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:
It 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.
That’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.
Finally, 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.