Inducted Year: 2023
Baseball players began posing for photos in the mid-19th century. Photography, like baseball, was becoming more widespread and popular. The late 1880s saw tobacco manufacturers including the cards in packages, to stiffen them and as incentives toward purchase. Soon candy manufacturers offered these premiums too, and went a step further, manufacturing their own cards. The production of cards burgeoned in the 1930s, when famous players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were featured, and cards were printed in bright colors. World War II slowed production, but in the late 1940s recognizable candy and card manufacturers such as Topps and Bowman appeared.
The first cards given away with tobacco products featured actors, famous people, and other sports figures besides baseball players, but baseball card production endured long after these early years. By the 1940s and 50s, kids, mostly boys, saved the cards on purpose. They certainly traded them, learned baseball statistics, played games with them, and used them as noisemakers pinned to the spokes of their bicycles. But many saved them with serious intent as well. They collected them. And there are reports of collections, begun by a child who continued collecting through adulthood, with many rare cards included and inclusive of baseball’s great players throughout the 20th century.
Many have heard of Honus Wagner, and the latest record price of $7.25 million for his “T-206” baseball card in 2022. Wagner was called the greatest shortstop of all time and tied with Babe Ruth as the second inductee in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Legend says that Wagner, a nonsmoker, insisted his card be taken out of production by the American Tobacco Company. As a result, only between 50 to 60 cards of his cards were ever made. Rare cards such as Wagner’s fuel the demand by adult speculative collectors and new sales records make headlines. Thousands of individuals today collect, trade, and sell cards for this purpose alone.
Collecting baseball cards is one of the few childhood pastimes that often carries through to adulthood. Similarly, the pastime can just as often be passed along to a child or grandchild from an adult. If the heyday of baseball cards was the 1950s, the 21st century may witness a renaissance. Inexpensive, educational, healthy, and universal—baseball card collecting has seen generations of passionate collectors and will likely encourage, and inspire, generations to come.