The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Eric Umphrey
the Times 

Baseball card companies: a brief history


March 19, 2020

A sporting goods company called Peck and Snyder printed up the first baseball cards in the 1860’s and used them for advertising their products. A picture of a player was on one side and on the back was the advertisement for the company. The cards were given out like flyers for free. These were the first cards produced in bulk and the first to be used for advertising. Before this time the cards that were produced were called cabinet cards since they were often displayed in cabinets and used as keepsakes.

Moving into the 1880’s, tobacco companies started mass producing cards to boost sales. By the late 1890’s several tobacco companies combined to form the American Tobacco Company. This company was so large that it controlled ninety percent of all tobacco sales of the time. It was also one of the original twelve companies in the Dow Jones Index. Because American Tobacco had grown so powerful it no longer needed to produce baseball cards to advertise. Mass produced cards disappeared during this time. It wasn’t until the American Tobacco Company was broken up by the U.S. government in 1911 in an antitrust lawsuit that cards came back. Tobacco companies would continue to be the primary printer of baseball cards until America’s involvement in World War I.

Once tobacco companies stopped printing cards, candy and gum companies took over. First, caramel companies produced baseball cards, then in the 1930’s a company in Boston called Goudey Gum produced artist renditions of the stars of that era including Babe Ruth, Napoleon Lajoie and Carl Hubbell. These cards are still favorites among collectors today. Other gum companies—National Chicle Company, Delong Gum Company and Gum Inc. were active producing baseball cards during this time. In 1941 card printing stopped again. This time it was due to paper scarcity as a result of World War II. For the next seven years few baseball cards were made.

In 1948, baseball card printing started up again with Bowman gum issuing its first set. This was the first company to sell baseball cards with a “stick” of bubble gum. In 1952, Topps Chewing Gum Company of New York City issued its first set. The Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card is still one of the most sought-after cards today. The first cards produced by Topps actually had taffy instead of bubble gum. The next year the company switched to gum as the taffy tasted like the varnish in the cards. Topps baseball cards would include a stick of gum every year until 1991 when card collectors complained that the gum stained cards and ruined their value.

Topps controlled the baseball card market until 1981 when Fleer and Donruss started making baseball cards. As part of a 1980 court ruling, neither of these companies could package gum in their card packs. In 1988, Score began printing cards and in 1989, Upper Deck entered the baseball card market. The years following Upper Deck’s entrance into the market lead to an explosion of different trading sets. During this time collectors regularly consulted baseball card price guides to determine the value of individual cards and sets. It was also the start of the bubble in baseball cards as some new rookie cards freshly opened from packs were listed in guides as worth more than cards that were much older and harder to find. There were so many different sets offered by companies that it became a challenge just to collect all of the cards of an individual favorite player much less the complete sets.

Even though card values had already peaked, the 1994-1995 baseball strike really hurt the baseball card market. Many collectors lost interest at this point and a new company called eBay started up in late 1995 and would be responsible for the end of several local card shops. At the peak, sales of new cards in the early nineties were about $1.5 billion dollars a year, but by 2008 that had dropped to $200 million. On August 6, 2009, Major League Baseball announced a deal with Topps giving it exclusive rights to produce MLB baseball cards. As a result of this deal, Topps is left as the last major baseball card producer today.


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