You could make the case that baseball and baseball cards both got their start in the Civil War. In the downtimes in camp baseball was a popular way to pass the idle hours. At the same time, the new fangled magic of photography was becoming widespread for the first time. Baseball nines would gather for team photos that would be retained as wartime keepsakes when printed on large cards. Photos of some of the more celebrated teams and players were often printed in smaller sizes and passed among fans.
The first true baseball cards that emerged after the Civil War were advertising tools. The marketing mavens who hit on the idea of using athlete photos to sell balls and gloves were Andrew Peck and Irving Snyder, purveyors of fine sporting goods in New York City. Peck and Snyder had the perfect subjects for pitchmen – Harry Wright and his Cincinnati Red Stockings had just completed the first season of major league baseball in 1869 with a perfect 65-0 record. The Peck and Snyder cards were called “trade cards,” not because anyone was collecting and swapping them but for their value as consumer product advertising.
By the 1880s there were hundreds of these types of baseball cards being manufactured and inserted into tobacco pouches as premiums. In 1909, the American Tobacco Company brought out a card featuring immortal Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop, Honus Wagner. The Flying Dutchman was furious that his likeness was being used to sell the evil weed and he forced American Tobacco to stop production after only 50 cards were issued. Today that colorful piece of cardboard is the world’s most expensive baseball card. In 2013, the gavel went down at $2,105,770.50 when one came up for auction.
Candy and gum companies picked up the baseball card habit from the tobacco manufacturers after World War I. The Boston confectioner, Goudey Gum Company, produced the cards from that era that are the most in demand today. In the 1940s the Bowman Gum Company introduced the idea of sets and collecting. They also slipped a rectangular stick of hard, pink chewing gum into the wrapped package.
When Topps Chewing Gum Company released its first baseball card set in 1952 the whole premise of baseball card collecting was upended like a shortstop on a double play. The gum was no longer the star inside the waxed plastic wrapper, it was the baseball cards. The 1952 Topps set is still regarded by collectors as one of the finest ever printed.
Topps swallowed Bowman in 1956 and became the king of baseball card collecting for the next 40 years. By the 1990s the gum was gone altogether. The one-time advertising premium was now the product. Topps made a concession to the lore of the hobby in 2002 when it celebrated its 50th anniversary by putting a stick of gum inside a wax pack. But to make certain the sugary treat did not stain the precious cardboard next to it the company sealed the gum stick in cellophane.
The romance of card collecting was on its way out as well. Once kids bought packs of cards in the quest to complete a full set – now companies were bringing out entire sets before Opening Day. Topps was also joined by other companies in what had become a multi-billion dollar sports card industry. The arms race in the hobby produced ever more elaborate cards, miniature pieces of art that would never see the inside of bicycle wheel or be bounced against a cement curb.
Trading cards were introduced for any sport that may have appeared on ESPN and for movies and for dolls and on and on. So many cards, in fact, that the hobby collapsed under the weight of them all. Sales today are less than 20% of what they were at their peak during the early 1990s – perhaps it is time to bring back the pink gum stick.