Exhibit cards are among the more affordable pre-war cards that can be had. While it’s true that some can be expensive, by comparison, they can often be a good way to score some bargain-priced cards of big name players. Here’s the first in a three-part series focusing on these vintage issues. First, we’ll take a look at the earliest Exhibit cards.
The First Exhibit Baseball Sets
So what are Exhibit cards? While many collectors know about these gems, many others do not.
Essentially, Exhibit cards were cards that were offered in arcade machines that usually cost one cent or two cents. You’d put a penny or two in and you’d get an Exhibit card. These cards were oversized, about the size of a postcard. While Exhibit cards featuring baseball players are the most popular, Exhibits were produced for all sorts of subjects, including boxers, football players, other athletes, and movie stars.
When the term ‘Exhibits’ is used, it generally refers to those cards produced by the Exhibit Supply Company. That company was based in Chicago and was the company responsible for the great majority of these cards out there. However, it should be noted that they were not the only company producing these types of cards.
Other similar cards can also be referred to as Exhibits, even if they weren’t produced by the Exhibit Supply Company themselves, similar to products such as Q-Tips today. If someone uses the term ‘Exhibit cards,’ they could be referring to other types of these cards not issued formally by the Exhibit Supply Company. For the sake of this series, however, we’re going to be looking primarily here at the Exhibit Supply Company’s baseball cards.
The first of their Exhibit baseball cards were issued in 1921. The set remains quite popular today and had a basic design with the player’s name in bold, cursive font and his team and league in a small font. The cards are relatively basic with black and white images and blank backs. That was a theme seen in the earliest Exhibit sets. That first set paved the way for later Exhibit sets as it included a wealth of big names. Among the biggest were Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby, and Tris Speaker. While they can’t be classified as cheap, they do offer an opportunity to land some large, sharp-looking cards from their playing days for a fairly reasonable cost.
Even though those are the oldest Exhibit cards, they are among the more plentiful ones from the pre-war era. There are 64 cards in that set and over the next several years, the sets often consisted of either 64 or 128 cards.
The most valuable Exhibit cards from these early years are generally the ones with the biggest names. Ruth and Cobb Exhibits, for example, are always near the top in any set in which they appear.
Perhaps the most famous Exhibit from these early years, however, is one featuring Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse would appear on several Exhibit cards but his 1925 card is particularly notable because, while he played sparingly in 1923 and 1924, 1925 was his first full-time season and the card is his rookie issue. Even in low-grade condition, it commands five figures. Even modestly graded examples can sell for more than $50,000.
As the years went on, Exhibit cards changed their appearance. The 1922 set, for example, had player names in a thinner style of font and the look changed again for a 1923-24 release. In 1925, Exhibits began printing player and team information inside of a box. And in 1926, 1927, and 1928, there were assorted styles with print appearing at the bottom of cards.
Here’s a very rough, brief checklisting of the types of layouts used on the Exhibit cards in the early years.
- 1921 – Thick cursive lettering for player names
- 1922 – Thinner sursive style of lettering for player names
- 1923-24 – A different style of cursive lettering for player names
- 1925 – Printed information inside of a box
- 1926 – Some cards with information inside of a box, others not
- 1927 – Information outside of a box with green tinted images
- 1928 – Information outside of a box with blue tinted images
Dating the cards to precise years is sometimes easy and other times a bit more difficult. Many of the cards issued in 1926, for example, are believed to be repeated from the 1925 set. PSA states that the repeated cards have a light blue tint. However, most of the designs make it relatively easy to determine to which set a card belongs.
These early Exhibit cards issued from 1921 through 1928 were classified as W461 in the American Card Catalog by author Jefferson Burdick. In all, there are more than 500 cards in these sets combined and you can find quite a few on eBay at any given time.
‘Other’ Early Exhibits
While the baseball-only Exhibits mentioned above are the most popular, there are several other notable early releases.
One is a 1929 Exhibit postcard featuring small ‘stamp cut outs’ of movie stars as well as the legendary Babe Ruth. Eight of these stamps (stamp cuts not traditional usable stamps) were printed on a postcard and Ruth is featured because he appeared in several movies. Also pictured that is of interest to sports collectors is Hall of Fame boxer Jack Dempsey.
Additionally, a 1925 Exhibit set featured world champion athletes in all sorts of sports. Ruth headlines the set as the lone baseball player but his is hardly the only desirable Exhibit in the set. Almost all of the cards in this ‘Champions Exhibit’ set command interest because of their rarity and the checklist also includes boxing legend Jack Dempsey, golf star Gene Sarazen, and tennis great Bill Tilden, among many others. Ruth’s is the most valuable but even commons are heavily pursued because of the rarity associated with them.
In addition to the baseball-only sets mentioned above, a set of Exhibits with postcard backs was issued with an assumed printing ranging from 1925 through 1931. These are often lumped in with the earlier sets described but are in fact classified separately. You can usually find a few dozen for sale on eBay but better examples and rarer cards can be pricey.
Finally, major league baseball players weren’t the only baseball players featured in Exhibits. A special set was produced in 1928 for Pacific Coast League minor league players. The cards had the same blue tint as was found in the 1928 major league set and includes many players that ultimately made their way to the big leagues. The biggest star in that set is Hall of Famer Earl Averill, whose career was just beginning.