A quick glance at most early twentieth century sports cards will reveal an idealized look at baseball’s early heroes. Whether it is a color lithograph, or a black and white studio portrait, careful attention is paid to capture these men at their best. They appear heroic, as if sculpted by the ancient Greeks, and represent a time before motion pictures when such images and illustrations were the only method an entire generation of fans could view their favorite player.
Underwood & Underwood was one of the era’s most prominent photographers, and during the early years of World War I they took extensive photos of some of baseball’s greatest stars. However, unlike studio portraits, these images showed the players as they truly were – weathered from years of playing in the sun.
In 1916 two bakeries – Fleischmann Bakery in New York City and Ferguson Bakery in Boston – used the Underwood images in a set of oversized cards that would accompany their loaves of bread. This set will ultimately become designated as ‘D381’ by early hobbyists.
Like many sets of the era D381 cards were used in part of a promotion, where the lower portion of the card – known as a tab – would be cut off. Presenting either bakery with 50 tabs, as well as 50 cents, would reward the collector with a leather Kodak album designed to hold 100 cards.
“This is a very under-appreciated set,” said Bill Cornell, who has amassed an impressive collection of D381 where the tabs remained. “Its a major set that people are aware of, but uncatalogued examples – including Walter Johnson – continue to show up. No one knows how many are in the set or how many variations there are.”
“The D381 cards have always intrigued me because of the quality of the images,” explained Jason Miller, who recently began purchasing several examples of the set. “Underwood & Underwood photos are plentiful, but it’s interesting how few of them made it into card form – also many of these players are on other cards, but not these images. I may be mistaken, but I haven’t seen any D381 images used for other cards and the ones of certain players really show their humanity. They are closeups typically and show the crooked noses and flaws we all have. These are not prettied up heroic shots. Just real ball players.”
For years it had been assumed that D381 cards featuring the team name below the player name were issued by Fleischmann, while cards featuring the team name next to the player name on a single line were issued by Ferguson. This simple difference made sense on principle, and became widely accepted throughout the hobby – and even by grading companies – to identify copies where the tab had been removed. However, Cornell has found examples that contradict these findings – including the pictured Stengel – that throw into question hobby conventions and imply that it is not possible to differentiate between a Fleischmann and a Ferguson once the tab has been removed.
The set has an impressive checklist that includes the likes of first class Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Honus Wanger, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson. There are several other members of the hall in the set, along with everyday players on a checklist in excess of 100 examples.
A complete look at Bill Cornell’s personal collection of D381 Fleischmann Bakery cards can be seen on his website: T207.com.