Why The $92,000 Baseball Card Isn’t Really A Baseball Card

I have been inundated on twitter and even by email for weeks with questions (specifically “did you buy it?”) about a 19th Century baseball photograph that sold at auction yesterday in Maine for $92,000.

No, I didn’t. It’s not really a baseball card.

Before I explain that seemingly odd statement – I mean, it’s a picture of what was then a major league baseball team, it’s on cardboard, and the French term for what it is includes that country’s word for ‘card’ – let me mention that I don’t disrespect anybody who disagrees with my conclusion, and that the idea of which items from the pre-1886 era are cards and which aren’t is very fluid and very open to interpretation.

So that having been said: this ain’t a card:

1865AtlanticsIt is a great image of the 1865 Brooklyn Atlantics, who were then competing in the very loosely organized and intermittently professional National Association of Base Ball Players, which preceded the first semi-organized professional league, the National Association (1871), and the first truly recognizable modern league, the National League (1876).

This is the only second copy of this, er – thing – known to have survived, and the other is in the Library of Congress. That its ‘cardness’ is open to debate is evident even from the quotes provided to the Associated Press by the auctioneer of the thing, David Thibodeau, who said…

“It’s more of a piece of photography than a baseball card, but it’s considered by many to be the first baseball card just by the fact that it was distributed by the team. It kind of set the stage for baseball cards after that.”

But Mr. Thibodeau also said…

“The key piece of this is not only that it’s a baseball card, but that it’s a wonderful piece of Americana.”

I can understand his confusion. I have friends who, like me, are specialists in 19th Century cards who think this is clearly a card, and others who don’t. Obviously I fall into the second category, as does one of the foremost experts in the field who told me last month he certainly would like to have it, but not if it was going to cost very much.

I’ll get to the cost in a moment, but first, the what-is-it part.

In the middle of the 19th Century, if you visited somebody – especially if you went to their home and they were out – you were expected to leave your “calling card.” These were ornate ancestors of the modern business card and while they could be art-like, they were as limited as the business card is today. Then came a big change.

Photographs were cumbersome things to make and distribute until 1854, when French photographer Andre Disderi developed a method to take eight of them on a single plate. Whereas previously if you wanted eight pictures of yourself, you had to pose for eight separate shots and have them developed eight separate times, with Disderi’s system you still had to pose eight times, but they could all be developed and printed simultaneously. Later improvements allowed for those eight poses to be reproduced again and again, cutting the cost and cumbersomeness of production even further.

Soon, the cost of a photographic card of yourself was not much more than the expense of an ordinary calling card. Thus, the French version of the card – the carte de visite – was adorned with an image. If you had any money, you had stacks of picture cards of yourself to hand out on all occasions. Photography studios soon began to clean up not just by custom-producing cards for individuals, but by creating and selling poses of celebrities. The tipping point in France was the Disderi cartes of Emperor Napoleon III, which he began to sell in 1859.

So by the 1860’s – and certainly long before the 1865 Brooklyn Atlantics posed for the photograph that sold for $92,000 on Wednesday – there were cartes de visite that were used like today’s business cards, and others that were collectibles. There are cartes de visite (CDVs) of everybody from the heroes of the Civil War to John Wilkes Booth…to baseball players (I’ll correct myself to the spelling of the day: base ball players).

The nit-picking part here is that the definition of a “baseball card” has always been a card or similar item depicting a player or team that was designed to help sell another product. As late as 1980 there just weren’t many cards made just for the sake of making them. They were means of advertising, they were the stiffeners in the packs of cigarettes, they were sold with slabs of taffy, they were found in boxes of cornflakes, they doubled as tickets, and most recently they were used to raise one particular manufacturer’s bubble gum above all others. There was also always a sense that there had to be at least a couple of different cards, of similar design, sold by or on behalf of one manufacturer and constituting a “set” for a photographic baseball image to be a real “card.”

If these two criteria – multiple cards, advertising intent – were not used and met, it literally meant that anything anybody ever made showing a baseball scene was a baseball card. That would be mean every photograph was a card, and every newspaper engraving, and in theory every drawing done by every kid since the first ball player was mistake for a hero.

So, the 1865 Atlantics carte de visite, while a great item, doesn’t meet the standard definition of a baseball card.

Even if it did it would be far from the earliest known card. There were six different photographic cards issued in 1863 that simultaneously:

A) advertised a tournament featuring the Brooklyn Excelsiors playing the famed New York Knickerbockers in the “Grand Match At Hoboken” along with two cricket competitions;

B) served as admission tickets to the matches; and

C) cost extra because the photographs were designed to be saved as souvenirs.

Those are baseball cards. The records of how many were sold even survives: 150 of future Hall of Famer Harry Wright, 57 of a player named Crossley, 47 of another named Hammond, and 11 of Harry’s father Sam. A fifth card later surfaced showing the Wrights together, and two different poses of Crossley are known.

Cards-as-tickets haven’t been repeated too often in the 150 years since (the White Sox did it in the early ’60s). So if you want something more recognizable, you move to the Peck & Snyder cards, issued over three years to advertise Peck & Snyder Sporting Goods stores (and available for other such enterprises to print their ads on, as well). The “set” begins with the 1868 Brooklyn Atlantics, continues with the first overtly all-professional team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, and moves on to the 1870 Troy Haymakers and  Chicago White Stockings.

Atlantics

PeckAtlanticsbackThat’s the 1868 Peck & Snyder Brooklyn card, front and back. See that guy “Pearce”? He was essentially baseball’s first shortstop, and he should be in the Hall of Fame. He and first baseman Joe Start – and a couple of the other guys – are also in the 1865 Brooklyn picture about which we’re talking here.

Interestingly, the truly big idea for baseball cards, the seemingly obvious one – make lots of cards of lots of different players – was still nearly 20 years in the future when Mr. Peck let himself be caricatured on the backs of those team cards. 1886 was the breakthrough year, with Goodwin Tobacco (“Old Judge Cigarettes”), the Hall Photography Studio, and an anonymous manufacturer that left room for local cigar stores to stamp their ads on the cards, each made multiple-card sets of players of the New York Giants, and the Charles Gross Company began a marvelous two-year issue featuring the New York Giants and Mets and also both Philadelphia teams, the Athletics and the Phillies. A year later, Goodwin saw the potential bonanza and issued fairly cheap photographic cards of literally hundreds of players in overlapping issues that would see some guys issued on 17 different cards over the 1887-1890 seasons. Goodwin and other tobacco companies also went high-tech with beautiful color lithograph cards of the great players of the time (along with other athletes) later in 1887. The rest, through fits and starts, has been one of the more astonishing industries in American history, still going strong since 1886. Or 1865. Or 1863.

Those who might have thought of making cards of individual players could conceivably have been scared off by the experience of Mort Rogers, a former player who got the idea of selling scorecard/programs at the games of the Boston Red Stockings in 1871. He produced startlingly beautiful folded cards that had photographic portraits of players on the front, an ad on the back, and a scorecard in the middle. He apparently lost his shirt. A similar enterprise was tried almost simultaneously with those Troy, New York Haymakers of 1870 and 1871.

birdsallrogersinteriorFinally, a note about the $92,000. That’s a lot of money for anything, let alone a baseball card, but it isn’t extraordinary. At least one card has sold for $70,000 in the last month (one of those 1886 Old Judge New York Giants) and prices in that range are not uncommon for the scarcer cards in the 1886-87 Gross set (“Kalamazoo Bats”) and the 1887-90 Goodwin Old Judge series.

16 Comments

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Well, Keith, if you say it isn’t a baseball card, then it isn’t a card. I’ll take your word on it. You’re the expert. I wouldn’t have a clue. But it is a piece of baseball history. That alone would make me think that you would want to own it. But I can’t blame you for not wanting to spend that much money on something you don’t consider a card. Fascinating article. It amazes me just how much knowledge you possess every time I read one of your blogs. Each time I read one, I think to myself, “How does he know all this stuff?” Mind-boggling. So once again I will say “Well done as always”.

This was utterly brilliant. The history behind the beginning of what is now called baseball cards is quite intriguing. To find that its beginnings from a concept of a calling card to grow into such a business today is fascinating to see. BTW, I’ve applied to Topps for a job so this information is of value to me.
What I feel is happening here, everyone stating it’s a baseball card, is that this photo on cardboard is the first ‘concept’ of a baseball card. It’s like the draft copy of a future model but not actually the final product that eventually evolved over time. It may be construed as the pilot or blueprint of the baseball card. It has gone through modifications to end up in the current state. It reminds me of a happenstance that someone created at the time and others began to grow the idea of baseball cards recording pictures of players and finding an advertising avenue with it. It has value and significance as recording history, but $92,000? I could pay off my mortgage with that and still have some to spare! I take it that it is worth the special value to the person who now owns it. History is very important to make note of as much as possible and reflect the persona of the day. It can be very educational to see the roots of something in order to understand the present.
Today I saw the design of the future Tappan Zee Bridge and it knocked me over. The New NY Bridge project got its launch today. See the actual presentation

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9RzTWlIp9k&feature=player_embedded

Its amazing to see a design that will eventually become a reality. Thank you for this view into history.

I started watching Keith on MSNBC in 2004 or 2005 (I can’t remember the exact year). I needed something to watch while eating dinner when there wasn’t a baseball game on. I just liked the format of “Countdown” and Keith’s sense of humor. I remember him spending the last segment doing an “American Idol” story and saying how he hated it– I agreed with him on that too! I couldn’t wait to get home from work and listen to the opening with that techno-Beethoven’s 9th (a tribute to NBC’s early days, I think, if not a sacrilege to Ludwig). Keith got me through the Bush years. But after he wasn’t on MSNBC anymore I stopped watching politics. Then a couple months ago I started watching MSNBC again– and I found it funny that the network that was once called liberal, even though Keith was the only liberal with a show (I don’t count Chris Matthews), has now gone all-out liberal. Keith put that network on the map when it used to be mostly “Lockdown” and “Headliners & Legends.” He got Rachel her show. Now everybody has a show– except Keith. Ed has his heart in the right place but he ain’t quite Keith. His text polls are a joke. “A: do you think Republicans are great? B: do you think Republicans are absolutely awful beyond words”– 99% of you say awful beyond words. I just find it somewhat ironic that the network Keith made relevant and entertaining no longer has Keith. (history– I know I’m being long-winded but the trolls have me throwing caution to the wind.) So what’s my point? I don’t have one. I work for CNN. No, seriously, my point is I have nothing to say about baseball cards so I just want to say how much I miss watching “Countdown” and how MSNBC (while still sort of fun to watch, especially Lawrence who can get on a roll) owes Keith big-time for making them who they are. Meanwhile, Rupert (I miss Keith’s Aussie accent impression) is buying a big chunk of the YES Network and next he’ll buy the Yankees and I’ll become an even bigger fan of the Mets.

You are correct Keith, it isn’ a card, it’s a photo and an overpriced one at that. Whoever found it was a genius in hyping it as the “first card.”

Atlantics and semantics. Thibodeau and Boudreaux. Eh ban, etre ou non etre. J’aime le nerd de baseball! Un homme Cajun dit, “C’est un carte,” mais il pense autour d’argent! Mais, oui! N’oubliez pas! ;)

Politics is where you are needed. Baseball is a hobby.

WTF! Baseball talk getting drowned out, once again, by OFF TOPIC B.S. from F—ing TROLLS. GET A LIFE and stay off this blog.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, I really enjoyed the discussion about the ” Precursor” to Baseball cards. Was very interested when the news broke about it going up for sale, etc. Keith, thank you for the thoroughly thought out examination. I have to agree it is not an actual baseball card, but very interesting piece of baseball history; hence, my referencing it as a Precursor.

Anybody know where I might be able to find page after page of almost completely irrelevant commentary? I’d especially like it if it offered piles of redundant links to Gutfeld videos…a little help here?

Seriously, cool and thought-invoking article.

I follow you on twitter (and love your sunset photos!!) and thought of you when I saw this: http://www.vintag.es/2013/03/posed-portraits-of-19th-century.html

Can you tell me about this card? It is a Nolan Ryan baseball card. Solid blue front with 2 pictures of him. On the back it has a border made of multiple baseballs, and gives his 1989 stats. There is no number, no company logo

Why don’t you PULL YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR ASS and open your eyes and ears to reality? Oh, I forgot, folks like you abhor reality.

Could not help but notice that these TROLLS are big FOX NEWS FANS. Referencing what I said before; watching Fox News is equivalent to having your head up your ass!

Well then, you must be angry ALL THE TIME.

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