A baseball card is a type of trading card relating to baseball, usually printed on some type of paper stock or card stock. A card will usually feature one or more baseball players or other baseball-related sports figures. Cards are most often found in the United States but are also common in countries such as Canada, Cuba, and Japan, where baseball is a popular sport and there are professional leagues.
While there are no firm standards that limit the size or shape of a baseball card, most cards of today are rectangular, measuring 2-½ inches by 3-½ inches (6.35 cm by 8.89 cm).
During the mid-19th century in the United States, baseball and photography were both gaining popularity. As a result, baseball clubs began to pose for group and individual pictures, much like members of other clubs and associations posed. Some of these photographs were printed onto small cards similar to modern wallet photos. As baseball increased in popularity and became a professional sport during the late 1860s, trade cards featuring baseball players appeared. These were used by a variety of companies to promote their business, even if the products being advertised had no connection with baseball. In 1868, Peck and Snyder, a sporting goods store in New York, began producing trade cards featuring baseball teams. Peck and Snyder sold baseball equipment, and the cards were a natural advertising vehicle. The Peck and Snyder cards are sometimes considered the first baseball cards.
Typically, a trade card of the time featured an image on one side and information advertising the business on the other. Advances in color printing increased the appeal of the cards. As a result, cards began to use photographs, either in black-and-white or sepia, or color artwork, which was not necessarily based on photographs. Some early baseball cards could be used as part of a game, which might be either a conventional card game or a simulated baseball game.
By early 1886, images of baseball players were often included on cigarette cards with cigarette packs and other tobacco products. This was partly for promotional purposes and partly because the card helped protect the cigarettes from damage. By the end of the century, baseball had become so popular that production had spread well beyond the Americas and into the Pacific Isles
By the turn of the century, most baseball cards were produced by confectionery companies and tobacco companies. The first major set of the 20th century was issued by the Breisch-Williams Company in 1903. Breisch-Williams was a confectionery company based in Oxford, Pennsylvania. Soon after, several other companies began to advertise their products with baseball cards. This included, but was not limited to, the American Tobacco Company, the American Caramel Company, the Imperial Tobacco Company of Canada, and Cabanas, a Cuban cigar manufacturer.
The American Tobacco Company decided to introduce baseball advertising cards into their tobacco products with the issue of the T206 White Border Set in 1909. The cards were included in packs of cigarettes and produced over a three-year period until the ATC was dissolved. The most famous, and most expensive card for the grade, is the Honus Wagner card from this set.
At the same time, many other non-tobacco companies started producing and distributing baseball trade cards to the public. Between 1909 and 1911, The American Caramel Company produced the E90-1 series and 1911 saw the introduction of the ‘Zee Nut’ card. These sets were produced over a 28-year span by the Collins-McCarthy Company of California. By the mid-teens companies such as The Sporting News magazine began sponsoring card issues. Caramel companies like Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein were among the first to put 'prizes' in boxes. In 1914, they produced the first of two Cracker Jack card issues, which featured players from both major leagues as well as players from the short lived Federal League. As the teens drew to a close, the Chicago-based Boston Store Department company also issued a set.
1933 also saw the delivery of the World Wide Gum issue. World Wide Gum Co. was based in Montreal and clearly had a close relationship with the Goudey Gum Company, as each of their four issues closely resembled a Goudey contemporary. Goudey, National Chicle, Delong and a handful of other companies were competitive in the bubble gum and baseball card market until World War II began.
After 1941, cards would not be produced in any significant number until a few years after the end of the war. Wartime production transitioned into the post-war civilian consumer goods, and in 1948 baseball card production resumed in the US with issues by the Bowman Gum and the Leaf Candy Company. At the same time, Topps Gum Company issued their Magic Photos set, four years before they issued their first “traditional” card set. By 1950, Leaf had bowed out of the industry.
Toward the end of the decade, Japanese baseball cards began appearing in large quantities. Many of them were produced and associated with Menko, a popular Japanese card game. More conventional sets from Japan would appear several decades later.
Bowman was the major producer of Baseball cards from 1948–1952. In 1952, Topps began to produce large sets of cards as well. The 1952 Topps set is the most sought-after post-World War set among collectors because of the scarcity of the Mickey Mantle card, the first Mantle card issued by Topps. Although it is not his rookie card (that honor belongs to his 1951 Bowman card), it is still considered the ultimate card to own of the post-war era.
Topps and Bowman then competed for customers and for the rights to any baseball players' likeness. Two-years later, Leaf stopped producing cards. In 1956, Topps bought out Bowman and enjoyed a largely unchallenged position in the US market for the next two decades. From 1952–1969, Topps always offered five or six card nickel wax packs and in 1952–1964, also offered one card penny packs. For the 1970s, however, Topps increased the cost of a wax pack to a dime (with 10–15 cards depending on year) and also offered cello packs (typically around 28–32 cards) for 25–35 cents, and rack packs of 42–50 cards costing 50–70 cents depending on year.
This did not prevent a large number of regional companies from producing successful runs of trading cards. Additionally, several US companies attempted to crack into the market at a national level. In 1959, Fleer, a gum company, signed Ted Williams to an exclusive contract and sold a set of cards featuring him. Williams retired in 1960 forcing Fleer to produce a set of Baseball Greats cards featuring retired players. Like the Topps cards, they were sold with gum. In 1963, Fleer produced a 67 card set of active players (this time with a cherry cookie in the packs instead of gum), which was not successful, as most players were contractually obligated to Topps. Post Cereals issued cards on cereal boxes from 1960 to 1963 and corporate sibling Jell-O issued virtually identical cards on the back of its packages in 1962 and 1963. Leaf also issued a card set in 1960.
In 1965, Topps licensed production to Canadian candy maker O-Pee-Chee. The O-Pee-Chee sets were essentially identical to the Topps sets until 1969, when the backs of the cards were branded O-Pee-Chee. In 1970, due to federal legislation, O-Pee-Chee was compelled to add French-language text to the backs of its baseball cards.
In the 1970s, several companies took advantage of a new licensing scheme, not to take on Topps, but to create premiums. Kellogg’s began to produce 3D-cards inserted with cereal and Hostess printed cards on packages of its baked goods.
In 1976, a company called TCMA, which mainly produced minor league baseball cards, produced a set of 630 cards consisting of Major League Ball players. The cards were produced under the name the Sports Stars Publishing Company, or SSPC. TCMA published a baseball card magazine named Collectors Quarterly which it used to advertise its set offering it directly via mail order. However, the set was basically a failure, as it was unlicensed and brought about a cease and desist order from Topps.
This type of power provided Topps with the ability to thwart competitors from seriously threatening their market share.
Fleer sued Topps and the MLBPA in 1975 to break Topps' monopoly on baseball cards; it won. In 1981, Fleer and Donruss issued baseball card sets, both with gum. An appeal of the Fleer lawsuit by Topps clarified that Topps' exclusive rights only applied to cards sold with gum. After the appeal, Fleer and Donruss continued to produce cards issued without gum; Fleer included team logo stickers with their card packs, while Donruss introduced "Hall of Fame Diamond Kings" puzzles and included three puzzle pieces in each pack. In 1992, Topps' gum and Fleer's logo stickers were discontinued, with Donruss discontinuing the puzzle piece inserts the following year. In 1984, two monthly price guides came on the scene. Tuff Stuff and Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, published by Dr. James Beckett, attempted to track the approximate market value of several types of trading cards.
More collectors entered the hobby during the 1980s. As a result, manufacturers such as Score (which later became Pinnacle Brands) and Upper Deck entered the marketplace in 1988 and 1989 respectively. Upper Deck introduced several innovative production methods including tamper-proof foil packaging, hologram-style logos, and higher quality card stock. This style of production allowed Upper Deck to charge a premium for its product. In 1989, Upper Deck's first set included the Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card. The card became highly sought-after until Griffey's persistent injury troubles caused his performance level to decline. The other major card companies followed suit and created card brands with higher price points. Topps resurrected the Bowman brand name in 1989. Topps produced a Stadium Club issue in 1991. Two years later, they followed with a Topps Finest set. Topps Finest was the first set to utilize refractors, a shiny modification to the standard card set which proved extremely popular among hobbyists. Meanwhile, Donruss issued its Leaf brand in 1990; Fleer followed with Fleer Ultra sets in 1991; and Score issued Pinnacle brand cards in 1992.
Starting in 1997 with Upper Deck, companies began inserting cards with swatches of uniforms and pieces of game-used Baseball equipment as part of a plan to generate interest. Card companies obtained all manner of memorabilia, from uniform jerseys and pants, to bats, gloves, caps, and even bases and defunct stadium seats to feed this new hobby demand. It is also in 1997 that the first "one-of-one" cards were released by Fleer, beginning with the 1997 Flair Showcase "Masterpieces" (the Ultra set would begin to include purple 1-of-1 masterpieces the following year). Both kinds of inserts remain popular staples in the hobby today.
The process and cost of multi-tiered printings, monthly set issues, licensing fees, and player-spokesman contracts made for a difficult market. Pinnacle Brands folded after 1998. Pacific, which acquired full licensing in 1994, ceased production in 2001. In 2005, Fleer went bankrupt and was bought out by Upper Deck, and Donruss lost the MLB license in 2006 (they also did not produce baseball cards in 1999 and 2000). At that time, the MLBPA limited the number of companies that would produce baseball cards to offset the glut in product, and to consolidate the market. As a result of the measure that included revoking the MLB/MLBPA production licenses from Donruss, only two companies remained; Topps and Upper Deck.
Topps and Upper Deck are the only two companies that retained production licenses for baseball cards of major league players. In a move to expand their market influence, Upper Deck purchased the Fleer brand and the remnants of its production inventory. After purchasing Fleer, Upper Deck took over production of the remaining products that were slated to be released. Upper Deck continues to issue products with the Fleer name, while Topps continues to release Bowman and Bazooka card products. Topps is also the only company that continues to produce pre-collated factory sets of cards.
Card companies are trying to maintain a sizable hobby base in a variety of ways. Especially prominent is a focus on transitioning the cards to an online market. Both Topps and Upper Deck have issued cards that require online registration, while Topps has targeted the investment-minded collector with its eTopps offering of cards that are maintained and traded at its website. Also, since the late 1990's, hobby retail shops and trade-show dealers found their customer base declining, with their buyers now having access to more items and better prices on the Internet. As more collectors and dealers purchased computers and began trusting the Internet as a "safe" venue to buy and sell, the transformation from the traditional retail shops and shows to Internet transactions changed the nature of the hobby.
During the same time period, MLBPA also introduced a new guideline for players to attain a rookie card. For years, players had been highlighted in previous sets as a rookie while still in the Minor Leagues. Such players would sometimes remain in the Minor Leagues for considerable time before attaining Major League status, making a player's rookie card released years before their first game as a major leaguer. The new guideline requires players to be part of the a Major League team roster before a rookie card would be released in their name, and a designated "rookie card" logo printed on the face of the card. The rookie card logo shows the words "rookie card" over a baseball bat and home plate with the Major League Baseball logo in the top left corner.
In early 2007, two developments in the industry occurred within 24 hours of each other, both of which garnered national media attention. First, it was found that Topps' new Derek Jeter card had been purportedly altered just prior to final printing. A reported prankster inside the company had inserted a photo of Mickey Mantle into the Yankees' dugout and another showing a smiling President George W. Bush waving from the stands. Topps Spokesman Clay Luraschi later admitted that it was done on purpose by the Topps creative department.
Shortly afterward, the hobby's most expensive card, a near mint-mint professionally graded and authenticated T206 Honus Wagner, was sold to a private collector for $2.35 million. It is believed to be the highest price ever paid for a baseball card of any kind.
Over the years, there was also a great deal of resistance from other companies. In 1967, Topps faced an attempt to undermine its position from the Major League Baseball Players Association, the League’s nascent players' union. Struggling to raise funds, the MLBPA discovered that it could generate significant income by pooling the publicity rights of its members and offering companies a group license to use their images on various products. After initially putting players on Coca-Cola bottlecaps, the union concluded that the Topps contracts did not pay players adequately for their rights.
Fleer even filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Topps was engaged in unfair competition through its aggregation of exclusive contracts. A hearing examiner ruled against Topps in 1965, but the Commission reversed this decision on appeal. The Commission concluded that because the contracts only covered the sale of cards with gum, competition was still possible by selling cards with other small, low-cost products. However, Fleer chose not to pursue such options and instead sold its remaining player contracts to Topps for $395,000 in 1966.
Soon after, MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller then approached Joel Shorin, the president of Topps, about renegotiating these contracts. At this time, Topps had every major league player under contract, generally for five years plus renewal options, so Shorin declined. After continued discussions went nowhere, before the 1968 season, the union asked its members to stop signing renewals on these contracts, and offered Fleer the exclusive rights to market cards.. Although Fleer declined the proposal, by the end of 1973, Topps had agreed to double its payments to each player from $125 to $250, and also to begin paying players a percentage of Topps' overall sales. The figure for individual player contracts has since increased to $500. Since then, Topps used individual player contracts as the basis for its baseball cards.
In 1952, Topps started distributing its American made cards in Canada. In 1965 O-Pee-Chee re-entered the baseball card market producing a licenced version of the Topps set. From 1970 until the last Topps based set was produced in 1992 the cards were bi-lingual French/English to comply with Canadian law
From 1985 until 1988, Donruss issued a parallel Canadian set under the Leaf name. The set was basically identical to the Donruss issues of the same years however it was bi-lingual. All the Leaf sets were produced in the United States.
There were several promotional issues issued by Canadian firms since Major League Baseball began in Canada in 1969. There were also several public safety sets issued, most notably the Toronto Blue Jays fire safety sets of the 1980s and early 1990s and the Toronto Public Libraries "Reading is fun" set of 1998 and 1999. These sets were distributed in the Toronto area. The cards were monolingual and only issued in English.
The first baseball cards appeared in Japan in the late 19th century. Unlike American cards of the same era, the cards utilized traditional Japanese pen and ink illustrations. In the 1920s, black and white photo postcards were issued, but illustrated cards were the norm until the 1950s. The 1950s brought about cards which incorporated photos of players, mostly in black and white. Menko cards also became popular at the time.
NPB branded baseball cards are currently widely available in Japanese toy stores, convenience stores, sports stores, and as bonus items included in certain packages of potato chips.
In Cuba, sets were issued first in the early 1900s. By the 1930s various candy and chocolate makers were offering cards, most notably Baguer Chocolate. The post-World War Two era had cards issued by magazines, candy makers, Coca-Cola, and of course a gum company. In post revolution Cuba, baseball cards were still issued.
Several sets of Mexican League baseball cards have been issued in the past few years.