The hobby’s history is constantly being edited and re-written. Sometimes a new discovery about a vintage card set or piece of memorabilia is made when an item is consigned to an auction house, like the Four Base Hits John Clarkson or two unknown vintage player pins we learned about this past week. Other times, it’s simply a little leg work by collectors who are just plain curious.
Back in 1916, what we now know as the M101-4 and M101-5 baseball card sets were issued. There were 200 in all, including Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb and the card we now consider to be Babe Ruth’s official rookie card. We’ve known for years that the cards were distributed through promotions by various businesses. One of those was the Gimbels Department Store chain. The M101-4 Gimbels cards are very rare today. Fewer than 80 are listed on the combined PSA and SGC population reports. Even commons in decent shape sell for hundreds of dollars. Only a few are on eBay right now. Exactly how they were distributed has been a mystery—until now.
Some digging through April 1916 issues of Milwaukee newspapers by collector Todd Schulz yielded the ad you see here. The city was home to one of three major Gimbels locations 99 years ago and as you can see, the promotion was aimed at getting boys to beg mom and dad to take them into the store each spring Saturday so they could add 20 cards to their collection. The hope from the marketing side, no doubt, was that the giveaway would lead little Johnny’s parents to spend some money while generating a little goodwill with the future generation. The cards carried an ad for Gimbels on the back.
Schultz, who posted his discovery on the Net 54 message board, says his research indicates the promotion lasted ten weeks, with the store making cards from the previous weeks available if youngsters couldn’t get there each and every week. Eventually, the 20-card lots were sold for three cents and in the seventh of ten weeks, you could buy the first 140 cards for the cost of a boy’s suit. Series 2, with Ty Cobb, proved to be the most popular and eventually sold out, according to what Schultz uncovered.
Gimbels, which was a prominent chain of department stores until 1987, wasn’t the only store participating in the promotion. Brewing companies, baking companies, newspapers and other businesses opted in as well and had their own ads on the back. The cards issued by The Sporting News are perhaps the best known, but the Gimbels variations are among the more valuable. There were even a few uncut sheets produced, all of which apparently have blank backs and were distributed by at least three companies.
While collectors sometimes spend hours researching ancient hobby publications or talking with knowledgeable dealers and collectors, sometimes information is right in front of us, as long as we’re willing to visit a local library.