Recently, I received an email from a collector, who was looking for some help with an Old Judge card. The N172 Old Judge set, produced in the late 1800s, is often considered to be one of the first baseball sets.
The collector’s inquiry was a common one. Essentially, it boiled down to trying to identify the player on the card.
For those unfamiliar with the set, that might not seem like it should be a difficult problem. However, with the Old Judge issue, it certainly can be for two reasons.
First, the cards are pretty rare. Like many pre-war sets, it isn’t at all difficult to find an Old Judge card. As I wrote here, there are usually a couple hundred on eBay at any given time. Finding a specific player (and even harder, a specific pose) is often the hard part. Some of the poses are more common than others. Many are downright difficult, as in the case of this collector’s card.
His card, as identified in the excellent book, The Photographic Baseball Cards of Goodwin & Company, features an obscure player. We would come to learn it featured long-time minor leaguer Gus Klopf.
Klopf, like many others, has a few cards in the set. But the one shown here with both of his arms up is probably one of the tougher ones. That point was emphasized to me by Jay Miller, one of the book’s authors who was able to identify it. While the book includes many of the cards in the set, a good image of this particular one eluded it. It appears to be a tough variation of an obscure player.
That, coupled with the faded picture and name on the collector’s card (shown here on the right) are just a couple of reasons why this issue is avoided by most set collectors – and that’s because it is virtually uncollectable as a complete set.
The cards are not only rare, but some particular ones are exceedingly so. And even in the cases where the cards do exist, as shown in the Klopf card here, they can be virtually lost to history. Someone not specializing in Old Judge cards could sit on this card forever and never determine the subject. My guess is that very thing has occurred and some of them are utterly unknown to the owner.
The biggest problem with trying to collect this massive set is the sheer size. It includes more than 500 players, according to PSA’s checklist and, as many players have several cards, the master set with every pose contains far more than that. Beyond all of that, it’s essentially impossible to collect as a complete set, in part because we’ve not even yet fully confirmed a checklist with new examples still being found in recent years. Even skipping the multiple poses and simply collecting one card of every player would be incredibly difficult. As a result, while having a good number of supporters, it doesn’t draw the attention that more readily accessible releases do.
That’s really a shame, too.
Old Judge cards, for my money, are among the best pre-war cards around. They were different from the later cards in that they used actual images of players affixed to a cardboard backing. They also utilized numerous poses and baseball wasn’t even the focal point on many of them.
One famous card that has gained popularity in recent years is the Whitney/Dog card (shown left here). Art Whitney, who played for several teams, including the New York Giants, is featured on a few cards in the set. But his most interesting card is one where he is pictured with a dog, who very clearly steals the show. The card has drawn a lot of interest and, well, it’s because of the pooch — not Whitney.
And because many players are featured more than once in the overwhelmingly large set, collectors are treated to a wide variety of pictures for the same players. Cap Anson, for example, has one card in street clothes/a suit and another, far rarer card, picturing the Hall of Famer in a baseball uniform. Looking through the set, collectors will see several other interesting images, too. Baseball players are often pictured in a studio setting but some of the poses are downright creative.
Unfortunately, many collectors will not give the set much of a chance because of its issues with fading and rarity. And with the cards being a bit on the pricey end (even low-grade examples are generally over $100), it’s no wonder that even collectors of early cards will often take a hard pass when trying to determine if they’re worth collecting.
The cards, particularly those with preserved, crisp images, are really a sight to behold. Unfortunately, for those pursuing complete sets, it’s a logistical nightmare.