A Cultural History of the Baseball Card

Over 100 years, small images of athletes went from tobacco companies' marketing materials to overhyped investments favored by nostalgic grown men. Now, they're worth virtually nothing.

Baseball cards from 1910 (AP)

In a garage roughly 3,000 miles from where I’m writing this, there’s a long, white cardboard container filled with hundreds of cardboard rectangles—all the baseball cards I amassed as a child. I don’t think about that container very often these days, but somewhere in my mind lies the assumption—childish but still deeply held—that decades from now I’ll be able to sell the contents of that box for a modest fortune. Baseball cards, it strikes me now, were my first taste of capitalism. Sure, individual cards held sentimental value to me, but I also was conditioned to see my collection’s worth in monetary terms. It was a portfolio with training wheels.

In the late 1880s, baseball
cards were included in packs of
cigarettes as marketing gimmicks.
(Library of Congress)

The series of historical events that led to the existence of this cardboard box—one of countless such boxes in countless garages—was catalyzed by a man named Sy Berger, who passed away last weekend. A New York Times obituary called him “the father of the modern-day baseball trading card.” In the 1950s, Berger, then an executive at Topps, introduced a new style of card that is the most direct ancestor to the cards in my now-worthless collection, and to the cards that overeager speculators in the 1980s would at one point value in the thousands of dollars.

The first baseball cards were sold well before Berger’s time, and were meant not for kids, but adults. Starting in the 1880s, tobacco companies began printing 2.75-inch-tall images of actors, actresses, war heroes and athletes to include in packs of cigarettes as a marketing gimmick. These cardboard prints, a far cry from the colorful, occasionally holographic cards common today, were no fun: The baseball players pictured were stone-faced and unsmiling. Nonetheless, kids picked up the cards their parents discarded and began collections of their own. It wasn’t until the 1930s that, in a first, the Goudey Gum Company included baseball cards in packs of gum in an attempt to appeal to the youth market.

By the time Sy Berger launched Topps’ redesigned series in 1952, the relationship between candy and cards had flipped: Then, it was the sweets that were included in a pack of cards. Three years earlier, the Bowman Corporation was the first company to print and sell baseball cards, but they were much like the stoic, black-and-white images of yore. Berger’s were bigger, with player bios and more-vibrant colors. Their visual charm quickly made Topps the industry leader, and it also didn’t hurt that Berger doggedly courted players, getting them to sign exclusive contracts with his company. Four years after Berger’s new series was introduced, Topps acquired Bowman, its closest competitor.

A card featuring Boston Red
Sox outfielder Tris Speaker
produced by the American
Tobacco Company circa 1910
(Library of Congress)

By then, American boys (girls were rarely welcome) had a strong culture of card-collecting, and Topps only made it stronger. When the kids who grew up in the 50s became adults in the 70s, they had a lot more money and plenty of baseball-related nostalgia to justify spending a lot on trading cards. The writer Dave Jamieson provided a well-researched account of this period in his 2010 book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession. One early collector told Jamieson about making as much as $10,000, simply by selling the cards he acquired over a period of two weeks after placing a few classified ads asking kids to sell him their collections. There were many passionate, informed collectors, but prices varied wildly, and opportunities for arbitrage were rampant.

It took another grown child of the 50s to correct this information imbalance. James Beckett III, a statistics professor who had fond memories of collecting Berger’s early Topps cards, noticed the widespread confusion about prices. The catalog he released in 1979, the Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide, would later feed into the eponymous Beckett guides—in the decades that followed, these would become definitive, taken as holy texts by young collectors.

After the release of Beckett’s first guide, the industry grew saner, but only slightly. Even as competitors such as Fleer entered the market after Topps lost an antitrust lawsuit in 1981, cards were still thought to be highly scarce, and some were valued at hundreds or thousands of dollars. There were even some people who believed in the power of baseball cards as an asset; The Wall Street Journal called them “nostalgia futures,” adding that, while still risky, they hadn't lost value in the way that other collectible "inflation hedges" had. As the market filled up with adults, kids were priced out, and in the mid-90s they began to look for cheaper hobbies.

The trust in baseball cards as an asset turned out to be almost entirely misplaced. For one thing, they weren’t nearly as scarce as they appeared; one trade publication suggested that there were about 80 billion cards made per year in the late 80s. And well-preserved cards featuring star players—whose high value were contingent on their rarity—meant a lot less when any child who encountered them immediately knew to keep them in mint condition, increasing supply. As collectors wised up, the industry tanked. By one estimate, sales of new cards declined from $1.5 billion in 1992 to $200 million in 2008.

The value of the cards owned by most young collectors, whether they knew it or not as they later entered adolescence and adulthood, dwindled alongside the industry as a whole. That said, there was a way to preserve that value: A favorable rating from a “grading service,” which for a fee of about $15 per card will inspect one’s holdings, can greatly increase the price of a card. For instance, an ungraded Tony Gwynn rookie card from 1983 was valued at $25 in 2013. Graded highly, it was worth $800. But since the odds of a favorable rating are vanishingly low—of the more than 10,000 Derek Jeter rookie cards submitted to one grading service, only 126 have received a highly sought-after 9.5 rating—that’s little consolation for the average collector.

“When 30-somethings ask me why their rookie cards from the 80s are next to worthless now, I tell them it's because we were all aware of them as investments even as children,” Jamieson, the author Mint Condition, wrote to me in an email. “Those cards never had the opportunity to become scarce.”

Perhaps baseball cards’ fluctuations in value are lessons for young capitalists about the capriciousness of markets. “I was highly conscious of baseball cards as commodities, even at the tender age of 10. Eventually the hobby became not about assembling my favorite players and teams but obtaining what Beckett Monthly told me were the most valuable cards,” said Jamieson. “Little kids aren't supposed to be thinking this way about cardboard.”

While money is part of the calculus, it doesn’t wholly explain the collector’s impulse. Mark McKinley, a professor of psychology at Lorain County Community College, in Ohio, wrote an article for National Psychologist in 2007 offering some explanations for the phenomenon. McKinley, who himself holds the world record for the largest collection of talking clocks, wrote that the roots of modern collecting can be traced to the 1700s, when aristocrats would travel to faraway lands, cataloging whatever exotic fossils, shells, animals, and artworks they found. He suggests that modern collecting, a much more democratic endeavor, is motivated by the desire to join a sub-community of like-minded enthusiasts, the urge to not let the past slip away, and the need to classify, label, and make sense of things.

These are perfectly reasonable explanations. They’re comforting, as one thinks back on one’s younger self for the first time trying earnestly to conceptualize a world whose complexity is ultimately ungraspable. But after learning the history of baseball cards, I suspect there’s sometimes another reason that collectors exist: There are some people whose businesses depend on them.