As baseball grew in popularity in the 19th century, the types of collectibles offered for the sport grew as well. Collectors of early baseball cards know about tobacco cards and trade cards, but one of the more unique items found in the late 1800s was baseball currency. As we’ll see in a bit, this wasn’t actual currency to be used anywhere. But it was able to be used as money of a sort with some limitations.
Let’s take a look at these obscure issues.
Baseball Currency Basics
In the late 1800s, eight different baseball currency notes were issued. Now, this wasn’t money you could use to buy just anything with. This currency was used as a coupon of sorts at various participating retailers. Because the bills were used by businesses and retailers, they are often considered to be trade cards of a sort.
The currency has the appearance of oversized money. The bills measure approximately 3 3/8″ tall by 7 3/4″ wide. One of the reasons they are so desirable is that they feature real players on real teams. One side of the bills have a picture of a team owner or manager, along with a baseball batter (more on that in a bit) or other themed image. The other side has small woodcut images of the team’s players.
These bills were printed with overprinted names of businesses added to them, similar to other trade issues. Typically, one side would include the name of a business with the other side stating what the currency could be used for. The offers, of course, varied. Some notes indicated they could be used for a certain dollar amount. Others offered a percentage discount off of a purchase. In other words, you could consider them to be oversized coupons.
The currency was printed in a variety of years (but not consecutively) between 1887 and 1893. Based on our understanding of the bills, they were printed in 1887, 1888, 1889, and then 1893.
While there are a total of eight known bills, only teams from Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, in addition to an All-Star team, were featured. The checklist for the series is as follows:
- 1887 Chicago White Stockings
- 1887 Detroit Wolverines
- 1887 St. Louis Browns
- 1888 Chicago White Stockings
- 1888 Detroit Wolverines
- 1888 St. Louis Browns
- 1889 Chicago White Stockings
- 1893 All-Star Team
A total of eight bills are known today but it is possible that more exist. Given the checklist for the 1887 and 1888 series included three teams, it is possible that there could have been 1889 versions for Detroit and St. Louis that would have also been printed along with the known Chicago example. For now, however, the checklist stands at eight known bills.
If collectors look close, they may notice some images that look quite familiar as seen on other pre-war cards.
Most notably, the Chicago and Detroit bills picture what looks to be a generic batter. But the image used is actually of Hall of Famer Cap Anson. While Anson is not named, we know it is him because the same picture (in half-body form) is the one that was used on his N28 Allen & Ginter card.
Speaking of the N28 Allen & Ginter set, another connection is seen on two of the bills. Like the other bills, currency for the St. Louis Browns has head shots of the players on one side. One of the players on that team was Hall of Famer Charles Comiskey, who would become famous as an owner.
Comiskey was player/manager of the Browns at the time this currency was released. His image is on the currency is the same one found on his N28 Allen & Ginter cards. The only difference is that is reversed, with his currency photo showing facing to the right.
Other images from this currency are found elsewhere as well and these are merely two examples. Another one is Browns owner Chris von der Ahe, who is pictured on St. Louis notes with the same image found on his N284 Buchner Gold Coin card that was produced around the same time.
Rarity and Pricing
Baseball currency is hard to find these days. And because of the thin nature of the paper, even when it is seen it has usually suffered considerable damage. it is common to find these bills folded, creased, or even partially torn.
Finding them at all, however, is a challenge. Most collectors of them are willing to start with lower graded ones since they are so rarely seen.
Like most pre-war collectibles, they have risen sharply in value over the years. Low-grade notes can start between $500 and $1,000, give or take. REA sold a complete set in 2013 for $7,110 at auction.