Vintage Baseball Cards Questions and Answers

The following are answers to email baseball card and related questions I’ve received in the past. If you have any questions for my column, feel free to email me at [email protected].

QUESTION: What is a baseball card progression proof?

Progression proofs for a 1975 Hostess baseball card.

Progression proofs for a 1975 Hostess baseball card.

ANSWER: Progression proofs were proofs, or test prints, that were used by the printers to test the colors and color alignment before final printing. They were used in the making of everything from baseball cards to movie posters to cereal boxes.

There was a series of progression proofs for a print, with each proof testing a unique color combination.  For example, one proof was printed in black and white, the next black and yellow, the next blue and red, and so on.  The set will show the prints in a variety, or progression, of colors.

Proofs and other printing tests were made to make sure all the colors, graphics and text aligned and looked good before you printed the final cards. Printers wanted to weed out the mistakes before they printed and shipped 10,000 finished cards. Though, as errors in cards show show us, they weren’t always successful. Progression proofs are often also called ‘color separation proofs,’ or ‘color separation tests,’ all which are acceptable names.

QUESTION: How can you tell the difference between a real 1950s Red Man baseball card poster and a reprint. I see a lot of ones being sold on eBay as reprint.

ANSWER: The original posters were on thin poster paper and in person have strikingly high quality graphics–- crisp, colorful and bright. I have heard that most of the reprints are on cardboard. The reprints usually have less crisp graphics and often a washed out quality. Reprints are often also artificially aged. There was a find of unused original posters, so the originals can be found in strong condition.

Original 1953 Red Man poster featuring the Yankees' Johnny Mize.

Original 1953 Red Man poster featuring the Yankees’ Johnny Mize.

QUESTION: I’ve never owned one before, but it seems to me that with the original painting used to make a magazine or baseball card, it would be obvious that the painting is original just be comparing the painting to the card.  Is this true or don’t I know what I’m talking about?  How plentiful are the original paintings for trading cards?

ANSWER: I’m far from an expert on this type of material.  However, some time back I had an interest in this area, so I asked around about the issue.  I contacted two people who know a lot more about this– John Pound, an artist for Topps’ non-sport trading cards, and Rob Lifson, President of Robert Edward Auctions.

The original art for many baseball card issues, including 1953 Topps, were paintings.

The original art for many baseball card issues, including 1953 Topps, were paintings.

Both said your theory is true.  They said that, by comparing side by side the painting with the trading card, magazine cover or whatever, that it is obvious whether or not the painting is the original.  I temper this by saying that Lifson and Pound no doubt have better eyes for this material than most of us.

According to Lifson, the supply of original paintings for early (Pre-1955) trading cards is rare.  For baseball and football trading cards, he could only come up with, off the top of his head, 1933 National Chicle (football), 1930s Diamond Star (baseball) and 1950s Topps and Bowman.  He said that even vintage non-painting original art (photographs, flexichrome, etc) is rare.  After talking to him, I felt like going out and getting one a Chicle or Diamond Star painting.

QUESTION: Your columns are often about art and photographs. Do you collect baseball cards?

ANSWER: I don’t actively collect anything more, but I’ve been a sportscard fan since about age six. As with many American men my age, I bought Topps wax packs at the local grocery store. Over the years, I’ve collected everything from T206s and Goudeys to Topps and Bowman, 1980s cards, odd balls and even 1990s inserts. Some of my all-time favorite issues include the T206s, 1950s-70s Topps, 1950s Armour Coins, Kelloggs 3D, 1970s Hostess and Twinkie box cards. I used to write for Beckett and Gridiron Greats, a football memorabilia magazine, and was an advisor for Beckett’s photo grading department. So I’ve been involved in the sports memorabilia and cards hobby for a long time, including as a collector.

I always was a generalist (‘everything but the kitchen sink’) collector and sports fan since a kid. I was raised in Wisconsin, so grew up a Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers fan. I got my first green and gold Packers jersey when I was about five. I currently live about ten minutes away from Safeco Field and catch Seattle Mariners’ games a few times a summer.

QUESTION: I sometimes see old cigarette packs for sale and the owner often claims that there’s a good chance that there’s a T206 baseball card in there. I would really love to buy a pack with a baseball card inside, but don’t know if you should take the seller’s claim with a grain of salt.

ANSWER: Unless the seller is an expert such as Lifson or Lew Lipset or can provide detailed proof that a T206 could be inside, I’d be skeptical.

Sweet Caporal cigarette packs with a 1909 tax stamp.

Sweet Caporal cigarette packs with a 1909 tax stamp.

Old cigarette packs can be nice display items, they have great graphics, and many people collect them knowing there is nothing inside but cigarettes or plug tobacco. Many collectors of T206 baseball cards will buy relevant-brand packs (Sweet Caporal, Piedmont, Drum, etc) to display with their packs. However, when buying one of these old cigarette packs, price it as if there is not a card in there. Almost none of the cigarette packs will have a T206 card or other card of significant, and buying into the eBay seller’s hype is usually a costly mistake.

There are some markers for judging the date, but dating cigarette packs is an inexact science. Sweet Caporal ( a cigarette pack that T206s were sold in), used the same design for over twenty years. So a 1909 (T206 era) Sweet Caporal may look essentially the same as a 1920 pack.

There are datable tax stamps that were put on packs, but these too are inexact markers. A tax stamp often was issued for a several year period. Further, tobacco stores often saved stamps and used in later years. For example, it is possible to find a 1909 tax stamp on a 1917 cigarette pack.  Click here for a helpful guide to dating cigarette packs via date tax stamps.

So, the rule of thumb is to price an old unopened cigarette pack as if it doesn’t have a T206 Honus Wagner inside, as it probably doesn’t.

QUESTION: How come you never seem to see original printing plates for Pre-War baseball cards, like the T206s?

ANSWER: The printers had no use for the finished printing plates. After all,they were only for silly baseball cards. When finished printing the cards, they clean off the surface,
throw away and/or melt down the plates for other purposes.  The printing plate necessary for cards such as the 1915 Sporting News were large, heavy and 
bulky and I’m sure the printers didn’t want them taking up space in a back room.

About David Cycleback

David Cycleback is an art and artifacts historian and an internationally known authentication expert. He has authenticated artifacts for major institutions, was a writer for the standard academic reference Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, and teaches courses in art authentication. Reprinted by Beijing's Three Shadows Art Center, his guides "Judging the Authenticity of Prints by the Masters" and "Judging the Authenticity of Photographs" were the first comprehensive books on the subjects published in China. He can be reached at [email protected].