While golf has been a popular sport for more than a century, collectors will find surprisingly few early sets featuring the sport. The majority of early issues were international releases that were printed overseas. And even as the sport grew in popularity here in the U.S., domestic golf issues were few and far between before the modern era of card collecting.
Some of the earliest golf cards featuring actual athletes, in fact, were not even issued in golf-exclusive releases. Many early golf cards were subjected to being part of multi-sport sets, such as the Ogden’s General Interest series, the popular T218 Champions set, or, later, the 1930s US Caramel and Goudey Sport Kings sets. But the 1900 Cope’s Golfers set was one exception to that rule.
About the Set
The impressive 1900 Cope’s Golfers set was issued by Cope Brothers & Co. Ltd., a UK-based tobacco firm out of London. While Cope’s would issue dozens of pre-war sets, this was one of their first releases. Its importance is that it is one of the few sets focusing entirely on golfers.
The set is sometimes compared to the T206 baseball card set. By my calculations, however, that is a poor comparison. While it is to be considered the landmark golf release of the pre-war era, frankly, it is starkly different to the popular baseball series.
For starters, the Cope set is dramatically smaller, consisting of only 50 cards. Building it, while a challenge, should not be considered on the same scale as completing even the collector-friendly, 520-card T206 set. It also was created for only one brand of tobacco and, as a result, would not have had anywhere near the same sort of widespread appeal that T206 cards did, as those were issued with numerous tobacco brands. Finally, even the style of the cards is vastly different. Many of the images in the T206 set are stoic with serious imagery. The Cope’s set is a mix of cards depicting actual golfers with many generic subjects thrown in, including some with blatantly comedic poses.
Despite its difference to baseball’s landmark pre-war set, however, this is still an incredibly special offering. And its importance in golf card collecting cannot be understated.
The cards have a bit of a unique size compared to standard tobacco issues. The 1 3/8″ width, of course, is familiar, and matches many popular sets of the era. But the cards are slightly taller at roughly 2 3/4″ high. Additionally, as is the case with some other Cope’s series, a ‘narrow’ variant was issued as well, presumably to fit inside some packaging of other products that were a bit smaller. These narrower cards are generally missing the borders on the side and can be easily mistaken for hand-trimmed cards by collectors. However, they were distributed that way and are not viewed as defective by any means. The narrow cards seem to be rarer, though, there is not always a premium attached to them.
Fronts picture colorful depictions of golfers along with a card number and title in a box at the bottom. Both the image and caption box are enclosed in a thin red border. Backs of the cards include the Cope’s name and a complete checklist of all 50 cards.
To the design, it is worth pointing out that Cope’s used the exact same design in a second set of cards printed at the same time. The company’s 1900 Dickens Gallery set featured author Charles Dickens and many of his well-known characters appear as if they were done by the same artist and printed simultaneously, so similar in appearance they are.
Pictured here is Dickens’ card from that set to show the similarity in style.
Finally, it should also be pointed out that the set has been reprinted. However, the reprints of these are generally quite easy to distinguish from the originals. In addition to the cardboard texture being much different, the backs include red ink, as well as the words “A Nostalgia reprint” on the bottom. The cards look and feel significantly different than the real deal, which is always nice. Additionally, many of these reprinted cards have been framed as they can make for nice display pieces.
As mentioned, the Cope’s Golfers set includes a total of 50 cards. While some of the subjects are generic, several do picture actual golfers. Unsurprisingly, those are the more expensive cards and the ones most sought after by collectors.
Leading the way in the set are the two cards of legendary players, Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris. The elder Morris, known as the “Grand Old Man of Golf” was an important early figure in the sport. He won four of the earliest Open Championships and is one of the earliest golfers to appear on trading cards. His son, Young Tom Morris, matched his father’s four Open Championships, but did so by the age of only 21. Tragically, he died at the age of 24 with the official cause of death listed as a pulmonary hemorrhage.
While those are the most valuable cards in the set, there are also some other noteworthy subjects here. The set also contains Hall of Famers John Henry Taylor and Harold Hilton. Political figures, too, were featured, including Charles I, King of England in the 1600s, and A.J. Balfour, Prime Minister — both are pictured golfing. Additionally, the set includes Lady Margaret Scott, widely recognized as the first female golf star. Scott won the first three British Ladies Amateur championships in 1893, 1894, and 1895 before retiring later that year. As a result, her card is appropriately titled Lady Champion, 1893-4-5. The cards for many of the actual subjects can be considered rookie issues. And in the case of Scott, it may be her only appearance on a major trading card.
Finally, of note is that there are two cards depicting actual caddies — Mr. Crawford and “Fiery.” Both were well-known caddies that supported some popular golfers. While I cannot confirm if these are the very first, they would certainly be, at worst, some of the earliest cards depicting actual caddies.
Missing in action is popular golfer Harry Vardon. Vardon, another Hall of Famer, is not included in the set, despite a wealth of success by the time the series was released. Arguably, he was the hottest golfer at the time, winning the Open Championship in 1896, 1898, and 1899. His absence here is unexplained but collectors building the set can probably appreciate that as his card would be another costly one to obtain.
Prices and Rarity
The set is one that has always been recognized as a major golf issue. But, like many other cards, it has also risen quite dramatically in price in recent years.
Commons are mostly affordable with decent, low-grade raw examples starting around $25-$50. That’s good news for those wanting to build sets because the majority of the set, honestly, is made up of commons. There are roughly a dozen or so others that are not, but aside from the biggest cards in the set, it really isn’t too expensive considering its importance because many of the cards feature generic subjects and do not pass the common card threshold.
That said, the biggest cards are certainly not cheap. Cards of both Old and Young Tom Morris are typically over $1,000 each. And prices rise exponentially for cards in better shape.
The bigger problem for collectors seeking this issue is one of rarity. The 1900 Cope’s Golfers cards are much harder to come by than the later pre-war golf series’ that were issued in the 1920s and 1930s. eBay generally does not have much to offer although there is a partial set along with some reprints available as of this date. Tracking these cards down is generally a bigger problem than the actual affordability. Building a set is not an impossible task but it is made difficult without stumbling upon the cards in lots.
Collectors can be fortunate enough to stumble upon a complete set. A graded set ranking No. 3 on PSA’s registry at the time was sold by REA for more than $21,000 in 2013.