Baseball cards aren’t just little bits of coveted cardboard; they’re true pieces of graphic art.
By Michael Fensom
When one of the most illustrious and expensive baseball cards in existence went up for auction in late March, Bill Goodwin, whose St. Louis-based auction house, Goodwin and Co., presided over the sale, noted that many of the 14 bids were submitted by collectors who had never before owned a card. Their desire to own a T206 Honus Wagner—one of the roughly 60 in circulation produced by the American Tobacco Company and released in 1909 before being pulled from the series under mysterious circumstances—was spurred by the card’s value as a collectible, which, since its first valuation of $50 in 1933, has a track record of batting a thousand. The Wagner, sold by Goodwin to an anonymous bidder in New Jersey, soared past the auctioneer’s expectations to sell for $1.2 million. The price set a new standard for a Wagner card assigned a 3 out of 10 grade—an appraisal that qualifies the card’s physical condition as just below “excellent”—shredding the previous mark by roughly $420,000. Scott Hileman, the director of grading at Sportscard Guaranty, the firm that graded the Wagner card sold last month, says, “The reason people say it’s a good investment is because it can be tracked. Each time a card hits the market, the difference in each investment isn’t in hundreds of dollars, but in hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
The T206 Wagner, a wallet-sized, 2 ½- by 1 ½-inch chromolithograph of one of baseball’s first superstars, has become representative of a high-end baseball card market that has plumped considerably as collectors who once honed collections around other pieces of ephemera, Americana or graphic art have shifted their eyes toward cards. Other pieces in Goodwin’s auction of a complete T206 set exceeded initial estimates. An Eddie Plank card, also pulled from circulation by American Tobacco, brought $330,825. A card depicting Sherry Magee, on which the Philadelphia Phillies outfielder’s last name is spelled incorrectly as Magie, fetched $80,000—nearly $30,000 more than expected. “On the high-end card market, there has been a shift there,” said Goodwin, a former collector who has been selling cards since 1985. “The history of the Wagner card, for example—I don’t know anyone who hasn’t made money from the 1980s on. There is a proven track record, and like any collectible, you have to invest wisely.”
The first baseball cards, part of a series called “Champions of the World” that also included tennis players, cyclists and cricket players, began to show up in packs of cigarettes in the 1880s. The cards served as ephemeral inducements by long-forgotten brands like Fatima, Piedmont and Carolina Brights to lure new customers, especially children, and promote brand loyalty. The first cards were chromolithographs, usually of a player’s head, or featured photographs of a team on the front with a cigarette manufacturer’s advertisement on the back. With so many brands jostling for attention, the cards lacked uniformity, nor were baseball cards the only game in town. Cigarette brands released cards featuring “Indian Chiefs,” “Animals of the World,” Hollywood femmes fatales and war heroes, among others. One brand created a card series known as “triple folders,” which featured a central chromolithograph action shot from a baseball game flanked by flaps that showed headshots of two players. In 1933, the bubble gum brand Goudey released its puzzle series, with jigsaw pieces that could be popped out of the paper frame, interlocked and propped up.
Early baseball cards were one of the first stabs at marketing a sport that was swiftly on its way to becoming “America’s pastime.” “You look at Michael Jordan and what he did for the sneaker industry and how far Nike has come,” Hileman says, “and they worked with the same philosophy.” The cards encapsulated the fleeting frames of a baseball game in a tangible commodity that the fan could carry home and collect, a bookmark from the ballpark that acted as an early catalogue of the game. No card has generated interest like the T206 Wagner, which the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y., called the “Holy Grail” of baseball collectibles. The card depicts Wagner’s head and upper body in front of a yellow background with a white trim framing the chromolithograph and the words “Wagner, Pittsburg” printed below the image. Wagner is wearing a grey uniform with a blue collar and “Pittsburg,” in brown lettering, stretches across his chest. His dark hair is parted in the center and his gaze, with his head tilted slightly off center, looks beyond the viewer of the card. Wagner’s lips, thin and drawn, give him a slightly amused expression not unlike the “Mona Lisa,” as if the commotion over his card is a joke he has played and gained perpetual satisfaction from.
Wagner’s dispute with American Tobacco is clouded by uncertainty over his motives, but is perhaps the first such incident between an athlete and a company seeking to make money off of that athlete’s likeness. Some say that Wagner, who was baseball’s best and most popular player at the time the T206 series was released, objected to the idea of using his image and name on tobacco products (even though he chewed tobacco) because he did not want children buying cigarettes to obtain his card. Another rendition of the dispute surmises that Wagner, who had the reputation of being a tough negotiator, did not feel he was receiving adequate compensation for use of his likeness. Regardless, the dispute led to the Wagner card being pulled after roughly 200 had been printed and has accomplished more to generate interest in baseball cards—and trading cards in general—than any other piece. The most famous Wagner, known as the “Gretzky Wagner” because it was once co-owned by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, sold for a record $2.8 million in 2007 to Ken Kendrick, principal owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Wagner’s dispute with American Tobacco had the auxiliary effect of cracking tobacco’s monopoly on baseball cards. Candy and bubble gum companies began producing cards at the start of the 20th century’s second decade. Competition among brands raged until 1952, when the gum brands Topps and Bowman, having bought up competitors, began making cards in a uniform size (3 1/8 – by 2 1/16-inches). Bowman was bought out by Topps just four years later.
The value of baseball cards has been closely tied to rarity, benefited by the lack of uniformity up until the 1952 series, and condition. The most desirable cards, such as the T206 Wagner or the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card, combine those traits with the depiction of a superstar player. Hileman, who has been grading at Sportscard Guaranty since 1999, said cards are graded on a scale from 1 through 10, with a 9 being a card in “mint” condition and a 5 considered “excellent.” Graders assess cards on authenticity—“For every legit card, there is one kicked aside as a reprint,” Hileman says—whether alterations, such as shaving of corners or added color, have been made to the card and its physical condition, with rips and wrinkles detracting heavily from value.
Each card, through its condition, has its own story, which graders sleuth based on subtle intricacies. Hileman recalls a collection distributed by Cracker Jack in 1914 and 1915, with the earlier set being the more valuable. At a card show a couple of years ago, a collector brought in a 1914 set that astounded Hileman and his colleagues. The Cracker Jack set is printed on thin paper, Hileman says, and therefore creases easily. The cards, because they were packed in boxes with the candy, are often stained with caramel. This complete set, however, was unstained and wrinkle-free. The collector said a relative had received the complete set before they hit the boxes, adding to the value because the condition was uniform and they were from a single source. “You look and think, no set in the world looks better than this one,” Hileman says. The set sold at auction for $1.5 million.
The Topps Mantle rookie card gained prestige for where it was placed in the set of 407 cards. In 1952, Topps divided its set into four series: 1-80, 81-250, 251-310 and 311-407. Cards in the last series, or “high series,” are less plentiful because Topps produced fewer copies, growing the value of the Mantle card and the Eddie Matthews rookie, which also sits in that series. The clash of rarity and value is also demonstrated in the first card of the set. Cards depicting Andy Pafko, a Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder who had watched Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world” sail over his head a year earlier, are worth thousands if graded in mint condition. Early collectors would bind sets together with rubber bands, and often the top card in a series was subject to worn edges due to the bands.
No collection exemplifies the variety of early American trading cards better than that of Jefferson Burdick, who amassed over 306,353 cards from the time he was eight years old until just before his death in 1963 at the age of 63. Burdick’s collection is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he spent the final 15 years of his life cataloguing the collection as part of the arrangement of his donation. Crippled by arthritis that made writing difficult, Burdick cataloged cards in The American Card Catalog, which gave the T206 set its name (T standing for a 20th-century tobacco card), gave the Wagner its first valuation ($50, in 1933, equal to $463 in 2012 dollars) and is still used as a means of organization by collectors today.
Among the 30,000 baseball cards in his collection, Burdick collected the three most hunted sets among collectors: The 1909–11 T206 set (including an ungraded Wagner card); the 1933 Goudey set (highlighted by the Nap LaJoie card); and the 1952 Topps set. Still, Burdick’s interest did not lie in baseball—he never played the sport or attended a game—but in representing American culture through visual ephemera. Other cards depict scenes from World War I, such as a dog draped in a Red Cross cloak delivering medicine or a wounded soldier, “races” of mankind or popular Hollywood actresses of the time.
The Met sees the value of Burdick’s collection in both historical and artistic terms. “Our ephemera collection is made up of material that is printed on paper and meant to be disposable,” said Freyda Spira, an assistant curator who oversees the permanent display of portions of Burdick’s baseball card collection in the museum’s American Wing. “However, this kind of material communicates valuable information about a society and its culture, and is thus incredibly valuable as pieces of art. The baseball cards are an integral part of our collection of works on paper. They were assembled by Burdick within the larger phenomenon of American printmaking and they continue to demonstrate various aspects of early printmaking in terms of technique and function.”
The Met’s philosophy places value on the cultural worth of the cards rather than their financial value. The cultural worth is also significant to collectors, who have driven up prices as a demand for these advertising inserts, now high-end collectibles, has soared. The cards are part of the patchwork quilt of American history, bits of ephemeral visual culture that piece together the American story while telling one of their own.
This article originally appeared in the June issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Play Ball.”