Newspapers are supposed to be informative.
Some still do it long after all of their employees have departed this world.
I recently bought a copy of the April 23, 1910 issue of Sporting Life, a one-time competitor of the much longer lasting Sporting News. The auction’s cool selling point was a big ad on the back page, touting the weekly newspaper’s new baseball card set, the one Jefferson Burdick catalogued as M116. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the series of ads for both the Sporting Life and T206 cards.
The brittle old paper came with a bonus, though: a bit of lost baseball card history.
While just about every baseball card guide and article tells us the Sporting Life cards were “sold for the price of a pair of two-cent stamps,” that’s not really a complete answer. Upon turning over the first page of the paper, I discovered that the Sporting Life’s 288 cards were all supposed to be completely free to anyone who bought or subscribed to it. The cards were meant to be supplements, a series of 12 somehow tucked into each copy or otherwise distributed to readers with no strings attached.
It turns out the postal service nixed the idea.
That’s right. Federal regulations got in the way–but also probably ensured that there were a decent number of high-grade surviving copies more than a century later. It’s all there in black and white– or yellow now, thanks to nature’s inevitable impact on really old newsprint.
The paper explained it all on page two of that issue I now own. It’s the very edition in which the editors of the publication revealed the set’s existence, which is pretty cool by itself. There’s a banner on top of the masthead on page 1, the article prominently placed on page 2 article and the big, half-page ad on the back that pictures some of the cards they had created.
The ad was really the attraction for me since it includes the Carl Horner image of Honus Wagner that’s better known in the T206 set but also resides in the M116 set. Cobb and Mathewson are pictured too, as well as a few other notables.
Clearly, it was a big promotion for The Sporting Life, which was trying to create some good will. They ran multiple ads of different types that season to get the word out.
Their somewhat lengthy article explains that executives wanted to put the sets of 12 cards inside each copy for the next 26 weeks but the fact that the backs of the cards were an advertisement for the publication was somehow against postal rules.
“It was also intended by the publishers of ‘Sporting Life’ to give these pictures to all readers of the paper as a supplement to each issue, beginning with this number,” they wrote. “But, at the last moment we fortunately discovered that the insertion of these picture card supplements in Sporting Life for free distribution would be a violation of the postal laws inasmuch as the cards contained ‘Sporting Life’s advertisement on the back.”
Fortunately, yes, in that they didn’t attract a big fine, but you can imagine the chagrin of seeing their original plan go up in smoke.
Rather than dump the idea and be stuck with the “artistic and beautifully colored” cards, the paper decided to tell readers they could still get them for “free” as long as they paid for the cost to mail them. “We will send any number of sets to each reader upon the above conditions.”
In other words, no stamps, no cards.
“No one will be disappointed with these up-to-date pictures of favorite ball players,” the unnamed writer promised.
He was right, at least from today’s perspective. The cards are simple, but gorgeous. They color tinted black and white portraits to give them some eye appeal and the cards turned out to be very attractive.
Snaring all 288 cards required some serious stamp licking and newspaper clipping and that’s why full sets are scarce today. Had the cards been inserted or attached to the newspaper somehow, maybe more would have been acquired back in the day, but it’s also likely many would have wound up creased. By asking readers to send away for the cards and then mailing them in the fancy little envelopes, the paper turned them into something of a treasured collectible adults shared with their kids.
I suspect there are a few long-time, very knowledgeable vintage baseball card collectors who might have read this issue in their research somewhere along the way and know the story, but I’d venture the vast majority of you probably don’t.
Now, we all do.
Oh, by the way. Also in that issue, on the same page as the baseball card article were two brief announcements under “Baseball Fatalities” chronicling the baseball-realated deaths of two players: one apparently during a St. Louis area semi-pro game and other during a game between Rensselaer Polytechnic and a nearby high school team in which the high school pitcher hit an RPI batter with an inside fastball. Like the well-chronicled death of Ray Chapman ten years later, Frank Burns (yes, M*A*S*H fans, that was his name) was able to get up and left the field, but passed early the next morning.
Both of those events happened on the same day.
April 17, 1910 was not a good day to be a ballplayer.