The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York houses some true masterpieces by the world’s greatest artists.
Vincent Van Gogh. Pablo Picasso. Salvador Dali. And Jefferson Burdick.
That’s right. Burdick, the father of baseball card collecting, is an artist in his own right. His collection of cards and other ephemera, located in the museum’s drawing and prints department, is a history of popular printmaking in the United States that predates the Civil War.
The actual Burdick card exhibit ended Tuesday, but the museum has been digitizing his entire collection, giving collectors a unique chance to see his cards online. Online visitors can scroll through albums of cards and sort them by player or brand name.
Freyda Spira, an associate curator in the museum’s drawing and prints department since 2008, said the Burdick Collection “speaks to the broadness of collecting”.
“It gets people to reassess the definition of art,” she told Sports Collectors Daily. “It’s also great fun.”
Burdick donated more than 500 albums to the Metropolitan Museum during a 15-year stretch. The baseball card collection is a mere fraction of the 303,000 cards, postcards, cigar bands and other paper items Burdick donated to the museum. Spira said 40,000 cards have been digitized so far, with nearly 75 percent of those baseball cards. Currently, 34,772 total images can be seen online at the museum’s website.
“The hope is to put albums together where people can scroll through it page by page,” Spira said.
Burdick’s collection included cards from 1887 to 1959, and he attempted to collect every card issued by the tobacco and bubble gum card companies. His collection documents baseball through photography and lithography, displaying images of the stars along with the more obscure players of the deadball era.
Obsessive to a fault, Burdick created a system for cataloguing his collection. The labels he has given some of the cards (like T206, for example) remain the standard in the baseball card hobby.
“He was an avid collector. He began collecting advertising inserts when he was 10,” Spira said. “Sports wasn’t his main focus.”
In addition to the baseball cards, Burdick had approximately 30,000 other cards depicting football players, boxers, tennis stars and other sports figures. The collection does include a T206 Honus Wagner. In fact, it includes the entire T206 series; the Wagner card will be on display this week at the museum, Spira said.
“It’s the only card in our collection that is matted and framed on its own,” Spira said.
Spira said that from September 2014 to June 2015, the department photographed 12,000 cards and digitized 6,000.
The Metropolitan Museum holds the largest collection of viewable baseball cards outside of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The Hall of Fame has no plans to digitize its collection, however.
Beginning in 2010, Spira began formulating a plan to raise money to digitize the entire Burdick collection and create a viewable online database. She used the digital archive of baseball cards at the Library of Congress as her guide and forged ahead.
A major break in funding came in early 2014 thanks to a donation from Leonard Wilf. The Minnesota Vikings co-owner was in the New York area for Super Bowl XLVIII and saw a pop-up exhibit of football cards at the museum from the Burdick collection put together by Spira.
The project is funded through November 2016, and Spira hopes to have all the sports cards digitized by then.
The workers who digitize the cards scrutinize them carefully. Each card is measured, the manufacturer is listed, and card backs (including the name of the advertiser) are dutifully catalogued. No detail is omitted.
“They write down all the minutiae,” Spira said.
Jefferson Burdick would have been proud.
Spira said a photographer was hired to snap pictures in a “rapid capture area,” taking individual photographs and a whole page view of cards.
“The team loves the material and finds it fun,” Spira said.
Burdick did not display his cards the way today’s condition-sensitive collectors do. In fact, collectors in 2015 might be horrified by Burdick’s methods. There were no nine-pocket sheets, or even 15-pocket sheets for tobacco cards. Certainly, cards were not graded. Some cards were hinged, others were stuck in corners of pages, and others were simply glued to albums. Burdick took care to show at least one card back of each series of cards he collected.
He amassed his collection by interacting with other collectors — back in the days when interaction meant writing letters or meeting people in person. There was no eBay in the 1940s.
“Burdick was part of a circle of collectors that bartered for cards,” Spira said. “He was very punctilious about collecting.”
That attention to detail made Burdick the hobby’s historian. He shared information, wrote newsletters every other month and published “The United States Card Collectors Catalog” in 1939. He revised it 1946, ’53 and ’60, inventing the model for today’s catalogs. He shared his catalogs and newsletters with other collectors, making him the ancestor of the many online card collecting forums in existence today.
It took a good selling job for Burdick to get his collection into the Metropolitan Museum.
The museum’s print department was founded in 1916, and William Irvins Jr. was its first curator. He was succeeded by Alpheus Hyatt Mayor in 1966.
Burdick, an electrician with Crouse-Hinds Electric Company in Syracuse, New York, offered his collection to the Met in 1947. Mayor initially refused because the collection was “so massive.”
“Hyatt Mayor told him to find a different venue, but Burdick was insistent,” Spira said.
Burdick argued that the collection represented a history of graphic design in the United States from the mid-19th century to the present, and therefore was a legitimate form of art. Mayor finally agreed, stipulating that Burdick had to catalog all of the cards. Beginning in 1948, Burdick began sending boxes of cards from his upstate New York home to the museum.
He then spent a majority of the next 15 years in a corner of the museum’s prints department, cataloging every card. He used water-soluble glue to paste his collection into 640 albums measuring 12 ½ by 15 inches. Burdick finished the job at 5 p.m. on January 10, 1963. Mayor later recalled that Burdick, who suffered from chronic arthritis, “twisted himself into his overcoat” and said goodbye, adding, “I shan’t be back.”
Burdick was true to his word, dying at a New York hospital on March 13, 1963.
His tombstone in the village of Central Square in Oswego County, New York, memorializes him as “One of the greatest card collectors of all time.”
Digitizing the Burdick collection has been a fascinating experience for Spira, who has worked at the Metropolitan Museum since 2008 and has recently been named the associate curator of Northern Renaissance prints. That ties in neatly with her academic credentials, as she received her bachelor’s degree in art from Barnard College in Manhattan and earned her doctorate in philosophy and the history of art at the University of Pennsylvania.
She is no stranger to sports and grew up in the Washington, D.C., area rooting for the Baltimore Orioles.
“Now I am being drawn into hockey,” she said, as her husband and son go to Madison Square Garden to watch Rangers games. Her husband, however, is from the Chicago area, so the Cubs and the Blackhawks are his favorites.
“He’s allowing our son to be a New York fan, though,” she laughed.
Spira has taken a particular shine to the Cracker Jack cards that were produced in 1914-15.
“I love them. I think they’re amazing,” she said. “They reflect pop art.
“I’m much more of a fan of cards from the deadball era, because visually they are so diverse.”
Spira also likes the 1912 Hassan Triple Fold cards, calling them “beautiful.”
Spira said there will be a special exhibit in the spring about baseball in New York. In the past, her exhibits included “A Sport For Every Girl,” in which companies like Allen & Ginter issued cards of women in baseball poses. “Polka Dot Nine,” was the title of an 1884 card.
“There was a ton of women playing baseball. But the cards themselves are models,” Spira said. “Sports was seen back then as recreation, rather than a competitive thing, for women.”
In a 1950s interview with the Syracuse Herald-American, Burdick said that card collecting “is primarily an inherited love of pictures.”
For Spira, digitizing Burdick’s collection has been an education.
“I loved working on the Burdick Collection,” she said. “I learned so much about American history.”
For more information on Burdick and trying to view the cards in his collection, George Vrechek wrote an entertaining and informative article that originally was published in Sports Collectors Digest several years ago and then was reprinted at Old Baseball Cards, an online trading group that has been around since 1991. Another piece that ran in The New York Times in May 2012 also offers an extensive profile.