Baseball cards didn’t really gain mass popularity until the 1950s, but that doesn’t mean cards weren’t produced for any number of other greats. Just a few years ago, one of the world’s oldest cards, thought to be a team shot of the 1865 Brooklyn Atlantics sold at auction for $92,000. There are many collectors who specialize in cards that date back a century or more and many of them are available for less princely sums. They offer great snapshots of what professional baseball was like in its infancy.
Below is a list of some 1880s baseball cards (and some from the 1890s) of standout players from that era that would make for a great start to any collection of 19th century memorabilia. Click the links to see them on eBay.
Old Hoss Radbourn, 1887 Old Judge: One of the most iconic early photos in early baseball history has Old Hoss Radbourn giving his team photographer the finger. [It’s actually the first photograph ever of someone doing it– good work, Hoss.] A tribute account run for Radbourn on Twitter frequently features humorously raucous language. In contrast, his 1887 Old Judge card looks positively tranquil.
Tommy McCarthy, 1887 Old Judge: By the sabermetric stat Wins Above Average, Tommy McCarthy ranks as the second-worst player in the Hall of Fame, with 0.2 WAA. Only Lloyd Waner fares worse for this stat. But McCarthy, who got in Cooperstown during a wave of special Old Timer Committee inductions in the 1940s, may have one of the best baseball cards ever.
The picture of him sliding in a carpeted studio is far more ludicrous than any Hall of Fame plaque could ever be. It’s a famous card, too, and there’s one for sale on currently at $15,000. Cards of other notable [and better] 19th century stars go for 1/20th of that.
King Kelly, 1888 Allen & Ginter: 1888 was Kelly’s first season with the Beaneaters, when he got a record $5,000 salary including $2,000 for “use of his picture.” Kelly was hugely popular with fans, was always up for a party and is considered to be among the game’s first major stars. If you’re putting together a collection of 1880s baseball cards, the dashing Mr. Kelly must be included.
Bob Caruthers, 1888 Goodwin Champions: With Baseball-Reference.com bringing renewed attention to scores of forgotten 19th century players, it wouldn’t be stunning to see Caruthers honored by Cooperstown sometime soon. The man nicknamed Parisian Bob was one of the biggest stars of the 1880s, a standout as both a pitcher and position player. As noted in his SABR bio, Caruthers’ career in the majors ended at age 29 due to arm troubles.
Tim Keefe, 1888 Goodwin Champions: Tim Keefe won 342 games in his career, including 291 in his first 10 seasons. Just three other pitchers have posted more wins in their first decade in the majors: John Clarkson, Kid Nichols, and Old Hoss Radbourn, who like Keefe all pitched in the late 19th century. Clarkson and Radbourn played in 1888 as well and, interestingly, do not figure in the Goodwin set. It offered only a small number of baseball cards.
Deacon White, 1888 Scrapps: Deacon was pushing 40 when this little piece of memorabilia was new, playing for the Detroit Wolverines as a 20-year career came to a close. During his time, he drove in more runs than any player except Cap Anson. This 2013 Veterans Committee selection went in Cooperstown without too high of a profile or many cards. The magic of eBay, of course, is that nothing is impossible to find there.
Jack Glasscock, 1895 Mayo’s Cut Plug: By the time Jack Glasscock posed for this card in 1895, he was nearing the end of his 17-year big league career, which was epic by 19th century standards. Some say Glasscock was the best shortstop of the 1800s, and my friend Adam Darowski is a big booster for his Hall of Fame case. Due to the condition of the card and Glasscock’s relatively obscure stature outside the research community [save, of course, for that name], his card can be had at a bargain price.
Kid Nichols, 1895 Mayo’s Cut Plug: Nichols rates as one of the great rediscovered players in Hall of Fame history, being voted in just shy of his 80th birthday in 1949. He went 361-208 lifetime, nearly winning 300 games before he turned 30. Somehow the Old Timers Committee forgot him during its wave of mass inductions in 1945 and ’46, though he received a smattering of votes in several BBWAA elections for Cooperstown.
Cap Anson, 1895 Mayo’s Cut Plug: As the most prolific player of the 19th century, figuring in 27 seasons from 1871 to 1897, Anson’s got a number of cards, including in the 1887 Allen & Ginter and Old Judge sets. He was winding down a long career with the Chicago White Stockings when this almost formal portrait was inserted into Mayo’s tobacco.
Dan Brouthers, 1888 Goodwin Champions: Though somewhat obscure today, Brouthers was celebrated enough to figure with Kelly and McCarthy in the Old Timers Committee selections for Cooperstown in 1945 and ’46. There’s good reason for this. Brouthers might rank as the best hitter of the 19th century, with his 171 OPS+ tops in the 1800s. A five-time batting champion, he retired with a .342 batting average. He’s in the Old Judge set with full-length poses, but it’s hard to beat the beauty of the Goodwin cards.