Baseball cards had been issued since the 1860s but starting in 1909, things sort of went haywire. While there were a number of sets issued in the early 1900s, 1909 is the year when the card collecting craze of the 20th century really took off. Numerous sets were printed that year and those issues still remain popular today. 1909 kicked off a new era in collecting and helped to jump start the hobby into what it is today. Let’s take a look back at some of the sets that were offered in this critical time in collecting history.
The first part of this series will look at tobacco cards. Part II will cover caramel/early candy cards and Part III will review other types of cards.
Without a doubt, T206 was the most popular set from that year. Numerous news articles discuss the cards that were packed with cigarettes that sent kids into a collecting frenzy and T206 cards are believed to be the ones that most referred to.
The first T206 cards were issued in 1909 with new cards and series’ being added, keeping this massive set growing into 1911.
Issued by the American Tobacco Company, these cards were mostly distributed inside packages of cigarettes. One exception to that were some cards that were issued with Polar Bear scrap tobacco.
One of the allures to the T206 set is that the cards can be found with a variety of back advertisements for different tobacco brands of the American Tobacco Company. These backs, some of which can be quite rare, are large drivers of a particular card’s value. A card with a common back can be worth as little as $20-$30 in low-grade condition but can be worth more than $1,000 if it is a card with a rare back advertisement.
T206 cards are among the hottest in the hobby today and the set is much more than the iconic seven-figure Honus Wagner short print. Even low-grade examples of Ty Cobb’s cards command four-figure prices these days and the prices of even decent commons start around $30-$40.
The set is a Who’s Who of the era with some of the sport’s biggest names present, including Cobb, Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, and dozens of other cards featuring Hall of Fame players.
1909-11 T51 Murad College Sports
The 1909-11 time period proved to be a popular one. Another well-known set issued during those same years was the T51 Murad College Sports set, which began production in 1909.
These tobacco cards were issued in six series and featured generic subjects playing a variety of sports representing colleges and universities from around the country. While specific athletes aren’t depicted, the set is popular because it does include real colleges/universities and also includes all four major American sports, baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, in addition to other key sports like tennis and golf.
This set is a pretty affordable one with commons for the lesser known sports starting around $5-$10. Cards featuring the major sports are typically more expensive. The most popular card in the set is the basketball card for Williams College. That card appears in the first series and is often viewed as the first true basketball trading card.
1909-11 T212 Obak
The card collecting craze wasn’t just limited to major leagues and college sports. The T212 Obak set also began production in 1909 and featured minor league baseball.
These cards were issued from 1909-11 and, while they all share the T212 American Card Catalog designation, they are technically three different sets.
Because these are minor league players, many of the names in this set are not even familiar to experienced pre-war collectors. But the series is known for minor league cards of Buck Weaver and Chick Gandil from the infamous 1919 Black Sox team.
1909 T204 Ramly
Breaking the string of multi-year sets is the distinctive T204 Ramly set. This set is believed to have been issued only in 1909. That somewhat limited production is part of the reason the cards are rarer than the others mentioned above.
These cards were not only distinctive by the ornate gold borders, but also because of the shape and overall style of the card. With black and white images inside of an oval, the idea, obviously, is that these cards were designed to look like miniature pictures inside of a picture frame. While most other cards from the era used a basic design with white borders and color lithographic images, this set broke out of that mold to create a truly unique look.
T204 Ramly cards are, in general, rare and pricey. While low-grade cards can be found a bit more inexpensive, commons in decent shape start around $150-$200 with Hall of Famers much higher. The key to the set is a card of Hall of Famer Walter Johnson. His card is sometimes viewed as a rookie card and decent copies start in the $8,000-$10,000 range.
The card collecting craze wasn’t merely limited to America in 1909. International cards were being printed and while most international tobacco issues didn’t come until later, the 1909 Cabanas set of Cuban cards is one exception to that. The cards promoted the appearance of the Detroit Tigers visiting the country to play against some local teams.
The 1909 Cabanas cards had a distinctive look with mostly black and white images combined with colorful backgrounds. Cards in the set featured Cuban teams with players from the Reds and Almendares. But the set also is of considerable interest because it includes some cards of the Detroit Tigers, who participated in the 1909 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cards for the Reds players sensibly had red backgrounds while Almendares players had a blue background. Tigers cards had a black/gray background.
Many of the big names for the Tigers, including Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, are not included in the set. The issue remains a popular one, however, because of its rarity. Even low-grade commons sell for a few hundred dollars as a starting point. This release includes a total of only 35 cards but is nearly impossible for most collectors to build due to the rarity of the cards and high cost of a set.