An issue of The Sporting Life sold on eBay for over $2,000 on Sunday. While surviving copies of the long defunct sports paper aren’t common, that’s a lot more than they usually bring. This one attracted bidders not for the stories inside or whose picture may have been on the front of the September 4 issue. It was because of one of the ads inside.
Looking to increase awareness of its new “baseball pictures,” the American Tobacco Company placed a summer-long series of half page ads in The Sporting Life with artist depictions of some of the players in what later came to be known as the T206 set. The first ad appeared in the July 3 issue and was placed again for four of the next five weeks.
“These pictures are handsomely lithographed in colors, and make a valuable collection,” the copy read.
One hundred and eleven years later, we can’t disagree with any of that.
The ad also mentions the three cigarette brands where the cards could be found. Apparently, it expanded to the lesser known brands later, or ATC just opted not to mention them. The ad also references a “1st Series” of “150 Subjects.” Reproducing the actual cards just wasn’t feasible at the time so the artist renderings of the players would suffice. It was sort of a random collection that included Johnny Evers, Frank Chance and Rube Waddell.
Evans Archive also sold a couple of those on Sunday, for several hundred dollars, including that very first T206 ad from the July 4, 1909 issue (a serious piece of hobby history).
Interestingly, Honus Wagner—a huge star at the time—wasn’t pictured in the first ad that ran through the August 7 issue. However, Wagner’s image was included in the ad that ran in the August 21, September 4 and September 18 issues.
There’s been some speculation that seeing the ad is how Wagner discovered he was being featured on a card that could only be acquired if you bought a pack of smokes. While the ads didn’t reference kids, it would have been reasonable to assume that they were at least part of the target market. As we’ve written before, they did, in fact, go crazy for the cards, causing some civic uproar. Perhaps that knowledge didn’t sit well with Honus, who told the tobacco folks he didn’t want to be part of it. They chopped him out of the set and thus was born the legend of the rare T206 Wagner.
Even without one of baseball’s big names, the promotion has to have been considered a huge success, running for three years and generating millions of cards.
The auction also included similar ads from 1910 issues of The Sporting Life, which began to produce its own series of cards in groups of 12 (now known as the M116 series). Not quite as colorful, but similar in size, the Sporting Life’s card set was distributed in a less controversial fashion. The cards were sold by mail in 24 series of 12 cards, each series costing four cents in return postage.
Readers had to seek out information elsewhere in the newspaper with ordering details but there’s not much doubt the large ad was enticing to fans who loved baseball and plunked down their nickel for their weekly copy. The ads, by the way, sold Sunday for $355-430 each.
Long before TV and radio, using newspapers, and especially sports-oriented publications, is how companies reached fans who might be potential customers. More than a century later, collectors are glad those marketing efforts paid off and we can’t wait to see a few of those skinny little cards to show up in our mail boxes.