hang from visible  strings,  bases lie on the studio  floor,  and painted  back ground  cloths show stadium walls and city skylines. As Hall probably knew  well, not  even  a seven-year-old  would  have  taken  these  for spontaneous  photographs. But  they  convincingly  evoke  the  showmanship  of the  sport,  often  with  genuine  artistry.  Each  of his full- body portraits  is unique,  as if Hall was trying to capture  not  the face but  the personality,  and some remain inscrutable  today,  like the one of future  Hall of Fame  outfielder  Ed Delahanty,  who cups his hands and looks to the sky as if  in  prayer.

The  cards catalog  what  had  become,  by the  1880s,  a thoroughly professional  game,  with  players moving  regularly  from  team  to team and  leagues  morphing  from  season  to  season  as established  squads went  under  and  new ones  sprouted  up.  The  Old  Judges  reflect  the game’s  westward  crawl, too,  with  players for such far-flung  Western Association teams as Omaha,  Nebraska, and Sioux City, Iowa, featured on  cards in 1888.  The  final installment  of Old  Judges,  from  1890, showed men from the newly formed Players League, a group that had splintered  off from the National  League because of labor issues, most notably  the reserve clause. The Players League had no salary caps, but it  folded after just one season.

Mint Condition copyright 2010 by Dave Jamieson, reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic, Inc.

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