Every collector wants to believe that he or she is getting in on the best baseball card sets of all time when they collect. Or at least, the very best sets they can obtain on their given budget. And, when a collector accumulates what he or she truly desires, they are right on target regardless of what the set is worth or whether anyone else recognizes the achievement. Their collection is comprised of the best cards of all-time in their opinion, and that is what matters in a collector’s prize haul.
When you decide to look beyond the individual collector, however, it is sometimes helpful to ascertain what the majority of like-minded hobbyists consider to be the “best” or at least the most popular baseball card sets to collect. Certainly their are a variety of factors to which one could look to determine the zenith of sets…design, player selection, price guide value, scarcity. And all of these factors (plus others) can go into making a set popular, but by themselves they do not define popularity.
By definition, “popularity” is the state or condition of being liked, admired, or supported by many people. If we put that into a hobby context, we might say that the most popular baseball card sets are those which gather the most interest or are the sets most often purchased for collections. This is something that can be (sort of) measured and quantified.
Of course, there is no hobby-wide reporting structure to determine the best selling set or the most often traded card product. However, if want to take a shot at identifying the most popular baseball card sets to collect and, say, choose one such set for each decade, there are measurable numbers at which we can look.
It is fairly easy to find out what is selling on eBay by using the Sold Items refinement. Sure, it is easy to see this as flawed as not everyone buys on eBay, the auction process is horribly skewed on eBay and they sell everything from undies to bankrupt businesses. However, the information is readily available, it does provide a good slice of the cards that are bought and sold, and besides, so many people seem to believe that eBay sales are the “new price guide” that using the information seems appropriate.
Another measurement we can use will be the population reports from PSA and Beckett regarding the number of cards that have been submitted for grading. Especially as we are looking for the most popular baseball cards sets to collect (as opposed to our opinion of what is best, coolest, has the most upside, etc.) this will provide another glimpse at one segment of the hobby with regard to popularity. After all, it seems unlikely that too many of those grading dollars would be thrown after unpopular cards.
Finally, we will consider the number of “hits” that the major search engines give for each set under consideration. This will at least take into account the blogs, articles, and more that have been constructed on each set, which is in a small way, another measurement of popularity. Click the links inside the copy to see those specific cards for sale and auction on eBay.
Even though American Caramel manufactured their cards in 1908 as well, it is the 1909 American Caramel E90-1 set which wins the prize as the most popular. The cards in this 120-card set do contain some which are more difficult to obtain than other cards in the set (Mitchell, Sweeney and Graham). The truth be told, there are various levels of scarcity of the cards in this set as several players exist in more than one pose or color background.
Another collecting challenge is the fact that the set is extremely condition-sensitive due to the fact that most cards from this set are only found in lower grade condition. Indeed, of the graded cards, the highest grade achieved by any card from this set has been an “8.” And only 14 cards have been awarded this grade. Interestingly, two of those are of Ty Cobb.
Of course, it is likely the presence of several “dead ball era” Hall-of-Famers in the set contribute to its popularity. As of this writing the following men depicted in the E90 set also have plaques that reside in Cooperstown: Home Run Baker, Chief Bender, Roger Bresnahan, Mordecai Brown, Frank Chance, Fred Clarke, Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Sam Crawford, George Davis, Hugh Duffy, Harry Howell, Hughie Jennings, Addie Joss, Willie Keller, Nap Lajoie, Harry Lumley, Rube Marquard, Eddie Plank, Tris Speaker, Joe Tinker, Honus Wagner, Bobby Wallace, Ed Walsh, Vic Willis, and Cy Young.
It is probably no surprise that the winner in this category is the 1909-1911 T206 White Border tobacco card set. This set is so popular, in spite of certain scarce cards that are out of reach for most collectors (i.e., Wagner and Plank). You can ascertain the immense popularity of this set in that it has spawned coffee table books and been the subject of television segments. There are not too many other baseball card sets that can make that claim.
The set was issued from 1909 to 1911 (and two of those years fit our purpose) with sixteen different brands of cigarettes: American Beauty, Broadleaf, Cycle, Carolina Brights, Drum, El Principe de Gales, Hindu, Lenox, Old Mill, Piedmont, Polar Bear, Sovereign, Sweet Caporal, Tolstoi, and Uzit.
It is good to note that the minor league cards seem slightly more difficult to obtain than the cards of the major leaguers, with the Southern League player cards being definitively more difficult. Regardless, even collectors of newer materials tend to stop and stare at T206 cards whether at shows or in a shop. We have even had the privilege of selling some of the small cardboard icons to interior decorators who use them whether or not their client is a collector.
To the uninitiated it may seem strange to say this, but you really have to distinguish between the various baseball card sets put out by American Caramel to find out which set is the most popular from this era. That being said, when the various steps are followed that we outlined earlier are followed it becomes clear that the 1922 E120 American Caramel Series of 240 is the obvious favorite and most popular baseball card set t collect from this decade.
The 2″ by 3 1/2″ cards were issued by American Caramel with their candy products, but the cards were unnumbered. This set is one of the most popular of the E card sets, and that is evident even in the current sales of the cards from this set. Less than 24 hours ago (from when I wrote this) a PSA 4 of Harry Hooper sold for about $400.
Whether raw or graded, high grade or low, the 1933 Goudey cards seem to find a willing and eager market some 91 years after their release. It’s the company’s first baseball issue and provides a pretty comprehensive overview of baseball as it was near the end of the Ruth era. There are four Ruths in the set and two Lou Gehrig cards which certainly contribute to the popularity of ’33 Goudeys with collectors. Indeed, among the almost 2,100 Goudey cards from 1933 sold on eBay in the last 90 days, the #53 Ruth graded PSA 6 sold for near $8,000.
This first great set of the bubble gum baseball card era features color reproductions of the player’s portrait or action pose, and the card backs offer a brief player biography which endeared the cards to kids in the 30s who could only listen to their heroes on the radio (IF they had access). The cards made the players more accessible and being packed with the increasingly popular confection made them a hit. Sadly, the fun didn’t last on quite such a grand scale for Goudey, which made a couple smaller sets, then moved to black and white before fading away for good as America headed toward war.
In some respects it may be unfair to compare the sets of the latter part of this decade with those of the earlier portion. The restrictions of the war era certainly played a role in the availability of baseball cards just as the post-war boom of prosperity played a part in the growth of the hobby. Nevertheless, in using the calendar justly and consistently for this little exercise, it is without controversy that the 1949 Bowman set is the popularity poll winner.
The ’49 set used tinted photos on colored backgrounds which set it apart from the earlier black and white cards of Bowman issue. Additionally, the set is riddled with variations, beginning with card #109 in the set (Ed Fitzgerald), in which Bowman added the players’ names on the card fronts. Twelve cards (#s 4, 78, 83, 85, 88, 98, 109, 124, 127, 132 and 143), which were produced in the first four series of printings, were reprinted in the seventh series with either a card front or back modification (primarily the name printed in either script or block letters). As frustrating as these variations may have been to kids in the summer of ’49, it is one of the reasons so many collectors today chase down the 1949 Bowman set as they try to obtain the complete run.
The key rookie cards include #46 Robin Roberts, #50 Jackie Robinson, #84 Roy Campanella, #100 Gil Hodges, #110 Early Wynn, #214 Richie Ashburn, #224 Satchel Paige, #226 Duke Snider, and #238 Bob Lemon.
As we implied in the beginning, our task is not to try and discern the “best” sets for value or looks or any other such factor. But, as far as we are able to determine, these are the most popularly collected baseball card sets from 1900 through 1949.
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