The following is an excerpt from Chapter One of a new book entitled “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession”. Written by Dave Jamieson, the book chronicles how baseball cards were born and also profiles many of the men who played a significant role in how the hobby evolved and changed over the years.
Among other topics, Jamieson chronicles the tribulations of the ‘grandfather’ of baseball card collecting, Jefferson Burdick, the rise of Topps as a dominant force in the industry and how the Major League Baseball Players Association forced the company–and baseball–to pay more for the rights to produce cards.
He also delves into the rise of auction houses and how the skyrocketing value of vintage cards, like those launched in the cigarette products described below, has created issues in the industry but also earned them respect within the realm of antiques and collectibles.
While there is no shortage of books on baseball cards, Jamieson’s effort is the first concentrated history of the hobby from a modern perspective.
We’ll have the second part of Chapter One tomorrow and also an interview with the author.
“Please, Mister, Give Me the Picture!”
Although an estimated five thousand Union soldiers would eventually die of starvation and disease inside its wooden stockades, the Confederate-run prison camp at Salisbury, North Carolina, was a great place for a ball game. Created seven months after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, Salisbury was one of the primary destinations for Yankee prisoners of war early in the Civil War. The only war prison in the state, the modest sixteen-acre compound included a cotton factory, a blacksmith’s shop, and enough of an open field to accommodate a pair of baseball nines when weather and the warden permitted.
The first 120 Union detainees arrived at Salisbury shortly before Christmas 1861, and by the following spring there were a still manageable fourteen hundred prisoners sleeping in the camp’s tenements. In these early days Salisbury, with its oak trees and water barrels and ample breathing room, was a rather pleasant place to suffer one’s wartime cap- ture. One Yank remarked that it was “more endurable than any other part of Rebeldom.” As several prisoners’ memoirs bear out, this agree- able atmosphere had a lot to do with baseball. According to the diary of imprisoned doctor Charles Carroll Gray, prisoners played ball nearly every day that rain or cold didn’t prevent it. They even celebrated the Fourth of July of 1862 by reading the Declaration of Independence aloud and playing a few innings on their makeshift diamond.
Baseball took hold at other encampments in both the South and the North, especially during the first half of the war. The game pro- vided a respite from the wretchedness of battle and camp, with regi- mental soldiers routinely playing ball among themselves, their games sometimes broken off by the fire of cannons, muskets, and carbines. J.G.B. Adams, a member of the Nineteenth Regiment of Massachusetts, wrote that during his stay at Falmouth, Virginia, “baseball fever” broke out among both Yanks and Rebs, with Adams and his comrades close enough to their enemies across the river to cheer them on. “We would sit on the bank and watch their games, and the distance was so short we could understand every movement and would applaud good plays.”
The war would temporarily cripple organized baseball as players in the North left their clubs to enlist, but it also helped to spread the game to new parts of America. As the New York Clipper noted in 1865, “When soldiers were off duty, base ball was naturalized in nearly every state in the Union.” What had been a Northern gentleman’s game closely associated with Brooklyn became a fixture in many cities in the South and West, with new clubs sprouting in pockets of the former Confederacy, such as Richmond, Virginia, and Galveston, Texas, where the best local team took the name of Robert E. Lee. After the war, the game began to blossom not only as a professional, revenue-churning entertainment but also as a fixture of blue-collar urban life. In his landmark 1911 book about early baseball, America’s National Game, Albert G. Spalding, the pioneering pitcher and latter- day sporting-goods mogul, traced the sport’s dawn to the war, arguing that the spirit of the game was inextricably linked to military conflict—and relief from it. The game, he wrote, “had its early evolution when soldiers, North and South, were striving to forget their foes by cultivating, through this grand game, fraternal friendships with comrades in arms. . . . And then, when true patriots of all sections were striving to forget that there had been a time of black and dismal war, it was a beacon, lighting their paths to a future of perpetual peace.”
Among those Northern patriots returning from the war in 1865 was a baseball enthusiast named Andrew Peck. Hand later sent upstate to work for a shopkeeper. After the start of the war, he enlisted with the Union army and was sent to the front with the federal Army of the Potomac, which included Major Abner Doubleday among its ranks and was renowned for its fondness for baseball. One soldier described the camp as “alive with ball-players, almost every street having its game.” Once home, Peck started working as a street salesman in Manhattan, hawking baseball equipment, knickknacks, and games he created himself, some of which he managed to sell to the entrepreneur and showman P. T. Barnum. He also began manufacturing baseballs on the top floor of a building at 109 Nassau Street, where the following year he opened a sporting-goods store with his partner, W. Irvin Snyder.
Before being bought by competitor A. G. Spalding & Bros., the Peck & Snyder Base Ball and Sportsman’s Emporium would have a profound impact on the leisure culture of nineteenth-century America. The company not only produced some of the very first baseball bats (“fine stock, clear of knots,” a catalog proclaimed) and molded rubber baseballs (“which for finish, durability and superior workmanship are not surpassed”), it also put out the first modern canvas tennis shoe and helped make the magic lantern slide projector a fixture in American homes. And with its small series of cards depicting ball clubs, the sporting-goods company is believed by many to have given America its first baseball cards.
During the 1869 baseball season, Peck & Snyder produced a small advertising card, measuring just three-and-a-quarter inches by four- and-a-half inches and bearing a glue-mounted photograph depicting the ten members of the first explicitly professional baseball team—the Red Stocking Base Ball Club of Cincinnati, whose president was Union army veteran Alfred T. Goshorn and whose catcher, Doug Allison, had reportedly learned to play as a soldier in war encampments. On the back of the card is a cartoon showing a ballplayer with sagging eyes and a wispy beard, his back hunched as he hauls an armful of baseball bats, cleated shoes, and uniform belts. The cartoon is signed at the bottom: “Yours Respectfully, Andrew Peck.” The ballplayers on the front of the card, lined up five to a row, were dour, hairy fellows with nearly all-white uniforms. Save for the knee-high socks, they looked like a group of convicts. Under the guidance of their British-born cen ter fielder and team captain, Harry Wright, the Red Stockings recruited players from across the country, signed them to exclusive contracts, and instituted organized team practices at which the club developed innovations such as the relay throw. Traveling some twelve thousand miles by rail and boat to play before a couple of hundred thousand people, the Red Stockings logged a 57–0 record and a net profit of $1.39 on the season.
Peck & Snyder produced at least half a dozen baseball cards between 1865 and 1870, though they were hardly the first manufacturer to dole out free “trade cards” to promote its products. The advertising tech- nique had originated in London and been growing for more than a century before hirsute American infielders started popping up on cards. Pushing household items such as Merchant’s Gargling Oil Liniment and Lautz Bros. Soaps, trade cards featured either photographs or drawings of everything from actresses and war heroes to comic scenes and pasto ral settings; either woven into the image or on the back of the card would be an advertisement for the company’s wares. The earliest baseball- themed cartoon trade cards reflected the rough-and-tumble style of the post–Civil War game. Players are carried off the field battered and in bandages, as they were in real life. On some cards, umpires are shown being attacked by mobs of fans who hadn’t liked their calls.
Baseball cards may well have been just one more piece of forgotten ephemera had it not been for another novel activity made popular by the war: cigarette smoking. Pioneering cigarette manufacturers would soon discover that coupling their smokes with the likenesses of ball- players was an exceptional way to move tobacco. The card-collecting hobby had no innocent beginnings. It was the by-product of a marketing technique used to establish the cigarette in the lives of Ameri cans, particularly young boys. And within just a few years of first appearing in cigarette packages, baseball cards would help spur the creation of the greatest tobacco monopoly in American history.
Before the Civil War, Americans had been availing themselves of more tobacco per person than any other country in the world, thanks in large part to an agreeable climate for growing and a massive sup- ply of slaves to work the fields. The tobacco capital of Richmond, Virginia, alone laid claim to some fifty factories devoted to its production. Yet the tobacco that many Americans enjoyed went either into their pipes or between their jaws as plug chew, for the cigarette was considered a bastardized form of the cigar suited only to the lower classes. That perception persisted until pipes and cigars proved too cumbersome for soldiers on the move. As the war progressed, more and more cigarettes made their way from factories in the Southern states to military encampments. Pre-rolled smokes continued to grow in popularity after the war, inspiring a good deal of hysteria among the guardians of public health. Weighing in on an 1884 proposal to criminalize the sale of cigarettes to minors, a New York Times editorial suggested a ban on selling them even to adults: “The decadence of Spain began when the Spaniards adopted cigarettes, and if this pernicious practice obtains among adult Americans the ruin of the Republic is close at hand.”
Such pronouncements had no effect on James Buchanan “Buck” Duke, who recognized the massive sales potential of cigarettes better than anyone. His father, Washington Duke, had fought for the Confederacy and served time at a POW camp before walking 135 miles to his Durham, North Carolina, home after the war’s climactic close. His parents having died when he was a baby, Peck was raised in a New York City orphanage. The elder Duke sent young Buck to New York City in
1884 to help open an additional factory for the family tobacco company. Even then, Buck Duke’s ambition was to make the cigarette America’s go-to form of tobacco. Although he personally preferred a substantial plug to the dainty sticks, he viewed cigarettes as his family company’s only chance to wrest American tobacco dominance from rival Bull Durham. Managing the Manhattan plant by day, he was known to spend nights walking the city streets picking up discarded cigarette packs of all brands, studying their packaging and trying to calculate what percentage of the market Duke Bros. had managed to secure. By all accounts he worked ungodly hours obsessing over advertising and marketing. “I hated to close my desk at night,” he once said. “There ain’t a thrill in the world to compare with building up a business and watching it grow before your eyes.”
Duke soon came to understand the promotional power of celebrities, particularly buxom stage women. Duke Bros. salesman Edward Featherston Small, an advertising mastermind who is credited with inventing the cigar-store Indian, had obtained permission to use a lithograph of Madame Rhea, a curvy French actress on tour in the States in 1884, for advertising in Georgia. The company superimposed a pack of Duke smokes into her extended right hand, above the cap- tion “Atlanta’s Favorite,” a ploy that helped Duke sell nearly a million cigarettes in what had previously been an impenetrable market for him. The front office was thrilled with Small’s tactic, dashing off a letter to him: “We think you made a happy hit with Rhea. Give the Bull’s tail another twist.” Small procured many more comely ladies to promote Duke cigarettes, putting them on advertising posters and having them sell cigarettes on streets around the country. But the next big twist to Bull Durham’s tail would come in the form of picture cards. Duke and Small wanted to put the likes of Madame Rhea inside their cigarette boxes, not just in their ads.
The idea was simple: give the buyer a collectible card to go with his pack of smokes, and he’ll buy more cigarettes in hopes of completing the set. Duke and the other tobacco makers who followed him wisely numbered their collectible cards, usually twenty-five or fifty to an issue, which hadn’t been done with earlier trade cards. It helped to create brand loyalty, and as a bonus, collector-smokers would be advertising the company to anyone they showed their cards to. It was one of the most ingenious marketing ploys of the nineteenth century. And advertising aside, the cardboard served a practical function by stiffening soft packs so that the cigarettes wouldn’t be damaged while stuffed into a smoker’s pocket.
To make sure that the country was blanketed with his cigarette pack- ages and trading cards, Duke dispatched employees to New York’s Castle Island immigration station, where they handed out free smokes to newly landed immigrants, who would then carry Duke’s name off to all corners of America. Duke’s competitors were quick to follow, and the cards they issued gave many Americans their first glimpses of exotic animals, far-off lands, and celebrities they’d read about in the newspaper, including ballplayers. They also helped the public equate tobacco with anything and everything American: state governors, heroes of the Civil War, river steamers, Indian chiefs, billiards stars, race horses, yacht clubs, and (in what must have been the dreariest of sets) newspaper editors. As one collector of such cards later recalled, “There were no newsreels, no roto sections, no picture newspapers. A good cigarette picture was no mere plaything for a boy. It was life. No wonder Mr. Munson, next door, would pore over my scrapbooks of a winter evening, using his reading glass under the parlor lamp.” Still, some cards were of particular interest to kids, who pined after such sets as the Horatio Alger-esque Histories of Poor Boys Who Have Become Rich and the Terrors of America, which depicted all-American boys causing mischief.
Duke and his fellow card makers grasped the fact that children, then as now, have a say in where the household’s discretionary income goes. Even though adults collected tobacco cards, the pursuit appealed pri- marily to kids. The children, Duke recognized, would beg their parents to buy whichever cigarette brand issued the card series they desired most. And with a foresight that would reshape popular advertising Duke determined that, of all potential tobacco-card images, two could un- failingly shill for a product that even then was known to kill people: scantily clad women and great athletes. When it came to the former, simple headshots wouldn’t suffice. The full-body photos on tobacco cards showed robust young women in elaborate yet meager tasseled dresses and calf-high boots. The models and actresses were thrown across chairs and sofas, fanning themselves, arms placed unnaturally behind their heads and cigarettes dangling from their mouths. The cards featuring these “cigarette beauties” in- spired an 1888 ode in the Chicago Tribune: “Who are these beauties, fresh and fair with ebon locks and sun-kissed hair! Whose that brow of alabaster that makes the heart thump quick and faster! What their names! Where their abode!”
The sexual nature of the cards prompted the wrath of religious leaders and public-morality groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Society for the Suppression of Vice. A Methodist minister in Washington, D.C., decried them as “indescribably fiendish. To defile the body with tobacco is vile enough, but when all the processes of modern ingenuity in printing and picture- making are brought into use to stimulate and start the fires of un- holy passion in innocent children, the crime becomes inhuman in its baseness.”
Perpetrators of the card craze even earned a rebuke from the White House when a tobacco maker had the gall to print a card featuring the comely Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleve- land and then the youngest first lady ever. Another inflammatory card was erroneously believed to depict Jeannette Halford, the daughter of E. W. Halford, the president’s secretary. Cops raided the studios where cigarette beauties were shot and sometimes hauled photogra- phers away to jail. When a reporter for the New Orleans Daily Pica- yune asked a young woman on the street if she’d ever allow her photo to be taken for a “cigarette picture,” she bridled, “What a horrid suggestion! Only actresses, baseball players, and other dreadful people have such things taken.”
To young card collectors, those dreadful ballplayers were every bit the prize as much as the pretty stage ladies, and the advertising war insti- gated by Duke would usher in the first golden era of baseball cards. The first tobacco company to put a baseball player on an insert card was probably Duke’s competitor Allen & Ginter, a Richmond firm that had entered the cigarette market in 1875. (It’s also possible that company president Lewis Ginter, a former Confederate army major known for his marketing savvy, had started putting trading cards inside cigarette boxes before Duke did.) Allen & Ginter packed their cigarettes tightly in paper wrappers swathed with brightly illustrated labels, and the firm’s package designs were so ornate that they were featured in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition of the American Republic in Philadelphia. Allen & Ginter’s 1888 Worlds Champions series included ten early baseball cards, along with another forty cards depicting boxers, billiards players, rowers, wrestlers, and gunslingers such as Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill. The set could be housed inside an album that included more advertising for “the brightest, most delicately flavored” tobacco grown in Virginia. Duke answered with a set of baseball “cabi- net cards”: cardboard-mounted photographs large and attractive enough to be displayed behind glass in living room cabinets.
When it came to insert cards, Ginter tried to take the moral high ground, eschewing the actresses that Duke rolled out for what he considered more manly subjects such as athletes. But Ginter certainly did his best to split the difference with his Women Baseball Players series of 1887, which featured staged shots of curvy ladies in snug uniforms, one of whom managed to gaze seductively at the camera while sliding headfirst into second base. Around the same time, the genteel citizens of Atlanta flooded the mayor’s office with complaints when a local tobacconist filled his window with images of the “luscious baseball nine,” a group of bat-wielding women who injected the game with sex appeal. The scandalous cards and displays had originated from an unknown company in New York, where a local Christian group and several newspaper editorial boards, including the New York Sun, launched a crusade against them. The Atlanta dealer drew such a crowd with his “female baseballists” that police were called in to disperse the oglers. “When the pictures of the female baseball players were sent out every dealer in tobacco in the country was crazy to get them as show window attractions,” the Atlanta Constitution reported. The story also noted that a college professor had threatened a group of students with expulsion when they decorated their walls with such cards; the students retaliated by putting a blind horse in the professor’s apartment.
For baseball fans, the timing of the tobacco advertising battles couldn’t have come at a better time. By the 1880s the sport had emerged as a far-reaching commercial force. Just a few years earlier amateur players and their fans were bemoaning all the money creeping into the game—the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first governing organization in the sport, had debated whether to declare professionalism “reprehensible” as recently as 1870. But the game’s purists were fighting a losing battle, as more fans turned out for games and players demanded more compensation for their play. The professional National League (NL) formed in 1876, with the Philadelphia Athletics and Chicago White Stockings among its eight charter members. A rival American Association (AA) was founded in 1881 and included teams from Cincinnati and Louisville. Players and fans of the priggish NL sometimes sneered at the AA, whose games were renowned for low gate fees and copious amounts of booze, earning it the nickname the Beer and Whiskey League.
As star-powered clubs became increasingly profitable, team owners often poached top players from rosters in the other league. This practice stopped with the landmark Tripartite Agreement of 1883, in which the two leagues, along with the Northwestern League, agreed to honor one another’s contracts. But the agreement also set the stage for a nearly century-long battle between players and owners by cementing the all-important “reserve clause” in baseball. The rule gave a team owner the right to “reserve” a player for another year at the end of each season, in effect binding the player to his squad in perpetuity. (The Tripartite Agreement also prevented teams from picking up players that had been blacklisted from other clubs, further limiting a player’s movements.) The reserve clause was widely despised among players, even though salaries rose during the decade; by 1885 the mini- mum annual haul of a player was a working man’s $1,000, with a cap of $2,000.
The agreement between the leagues may have been controversial, but it brought the sport the stability it needed to flourish. The May 31, 1886, game between the New York Giants and the Detroit Wolverines marked the first time a major-league game logged twenty thousand– plus fans in attendance; in October of that year the National League and American Association winners faced off in a world championship, a thrilling six-game series in which the AA’s St. Louis Browns topped the Chicago White Stockings in the sixth and final game, winning on Curt Welch’s “$15,000 slide” at home, so-called because of the cash prize it brought the St. Louis club. To mark the occasion, the Lone Jack cigarette company of Lynchburg, Virginia, put out a picture card for each of the thirteen St. Louis players.
In the months that followed, Goodwin and Co. Tobacco unveiled perhaps the most ambitious and fascinating set of baseball cards collectors would ever see. After a successful run of twelve cards featuring the hometown New York Giants, Goodwin began producing a series that would eventually number more than twenty-three hundred cards and depict more than five hundred players. Taken as a whole, the sprawling Old Judge set, named for a Goodwin tobacco brand, still stands as one of the great visual records of late-nineteenth-century base- ball and the men who played it. The company’s primary photographer, Joseph Hall, tried to take pictures of every ballplayer on the rosters of forty major- and minor-league teams. Although baseball scholars consider him one of the game’s first great photographers, Hall probably spent more time shooting weddings and portraits than he did ball- players. He was a chronicler of life in Brooklyn—one of his only surviving works aside from the baseball cards is a series of gorgeous photos he took of the borough’s Green-Wood Cemetery. The imagination and sheer breadth of Hall’s Old Judge photos, however, sug-gest that baseball was special to him.
Hall enjoyed plenty of artistic latitude in shooting the Old Judges. The cards were not mass-produced prints; they were sepia-toned photographs pasted onto heavy-stock cardboard. He shot some players in more than a dozen poses. In the photos, the mustachioed men wear dark, knee-high stirrups and collared jerseys buttoned to their Adam’s apples. Most of the players stand in solemn, dignified poses, but the most intriguing cards depict staged action shots set up in Hall’s Brooklyn studio—runners in frozen headfirst slides, infielders tagging out opponents as they look in the camera’s eye. Balls hang from visible strings, bases lie on the studio floor, and painted back ground cloths show stadium walls and city skylines. As Hall probably knew well, not even a seven-year-old would have taken these for spontaneous photographs. But they convincingly evoke the showmanship of the sport, often with genuine artistry. Each of his full- body portraits is unique, as if Hall was trying to capture not the face but the personality, and some remain inscrutable today, like the one of future Hall of Fame outfielder Ed Delahanty, who cups his hands and looks to the sky as if in prayer.
The cards catalog what had become, by the 1880s, a thoroughly professional game, with players moving regularly from team to team and leagues morphing from season to season as established squads went under and new ones sprouted up. The Old Judges reflect the game’s westward crawl, too, with players for such far-flung Western Association teams as Omaha, Nebraska, and Sioux City, Iowa, featured on cards in 1888. The final installment of Old Judges, from 1890, showed men from the newly formed Players League, a group that had splintered off from the National League because of labor issues, most notably the reserve clause. The Players League had no salary caps, but it folded after just one season.