Much attention has been paid to recent sales of Lou Gehrig’s 1925 Exhibit card. Considered Gehrig’s ‘rookie’ card, it is emblematic of an era when manufacturers did not consistently produce card sets. While the 1925 Gehrig is far and away the most valuable Exhibit card, the yearly sets offer affordable pricing on legendary players produced in a larger format than contemporary card sets with attractive full bleed photography.
While the term “Exhibit” can encompass a large array of cards from golf, football, boxing, hockey, basketball, and non-sports, when used in this context it refers to the baseball sets issued by the Exhibit Supply Co. out of Chicago. While they were roughly the size of a post card they were not produced for that purpose. Instead they were obtained as
a novelty from a vending machine. The first set was issued in 1921 and were produced until the mid-1960s. As a result exhibit card feature some of the game’s most iconic players from the roaring 20s, the depression era, and the golden age of the post-war era.
Babe Ruth Exhibit Cards
Any conversation about pre-war sports cards begins with Babe Ruth. As the most popular player of the era, Ruth was featured in exhibit sets through the 1920s and 30s. He was part of the inaugural set in 1921 in a fielding pose (you can find them for $1,000 and up), while 1925 features his familiar home run swing, while the late 1920s issues features a frontal bat on shoulder swing.
1920s Exhibit Cards
The 1920s marked the transition from the deadball era, but several of the game’s earlier stars were included in Exhibit sets. Among these were the great Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson who featured repeatedly in exhibit sets of the 1920s. New stars and future Hall of Famer like Rogers Hornsby and George Sisler were also included in these early sets. In addtion to Ruth, Tris Speaker’s 1921 Exhibit is also very desirable, while a few umpires were included in the 1922 set. The 1923-24 Ruth card is extremely scarce.
Starting in 1925 when Gehrig first appeared, sets moved to a standard size of either 64 or 128 cards.
1930s Exhibit Cards
The 1930s brought about exhibit sets that were produced over a number of years. The home run had become a staple of baseball by then and the successors to Ruth’s home run legacy, Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott, were both included in these sets. Among the more interesting pitchers of this era who appeared in exhibit sets were Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell.
Some interesting developments in exhibits in this period were the inclusion of multiple players on a single card, and the “Salutation” series towards the end of the dictate that featured a facsimile signature and included the legends of the next decade — Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. The “No. 9 Shows” variation of the Williams card is among the rarer Exhibit cards.
Ruth and Gehrig appear together in the 1929-30, 1931-32 and 1934 “Four-One-One” issues.
1940s and Beyond
Following World War II baseball took on an unparalleled level of popularity as the nation increasingly looked for a diversion in the aftermath of the horrific conflict and the anxiety of the new, Cold War. The set of exhibits that was issued in 1947 was in continuous production through 1966. This period was marked by the inclusion of the golden age’s greatest stars including Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente. These cards have the advantage of being more readily affordable than the cards issued by Topps and Bowman.
Exhibit generally issued new sets each year with some players simply repeated, others added and retired players or those in decline dropped from production. Players who fall into the latter category are obviously a little harder to find. Variations were created when players were traded. For instance, Alvin Dark has three Exhibit cards, one showing him as a member of the Braves, another with the Giants and a third with the Cubs. The Braves variation is valued about five times higher than the other two.
There’s a handy guide to determining the dates of Exhibit cards here.
While not as popular with collectors as trading cards, Exhibit cards should not be overlooked. They span four decades of the game’s most historic eras and include nearly every player of note. They are affordable, easily collected, and as collectors become more familiar with them as word spreads of record prices for cards such as the Lou Gehrig ‘rookie’ there is a chance prices could increase as a rising tide lifts all boats. There are 1947-66 reprints in the marketplace. Beware of white backed cards from that era as well as major Hall of Famers with gray rather than cream-colored backs. When buying those, it’s best to seek out graded examples.
Click here for a look at Exhibit cards currently listed on eBay.