The turn of the calendar to 2020 really got me to thinking about baseball cards from the 1920s. It’s hard to believe some of the issues from the era of Babe Ruth will be turning 100 over the next decade.
The 1920s was really sort of a golden era for baseball. The sport had already achieved popularity thanks to the century’s earliest stars like Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie, Christy Mathewson and Cy Young. But by 1920, baseball would get even bigger with the dominance of Ruth, who became the sport’s best marketing chip.
Baseball cards, too, were seeing a dramatic shift. Here’s a bit of what collectors saw in the 1920s in terms of this growing hobby.
Tobacco Cards Were Out, Candy Cards Were In
The popular tobacco cards, which really gave the hobby its legs starting in the late 1800s were basically phased out in the U.S by the 1920s. Some were still issued but in general, they were no more.
Tobacco cards in other parts of the world were just getting started. Issues from the UK and other countries were pushed heavily and probably even outpaced the earlier American tobacco sets. A slew of international tobacco cards were printed in the 1920s and 1930s. But America was moving on from those types of releases.
It became apparent during the earlier American tobacco card boom that baseball cards were popular with kids. As you’ve read here in the past, that created all sorts of problems at the time. But it also proved to candy companies that they could tie cards to products and make some money.
Candy cards, of course, had already been offered for some time. American Caramel was one of the more notable companies offering cards in the 1900s and 1910s and they continued into the 1920s. But they also saw others joining the fold as others popped up, too, and a bunch of candy issues were being printed.
And while candy cards were not entirely new, these 1920s cards also had a dramatic change in appearance. Most were larger and some of the more popular sets, like American Caramel’s E120 and E121 issues, used a larger, black and white style of card as opposed to the smaller, color lithographic cards that were generally seen earlier.
The Emergence of the Strip Cards
Baseball cards, while popular, weren’t always inexpensive to produce. Even as far back as the 1800s, tobacco companies effectively wanted to get out of the card inserts because of the cost to produce them. There were costs for the artwork, the printing costs, and costs to players (if needed) to use their name/likeness.
But the cards were popular and companies wanted to use them to attract customers. They just needed a cheaper way to make them.
Enter the strip cards.
Strip cards were printed on low-quality stock and, while some did use real images of players, others had low-quality artwork depictions that surely cost far less to have commissioned. These cards also did not need to be cut and sorted into products. Instead, they came printed on sheets or strips, allowing stores to quickly hand cut or tear them for customers. They are believed to have been sold inexpensively or even given away to customers buying other products.
That no doubt made them popular for businesses short on cash but wanting to get into the baseball card game. And in the 1920s, we saw a large amount of these sets being made. Many were created and among the more popular ones collected were the W512, W513, W514, W515, and W516 releases.
Cards as a Standalone Product
The 1920s also saw cards being offered as standalone products. This was a unique trend as most cards at the time were being issued with products.
But in addition to strip cards, which could sometimes be purchased, the 1920s also included the distribution of exhibit cards. Exhibit cards were distributed inside of machines and all sorts of them, including movie stars and athletes, were available throughout the 1920s and beyond. They were often sold for a penny inside of a machine but costs to buy them, like anything, eventually grew.
Exhibit cards were generally postcard sized and printed on a thick cardboard stock. Some, in fact, were actual postcards. The thickness of the stock has helped to preserve them through the years and even today, you can find some in tremendous condition.
Many later exhibit cards from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s are not worth as much. In mid-grade condition, you can often get commons for $1-$3. But some earlier exhibits from the 1920s can fetch big money. Lou Gehrig’s rookie card, for example, is found in a 1925 exhibit card set and even in modest condition, easily sells for five figures.