Hall of Fame fighter James Jeffries is featured on a variety of pre-war boxing cards. Interestingly enough, the majority of them came at the very end of his career.
Jeffries does have some earlier cards when he was truly an active fighter. Perhaps most notably, his presence in the massive 1901-02 Ogden’s General Interest set (commonly referred to as his rookie card), is one of his most mainstream set appearances. But even then, he had been already actively fighting for about five years. Jeffries’ earliest years in boxing were not well represented by trading cards simply because few were being produced at that time.
But with the flurry of card sets being issued from around 1908-1912, Jeffries found himself in numerous series, even as a retired fighter. The reason for that was largely because of his un-retirement when he returned to the ring to face Jack Johnson for the heavyweight championship in 1910.
Dubbed, “The Fight of the Century,” the match is a widely documented one and one that was littered with racial overtones. Some card sets issued at the time, such as a series of postcards from 1910, even were blatant in labeling it purely as a black vs. white battle.
Many thought that Jeffries would reclaim his title. That, of course, did not happen as Johnson largely dominated the fight, retaining the championship.
The 1909 James Jeffries Playing Cards
One of the many card sets issued in advance of the fight was released in 1909 and revolved around Jeffries himself. In fact, it was distributed by the W.P. Jeffries Company, located in Los Angeles. It is unclear to me what affiliation Jeffries himself had with the company, though, a W.P. Jeffries lived in Los Angeles at the time and was a president of the Jeffries Banknote Company, which specialized in printing and lithography.
These standard playing cards featured black and images of fighters on one side with a card number/suit. A plain clothes portrait image of Jeffries was on the back of each card in the deck against a red background.
The cards are standard playing card size with traditional rounded corners. That has meant a fairly large part of the population has remained in decent, even high-grade, condition. PSA, for example, has graded just over 1,400 cards from the set. More than 900 of those have received high grades of 8, 9, and 10 (including 119 PSA 10 examples). Frankly, more often than not, they are found in decent condition as opposed to lower grade.
Interestingly enough, the same layout of the cards was used in numerous other playing card series’, often featuring scenery, railways, and locations. For example, one of those sets was the 1907-09 Rieder California Souvenir cards. Instead of boxers, that set featured images of famous spots in California. Those, of course, are also sans the image of Jeffries on the backs but the front of the cards with the oval images, titles, etc. are presented in the same familiar style.
Finally, a title card inserted into each deck gives us confirmation on the 1909 date and formally calls this set the Jeffries’ Championship Souvenir Playing Cards.
Subjects — and a Very Important Rookie Card
So, who’s included? The 52-card set features many big names and Hall of Famers.
Among the biggest names are Jeffries, John Sullivan, Jack ‘Nonpareil’ Dempsey, Bob Fitzsimmons, James Corbett, Tom Sharkey, and others, including Abe Attell, who famously was a conspirator in the 1919 World Series fix. While some fighters are pictured alone, the majority of the cards feature two fighters squaring off. That has led to many fighters being pictured on more than one card. Jeffries himself is in that class as he is featured on many cards in the set (in addition, of course, to his image on the back of every card), including a special Joker card.
The biggest name in the set, however, is Jack Johnson. Despite admitting after their fight that he could not have defeated Johnson, even at his best, the disdain for Johnson before the fight when this series was issued was evident. While many boxers were afforded the luxury of appearing on more than one card, despite being the heavyweight champion at the time, Johnson is not. Johnson is featured on a single card, and even in that instance, is not pictured alone. Instead, he is seen fighting another famous Black fighter, Sam McVey.
It should be noted, too, that the Johnson/McVey card is decidedly racist in nature as it is titled, Johnson-McVey “Fighting Tar Babies,” using a derisive term towards Blacks. The card, however, is highly treasured today. Not only is it the most valuable card in the set by a considerable margin, it is also a rookie card of Johnson.
That is not a terribly widely known fact. Many collectors know Johnson’s rookie card in the second series of the 1908-09 Ogden Pugilists and Wrestlers set, issued out of the UK. Some collectors believe that the card was issued in 1908, which would predate this one. But that is not the case. While the first series cards were issued in that year, the second series cards did not come until 1909 — meaning that the playing card of Johnson also qualifies as a legitimate rookie issue of the superstar.
Prices and Rarity
While finding the set in its complete form is admittedly rare, individual cards are floating around out there. As stated, PSA has graded more than 1,400 of the cards and typically, there are always some examples from the set on eBay. The cards are, admittedly, still a somewhat tough find. You simply don’t see them that often and the cards are rare enough that it does present a challenging set build.
Despite being somewhat tough finds and the cards all picturing Jeffries the Hall of Famer on the backs, prices for most are modest. Raw commons and even some stars from the set can be had for starting prices of about $10 each. Even many of the bigger names do not usually sell for outrageous prices with many often closing in auctions for under $20.
The biggest card in the set, of course, sells for more. The aforementioned Johnson rookie card can sometimes be a bargain find if sellers do not quite realize what they have. However, in an auction setting, the card typically sells for around $150-$250 in decent condition as a starting point. High-grade examples sell for considerably more, depending on exact condition.