Maybe we’ve found the true answer as to why Honus Wagner didn’t want his picture used in the T206 tobacco card series.
A recently discovered column that appeared in the August 9, 1909 edition of the Charlotte (NC) Observer, and a follow-up on September 1 of that year, would indicate the cards were quite a sensation on Tobacco Road.
The Observer’s current day librarian made the near century-old accounts available to Sports Collectors Daily. The first story, written in the editorial style common to the day, is entitled “The Small Boy’s Mania. The subhead and story read:
Pictures of “Baseball Men” More Sought After Than Gold–The Small Boy’s Greatest Desire is to secure Pictures of Ty Cobb and Hans Wagner.
The amount of interest displayed by the small boys of the community over the pictures of the National and American League baseball players that come, one in every pack of Piedmont cigarettes, is remarkable.
Since the beginning of summer, when the American Tobacco Company commenced putting the pictures in their packages of cigarettes, the small boy has been more or less of a nuisance by stopping young and old men as they walked along the street begging for “baseball men”.
The collections have become a mania. Whenever a new shipment of cigarettes is opened, the small boy congregates around the stand and every purchaser is besieged, and not allowed to leave until the picture has been forced from him.
Saturday, a frying-sized kid purchased $1 worth of cigarettes, and after securing the desired pictures, peddled the smokeables to the passers on the streets. Often two packages of cigarettes were offered for 5 cents, but the pictures had always been extracted.
The children match one another for the picture and the winner walks away exultant with the entire collection of his friends in his hands. The gambling amounts to guess work. While the picture is flying in the air one of the boys calls the side it will fall on, face up or down. If in his guess he is correct, the picture goes to him, other wise, he has lost one of his own pictures.
More especially are the likenesses of Ty Cobb and Hans Wagner desired, and until a week ago only a few pictures of Cobb had been found, two of these being in the possession of the Buford Hotel cigar stand. Last Thursday in a new shipment of cigarettes received at the Wilson Drug store on East Trade Street, 13 pictures of Ty Cobb were found in the first installment opened. The boys of the street went wild securing money from every available source they began purchasing from the W.L. Hand Drug Store. Before night over 3,000 cigarettes had been sold by one firm and on the streets 5-cent packages of cigarettes were being sold for as little as a cent apiece.
Years ago when the Duke cigarette was being sold in enormous quantities, pictures of actresses were enclosed in the packages, and at that time much interest was taken in securing collections. Nearly every man under 30 years of age can remember the time when he yearned for the largest collection of the pictures and many of those old pictures are still to be found in unused trunks and forgotten corners. The craze at that time, however, did not take the violent form which has attacked the “baseball men”.
A few weeks later, the nearby Winston (NC) Sentinel also published a commentary on the topic, entitled “Tempting the Children”. It read:
The advertising man who conceived the idea of putting baseball pictures in cigarette packages did a good thing for his employers, but a mighty bad thing for the small boy. There ought to be some way to prohibit this kind of thing. It will do more to start young boys to smoking cigarettes than any other agency of which we can conceive.
That was followed by the Observer’s take on the Sentinel’s editorial:
The Sentinel has a good idea of the situation. The man who thought of using the baseball craze to advertise cigarettes was a man who knew his business and is a valuable man to the American Tobacco Company, but then the idea has its bad side. Every child is wild to get the baseball men and every nickel that can be gotten goes for cigarettes. Of course it is impossible to find out who sells them, but a news item from this city this week states that the number of licenses to sell cigarettes has increased wonderfully within the last few months. That the boys are buying the cigarettes is a settled fact and there are always people who will sell anything for the money.
The stories are interesting on a number of levels. First, it’s obvious that kids were crazy for baseball in 1909. No doubt, they were following the games through the newspapers and playing baseball themselves. The availability of such a personal connection to the players–in color no less–had to have been exciting. Kids being kids, they were willing to do anything to get those precious cards and see their heroes up close.
Second, the mention of Wagner seems to indicate that his card was available and kids knew it–or had seen them. Estimates that less than 100 survive today would indicate that the card had to have been pulled within weeks, if not days, of its issue.
Third, it’s interesting that the papers’ attempts to protect kids from an association with cigarettes came in the heart of tobacco country. We’re guessing American Tobacco took a lot of heat from parents and other adults during the three years the T206 cards were produced, but didn’t cave in because of what would appear to have been a very successful promotion that sold millions of cigarettes.
And lastly, the content of the piece reveals that the ‘flipping game’ that was so popular in the 1950s, was alive and well in 1909.
How many smokers were born –and met their premature end–because of a baseball card addiction is pretty ironic. Bubble gum, it would now seem, was relatively harmless in spite of post-War moms warnings about tooth decay.
See thousands of T206 cards on eBay here.