The 1917 Collins-McCarthy baseball card set was an austere product, which was perfect for the turbulent times facing the United States a century ago.
June 5, 1917, was Registration Day in the United States, as every male between the ages of 21 and 31 was required to register for a military service draft lottery. President Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress to declare war on Germany two months earlier, and the military was gearing up to send troops overseas to aid the Allies during World War I.
Times were going to be tough, and major-league baseball players would feel the war’s effect in a hurry. Boston Braves catcher Hank Gowdy became the first active major-leaguer to enlist, several weeks after former players Eddie Grant and Harry “Moose” McCormick signed up.
The Collins-McCarthy Candy Co. of San Francisco had issued baseball cards, most notably Zeenut cards of Pacific Coast League players for 28 years beginning in 1911. An ad from the San Francisco Call in 1912 was typical for the cards, which could be purchased for a nickel: “Have you eaten any Zee-Nut? Gee! But it’s good!”
But 1917 was the company’s only foray into distributing cards of major-league players.
Tabbed with an E135 designation in the American Card Catalog, the Collins-McCarthy baseball set contained 200 cards and measured 2 inches by 3¼ inches. Similar to the M101-4/5 cards of the same era, they were printed on very thin stock and had a high gloss front.
They sported posed shots in black-and-white photographs, and the players were framed by a dark pinstripe and a larger white border. Their name, position and team were at the bottom of the card, along with the card number; the checklist ran alphabetically from No. 1 to No. 200, starting with Sam Agnew and ending with Henry “Heinie” Zimmerman. The design for the card fronts mirrored those of the cards put out by the Boston Store (H801-8), Standard Biscuit (D350-2) and Weil Baking (D328).
The card backs were rather presumptive, touting that the card was “one of the 200 pictures comprising Baseball’s Hall of Fame,” an interesting statement since the Hall of Fame would not open for nearly another two decades. The card back also lets the buyer know that there are 199 other cards in the set, and gives what appears to be the Collins-McCarthy motto at the time — “Just a little bit better.” Some of the cards also were issued with blank backs.
The set certainly boasts a lineup of sweet stars and a bountiful share of future Hall of Famers. Veterans included Grover Cleveland Alexander (No. 2), John “Home Run” Baker (No. 11), Cobb (No. 30), Eddie Collins (No. 31), Johnny Evers (No. 45), “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (No. 82), Walter Johnson (No. 87), manager John J. McGraw (No. 113), Tris Speaker (No. 166), Casey Stengel (No. 168) and Honus Wagner (No. 180, referred to as Hans on the card). Up-and-coming players included Harry Heilmann (No. 71), Rogers Hornsby (No. 80), Babe Ruth (No. 147) and George Sisler (No. 162).
There are five variations in the set. Card No. 76 is supposed to be New York Yankees outfielder Hugh High, but it is instead of shot of Claude “Lefty” Williams, who appropriately is sporting white socks since he was a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. A correct shot of High was issued, and he is wearing black socks. The same error would be found on Williams’ card (No. 190).
Card No. 90 lists Washington Senators first baseman Joe Judge when it is actually his teammate Ray Morgan, shown with a bat on his right shoulder; a corrected version shows Judge with a bat on his left shoulder. Card No. 121 is the same deal as No. 90, with Morgan incorrectly identified as Judge in one version with a bat on his right shoulder; Morgan’s correct photo also shows him with the bat on his right shoulder.
The final variation is card No. 146. In one version the player is not White Sox pitcher-outfielder Reb Russell, but his teammate, pitcher Mellie Wolfgang in a follow-through pose. Russell’s correct photo shows him with his hands at his side. The White Sox gave American League opponents fits in 1917 as they won the pennant; it also appears as if they gave photographers fits when it came to identifying players.
The bottom of the card back carries the trademark of the Collins-McCarthy Candy Co., which was founded by James Joseph Collins and Jeremiah D. McCarthy. Before teaming with McCarthy, Collins had been affiliated with another San Francisco candy maker, Harry B. Getleson. They ran Getleson, Collins & Co., although in 1906 they had to move temporarily to Sacramento in the wake of the killer earthquake that rocked San Francisco that year.
Sometime before the first Zeenut set was issued in 1911, Collins and McCarthy formed their own company. They would remain partners until McCarthy died intestate at age 51 on Feb. 15, 1918, in Oakland, California. According to probate records, at the time of his death McCarthy owned 12,000 shares of the Collins-McCarthy Candy Co., which were appraised at $34,787.59.
William Hencke, who had been the candy maker for the company, would become a vice president and then general partner. The firm was renamed the Collins-Hencke Candy Co., and the partnership would last until 1933. In 1931 the company consolidated with the General Candy Company and took the formal name of the Collins-Hencke Candy Co., Ltd.
Collins lived to be 80, dying November 29, 1947, in San Francisco.
Because this set was printed on thin stock, finding high-grade examples are extremely difficult. In fact, finding them in good condition is a chore.
SGC has graded 939 total cards with only eight rating better than 80 (EX/NM). Of the 396 cards submitted to PSA for grading, only three grade as high as PSA 8. There are 26 specimens that have graded out at PSA 7. In an October 2013 auction conducted by the Mile High Card Company, a PSA 5 Ruth card sold for $68,816, a PSA 6.5 Jackson went for $27,179, and a PSA 6.5 Hornsby fetched $21,105. All were part of what was at the time a fresh find we videotaped at the National Sports Collectors Convention.
You can find a few dozen original Collins-McCarthy cards on eBay.
The Collins-McCarthy set, released a century ago, offers some big names — but you’d better have deep pockets, even for the lower-graded cards.