Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Mint Condition

How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession

by Dave Jamieson

“An excellent and rigorous history of baseball cards . . . Dave Jamieson’s Mint Condition is a comprehensive romp through a quirky subject’s history.” —Marc Tracy, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date April 12, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4532-1
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

When award-winning journalist Dave Jamieson’s parents sold his childhood home a few years ago, forcing him to clear out his old room, he happily rediscovered a prized boyhood possession: his baseball card collection. Now was the time to cash in on his “investments,” but all the card shops had closed, and eBay was no help, either. Cards were selling there for next to nothing. What had happened? In Mint Condition, Jamieson’s fascinating history of baseball cards, he finds the answer, and much more.

Picture cards had long been used to advertise household products, but in the years after the Civil War, tobacco companies started slipping them into cigarette packs as collector’s items. Cards featuring famous generals and Indian chiefs, flags of all nations, and comely actresses all achieved success with boys, but none were as popular as cards featuring the heroes of the new American pastime. Before long, the cards were wagging the cigarettes, and a century-long infatuation had been born.

In the 1930s, cards helped gum and candy makers survive the Great Depression. In the 1960s, royalties from cards helped transform the baseball players association into one of the country’s most powerful unions, dramatically altering the game. In the ’80s and ’90s, cards went through a spectacular bubble, becoming a billion-dollar-a-year industry before all but disappearing, surviving today as the rarified preserve of fanatical adult collectors and shrewd businessmen.

Mint Condition is brimming with colorful characters, from a destitute hermit whose legendary collection resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to Topps’s mad genius designer who created the company’s most famous card sets, and from a larger-than-life memorabilia specialist whose auction house is under investigation by the FBI to the professional “graders” who rate cards and the “doctors” who secretly alter them. This is an original, captivating history about a tradition dear to millions of Americans.


Mint Condition kept me spellbound and couch-bound for two days. Its pages are redolent of basements, bubble gum and bachelorhood. They teem with artists, innocents and charlatans. Dave Jamieson fit a century-and-a-half of Americana on the back of a baseball card, a remarkable achievement.” —Steve Rushin

“An excellent and rigorous history of baseball cards . . . Dave Jamieson’s Mint Condition is a comprehensive romp through a quirky subject’s history.” —Marc Tracy, The New York Times Book Review

“[A] valentine to a disappearing hobby.” —John McMurtrie, San Francisco Chronicle

“The definitive history of baseball cards. . . . As much fun as opening a pack of baseball cards and discovering a Mickey Mantle.” —Forbes

“The definitive treatment on the subject.” —Choice

“Every time a rare baseball card brings a million-dollar price at auction, thousands of aging former collectors wistfully recall shoeboxes full of rookie cards and wonder if they lost a fortune when Mom cleaned out their rooms. The answer, according to Washington-based, award-winning journalist Jamieson is . . . probably not. . . . This is a fascinating history. . . . Superbly informative and entertaining.” —Wes Lukowsky, Booklist (starred review)

“If you’re even remotely interested in collecting baseball cards, Mint Condition is a must-read. . . . It was almost impossible to put the book down.” —Randy Gaa, The Cardboard Connection

“In Mint Condition, author Dave Jamieson tears the wax wrapper off the business of baseball cards.” —Deadspin.com

“An engaging, playful and well-reported history of baseball cards, and how they went from being a premium in packs of gum to collectibles selling at six-figure prices at the world’s auction houses.” —Chris Foran, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Fascinating . . . If this were just a business story, it would be compelling. We learn that business interests have always trumped baseball card collectors—and for a while even baseball players. We meet tough-talking auctioneers and see how card ‘graders’ decide a card’s value, and how card ‘doctors’ inflate that value. But Jamieson does better than that. He tells the tales of the real players of the baseball card biz, the ones not in uniform.” —Maureen McCarthy, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Anyone else who was ever enthralled by baseball cards should check out Mint Condition. It’s a very thorough, entertaining history of a once-great hobby, and it will help you better understand how it got to where it is now.” —James Bailey, Bailey’s Baseball Book Reviews

“Fascinating social history.” —The Midwest Book Review

“Jamieson elucidates with smooth prose and fascinating tidbits of historical trivia just how the production of baseball cards became a major industry . . . Jamieson peppers his narrative with stories of the eccentric characters and colorful personalities . . . The book is an essential read for the baseball fan or anyone who remembers ripping into a wax pack, hoping that their childhood heros would be found inside.” —Brett Savage, New Jersey Monthly

“One of the more enjoyable books I’ve read this year . . . highly recommended.” —Bruce Markusen, The Hardball Times

“A fascinating history of a once-vital tradition.” —Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News

“Jamieson’s take, that of a skeptical journalist on the trail of a long and funny story of need, greed and irrational searches for simple pictures of ballplayers, makes the book a joy to read.” —Ed Adamczyk, Niagara Gazette

“The only history of baseball cards that matters.” —Kriston Capps, DCist.com

“Fantastic . . . For those who consider baseball cards an arcane subject, always remember that a good writer can make you care about anything in dint of reporting and writing ability, both of which Jamieson has in abundance.” —Pete Croatto, Bibliobuffet.com

“Jamieson’s thorough research highlights the rise and fall of a tradition as American as the game of baseball itself.” —Sam Miller, Seamheads.com

“Having spoken with collectors, retail dealers, auctioneers, museum curators, manufacturers, baseball players and their union representatives, Jamieson has put together an interesting examination of a fleeting hobby that turned into big business. . . . The value of the modern cards still remains a fraction of what it was, indicating that this once-lucrative corner of the sports-memorabilia industry may have been merely a house of cards.” —Steve Weinberg, American Way

“For those who consider baseball cards an arcane subject, always remember that a good writer can make you care about anything by dint of reporting and writing ability, both of which Jamieson has in abundance. He goes beyond the actual cards—follows the colorful characters who created, bought, and sold the cards; how collecting strayed from being a kid’s hobby; and the bitterness of those who pursue the hobby full tilt. I defy anyone with the slightest bit of intellectual curiosity not to love this book.” —Pete Croatto, BiblioBuffet

“A phenomenal primer in the pitfalls of personal investing and the dangers of believing something is valuable just because everyone says it is (see: Tickle Me Elmo, Retired Beanie Babies).” —Darren Garnick, Boston Herald

“Reading [Mint Condition] really does awaken a childhood passion.” —Ian Pickus, WAMC, Northeast Public Radio

“Highly readable and entertaining.” —Kevin Kaduk, “Big League Stew,” Yahoo! Sports

“A wonderful book.” —T.S. O’Connell, Sports Collector’s Digest

“A must-read for anyone who used to be able to tell between a Topps, Fleer, and Upper Deck card of the same player from across the room.” —Uncrate

“A skillfully written, thoroughly researched history of baseball cards and their place in the American experience.” —DingedCorners.com

“An interesting examination of a hobby that turned into big business and then fell back to earth.” —Steve Weinberg, Charlotte Observer

“Nostalgic and quirky.” —Billy Heller, New York Post

“Jamieson explores the history of card collecting through an entertaining cast of characters—the visionaries and villains who turned a gimmick designed to boost tobacco sales into a billion-dollar industry . . . The pictures in Jamieson’s book are captivating, a veritable art gallery of the industry from its infancy in the 1800s to the slickly produced versions of today. . . . For anyone who can recall being excited to rip open their newest pack of cards, Mint Condition is a treat.” —Steve Schaefer, Forbes.com

“By the early 1990s, baseball card manufacturers were printing 81 billion of the things a year, or 325 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. . . . Of course it ended badly. How and why is the subject of Dave Jamieson’s absorbing Mint Condition.” —Joe Mysak, Bloomberg

“A thoroughly compelling, entertaining and sometimes tragic read, [Mint Condition] will provide even veteran collectors with new insight to the hobby they love.” —Voice of the Collector

“In this compelling book, journalist Jamieson tracks the history of baseball cards from their late 19th-century beginnings to the present, covering the controversies (e.g, card forgeries), the rivalries (e.g., between companies issuing cards, and between rival collectors), and baseball cards as investments. . . . This very satisfying account of the development of baseball cards and our attitudes toward them is highly recommended even for those casually interested in sports or collectibles.” —Library Journal

“An elegant history . . . informative, fascinating, nostalgic.” —Mike Shannon, Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine

“An entertaining history of baseball cards . . . an engaging book on a narrow but fascinating topic.” —Sean Callahan, Washington Post

“Jamieson chronicles the story of baseball cards with skill and bounce, from the earliest days of cards as inserts in tobacco products to the 1950s and ’60s boom, to the 1980s, when other companies broke the Topps monopoly. . . . Jamieson shows a welcome compassion for the obsessive hobbyists, from the collectors whose sets reside in museums to auctioneers whose morality varies with the market and their own conscience. It’s a blast for collectors of all stripes.” —Joe Gross, Austin American Statesman

“Dave Jamieson has written a definitive history of both a pastime and an industry. For those of us who grew up collectors—and still feel a sentimental attachment to those seventeen utterly worthless Dan Plesac rookie cards gathering mold in our basement—this is the book that explains everything.” —Michael Weinreb, author of The Kings of New York and Bigger than the Game

“Engaging, informative, and full of unexpected pleasures, Mint Condition deserves a spot on any baseball fan’s bookshelf. Dave Jamieson has hit it out of the park.” —Cait Murphy, author of Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History

“Jamieson got interested in the history of baseball cards when he rediscovered his own adolescent stash only to find that its value had plummeted in the mid-1990s. His loss is our gain. . . . A fun read.” —Publishers Weekly

“An absolute masterpiece.” —Baseball-Reference.com


1 — Please, Mister, Give Me the Picture!

Although an estimated five thousand Union soldiers would eventually die of starvation and disease inside its wooden stockades, the Confederate-run prison camp at Salisbury, North Carolina, was a great place for a ball game. Created seven months after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, Salisbury was one of the primary destinations for Yankee prisoners of war early in the Civil War. The only war prison in the state, the modest sixteen-acre compound included a cotton factory, a blacksmith’s shop, and enough of an open field to accommodate a pair of baseball nines when weather and the warden permitted.

The first 120 Union detainees arrived at Salisbury shortly before Christmas 1861, and by the following spring there were a still manageable fourteen hundred prisoners sleeping in the camp’s tenements. In these early days Salisbury, with its oak trees and water barrels and ample breathing room, was a rather pleasant place to suffer one’s wartime capture. One Yank remarked that it was “more endurable than any other part of Rebeldom.”

As several prisoners’ memoirs bear out, this agreeable atmosphere had a lot to do with baseball. According to the diary of imprisoned doctor Charles Carroll Gray, prisoners played ball nearly every day that rain or cold didn’t prevent it. They even celebrated the Fourth of July of 1862 by reading the Declaration of Independence aloud and playing a few innings on their makeshift diamond.

Baseball took hold at other encampments in both the South and the North, especially during the first half of the war. The game provided a respite from the wretchedness of battle and camp, with regimental soldiers routinely playing ball among themselves, their games sometimes broken off by the fire of cannons, muskets, and carbines. J.G.B. Adams, a member of the Nineteenth Regiment of Massachusetts, wrote that during his stay at Falmouth, Virginia, “baseball fever” broke out among both Yanks and Rebs, with Adams and his comrades close enough to their enemies across the river to cheer them on. “We would sit on the bank and watch their games, and the distance was so short we could understand every movement and would applaud good plays.”

The war would temporarily cripple organized baseball as players in the North left their clubs to enlist, but it also helped to spread the game to new parts of America. As the New York Clipper noted in 1865, “When soldiers were off duty, base ball was naturalized in nearly every state in the Union.” What had been a Northern gentleman’s game closely associated with Brooklyn became a fixture in many cities in the South and West, with new clubs sprouting in pockets of the former Confederacy, such as Richmond, Virginia, and Galveston, Texas, where the best local team took the name of Robert E. Lee. After the war, the game began to blossom not only as a professional, revenue-churning entertainment but also as a fixture of blue-collar urban life. In his landmark 1911 book about early baseball, America’s National Game, Albert G. Spalding, the pioneering pitcher and latter-day sporting-goods mogul, traced the sport’s dawn to the war, arguing that the spirit of the game was inextricably linked to military conflict—and relief from it. The game, he wrote, “had its early evolution when soldiers, North and South, were striving to forget their foes by cultivating, through this grand game, fraternal friendships with comrades in arms. . . . And then, when true patriots of all sections were striving to forget that there had been a time of black and dismal war, it was a beacon, lighting their paths to a future of perpetual peace.”

Among those Northern patriots returning from the war in 1865 was a baseball enthusiast named Andrew Peck. His parents having died when he was a baby, Peck was raised in a New York City orphanage and later sent upstate to work for a shopkeeper. After the start of the war, he enlisted with the Union army and was sent to the front with the federal Army of the Potomac, which included Major Abner Doubleday among its ranks and was renowned for its fondness for baseball. One soldier described the camp as “alive with ball-players, almost every street having its game.” Once home, Peck started working as a street salesman in Manhattan, hawking baseball equipment, knickknacks, and games he created himself, some of which he managed to sell to the entrepreneur and showman P. T. Barnum. He also began manufacturing baseballs on the top floor of a building at 109 Nassau Street, where the following year he opened a sporting-goods store with his partner, W. Irvin Snyder.

Before being bought by competitor A. G. Spalding & Bros., the Peck & Snyder Base Ball and Sportsman’s Emporium would have a profound impact on the leisure culture of nineteenth-century America. The company not only produced some of the very first baseball bats (“fine stock, clear of knots,” a catalog proclaimed) and molded rubber baseballs (“which for finish, durability and superior workmanship are not surpassed”), it also put out the first modern canvas tennis shoe and helped make the magic lantern slide projector a fixture in American homes. And with its small series of cards depicting ball clubs, the sporting-goods company is believed by many to have given America its first baseball cards.

During the 1869 baseball season, Peck & Snyder produced a small advertising card, measuring just three-and-a-quarter inches by four-and-a-half inches and bearing a glue-mounted photograph depicting the ten members of the first explicitly professional baseball team—the Red Stocking Base Ball Club of Cincinnati, whose president was Union army veteran Alfred T. Goshorn and whose catcher, Doug Allison, had reportedly learned to play as a soldier in war encampments. On the back of the card is a cartoon showing a ballplayer with sagging eyes and a wispy beard, his back hunched as he hauls an armful of baseball bats, cleated shoes, and uniform belts. The cartoon is signed at the bottom: “Yours Respectfully, Andrew Peck.” The ballplayers on the front of the card, lined up five to a row, were dour, hairy fellows with nearly all-white uniforms. Save for the knee-high socks, they looked like a group of convicts. Under the guidance of their British-born center fielder and team captain, Harry Wright, the Red Stockings recruited players from across the country, signed them to exclusive contracts, and instituted organized team practices at which the club developed innovations such as the relay throw. Traveling some twelve thousand miles by rail and boat to play before a couple of hundred thousand people, the Red Stockings logged a 57-0 record and a net profit of $1.39 on the season.

Peck & Snyder produced at least half a dozen baseball cards between 1865 and 1870, though they were hardly the first manufacturer to dole out free “trade cards” to promote its products. The advertising technique had originated in London and been growing for more than a century before hirsute American infielders started popping up on cards. Pushing household items such as Merchant’s Gargling Oil Liniment and Lautz Bros. Soaps, trade cards featured either photographs or drawings of everything from actresses and war heroes to comic scenes and pastoral settings; either woven into the image or on the back of the card would be an advertisement for the company’s wares. The earliest baseball-themed cartoon trade cards reflected the rough-and-tumble style of the post-Civil War game. Players are carried off the field battered and in bandages, as they were in real life. On some cards, umpires are shown being attacked by mobs of fans who hadn’t liked their calls.

Baseball cards may well have been just one more piece of forgotten ephemera had it not been for another novel activity made popular by the war: cigarette smoking. Pioneering cigarette manufacturers would soon discover that coupling their smokes with the likenesses of ballplayers was an exceptional way to move tobacco. The card-collecting hobby had no innocent beginnings. It was the by-product of a marketing technique used to establish the cigarette in the lives of Americans, particularly young boys. And within just a few years of first appearing in cigarette packages, baseball cards would help spur the creation of the greatest tobacco monopoly in American history.

Before the Civil War, Americans had been availing themselves of more tobacco per person than any other country in the world, thanks in large part to an agreeable climate for growing and a massive supply of slaves to work the fields. The tobacco capital of Richmond, Virginia, alone laid claim to some fifty factories devoted to its production. Yet the tobacco that many Americans enjoyed went either into their pipes or between their jaws as plug chew, for the cigarette was considered a bastardized form of the cigar suited only to the lower classes. That perception persisted until pipes and cigars proved too cumbersome for soldiers on the move. As the war progressed, more and more cigarettes made their way from factories in the Southern states to military encampments. Pre-rolled smokes continued to grow in popularity after the war, inspiring a good deal of hysteria among the guardians of public health. Weighing in on an 1884 proposal to criminalize the sale of cigarettes to minors, a New York Times editorial suggested a ban on selling them even to adults: “The decadence of Spain began when the Spaniards adopted cigarettes, and if this pernicious practice obtains among adult Americans the ruin of the Republic is close at hand.”

Such pronouncements had no effect on James Buchanan “Buck” Duke, who recognized the massive sales potential of cigarettes better than anyone. His father, Washington Duke, had fought for the Confederacy and served time at a POW camp before walking 135 miles to his Durham, North Carolina, home after the war’s climactic close at Appomattox. The elder Duke sent young Buck to New York City in 1884 to help open an additional factory for the family tobacco company. Even then, Buck Duke’s ambition was to make the cigarette America’s go-to form of tobacco. Although he personally preferred a substantial plug to the dainty sticks, he viewed cigarettes as his family company’s only chance to wrest American tobacco dominance from rival Bull Durham. Managing the Manhattan plant by day, he was known to spend nights walking the city streets picking up discarded cigarette packs of all brands, studying their packaging and trying to calculate what percentage of the market Duke Bros, had managed to secure. By all accounts he worked ungodly hours obsessing over advertising and marketing. “I hated to close my desk at night,” he once said. “There ain’t a thrill in the world to compare with building up a business and watching it grow before your eyes.”

Duke soon came to understand the promotional power of celebrities, particularly buxom stage women. Duke Bros, salesman Edward Featherston Small, an advertising mastermind who is credited with inventing the cigar-store Indian, had obtained permission to use a lithograph of Madame Rhea, a curvy French actress on tour in the States in 1884, for advertising in Georgia. The company superimposed a pack of Duke smokes into her extended right hand, above the caption “Atlanta’s Favorite,” a ploy that helped Duke sell nearly a million cigarettes in what had previously been an impenetrable market for him. The front office was thrilled with Small’s tactic, dashing off a letter to him: “We think you made a happy hit with Rhea. Give the Bull’s tail another twist.” Small procured many more comely ladies to promote Duke cigarettes, putting them on advertising posters and having them sell cigarettes on streets around the country. But the next big twist to Bull Durham’s tail would come in the form of picture cards. Duke and Small wanted to put the likes of Madame Rhea inside their cigarette boxes, not just in their ads.

The idea was simple: give the buyer a collectible card to go with his pack of smokes, and he’ll buy more cigarettes in hopes of completing the set. Duke and the other tobacco makers who followed him wisely numbered their collectible cards, usually twenty-five or fifty to an issue, which hadn’t been done with earlier trade cards. It helped to create brand loyalty, and as a bonus, collector-smokers would be advertising the company to anyone they showed their cards to. It was one of the most ingenious marketing ploys of the nineteenth century. And advertising aside, the cardboard served a practical function by stiffening soft packs so that the cigarettes wouldn’t be damaged while stuffed into a smoker’s pocket.

To make sure that the country was blanketed with his cigarette packages and trading cards, Duke dispatched employees to New York’s Castle Island immigration station, where they handed out free smokes to newly landed immigrants, who would then carry Duke’s name off to all corners of America. Duke’s competitors were quick to follow, and the cards they issued gave many Americans their first glimpses of exotic animals, far-off lands, and celebrities they’d read about in the newspaper, including ballplayers. They also helped the public equate tobacco with anything and everything American: state governors, heroes of the Civil War, river steamers, Indian chiefs, billiards stars, race horses, yacht clubs, and (in what must have been the dreariest of sets) newspaper editors. As one collector of such cards later recalled, “There were no newsreels, no roto sections, no picture newspapers. A good cigarette picture was no mere plaything for a boy. It was life. No wonder Mr. Munson, next door, would pore over my scrapbooks of a winter evening, using his reading glass under the parlor lamp.” Still, some cards were of particular interest to kids, who pined after such sets as the Horatio Alger-esque Histories of Poor Boys Who Have Become Rich and the Terrors of America, which depicted all-American boys causing mischief.

Duke and his fellow card makers grasped the fact that children, then as now, have a say in where the household’s discretionary income goes. Even though adults collected tobacco cards, the pursuit appealed primarily to kids. The children, Duke recognized, would beg their parents to buy whichever cigarette brand issued the card series they desired most. And with a foresight that would reshape popular advertising Duke determined that, of all potential tobacco-card images, two could unfailingly shill for a product that even then was known to kill people: scantily clad women and great athletes.

When it came to the former, simple headshots wouldn’t suffice. The full-body photos on tobacco cards showed robust young women in elaborate yet meager tasseled dresses and calf-high boots. The models and actresses were thrown across chairs and sofas, fanning themselves, arms placed unnaturally behind their heads and cigarettes dangling from their mouths. The cards featuring these “cigarette beauties” inspired an 1888 ode in the Chicago Tribune: “Who are these beauties, fresh and fair with ebon locks and sun-kissed hair! Whose that brow of alabaster that makes the heart thump quick and faster! What their names! Where their abode!”

The sexual nature of the cards prompted the wrath of religious leaders and public-morality groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Society for the Suppression of Vice. A Methodist minister in Washington, D.C., decried them as “indescribably fiendish. To defile the body with tobacco is vile enough, but when all the processes of modern ingenuity in printing and picture-making are brought into use to stimulate and start the fires of unholy passion in innocent children, the crime becomes inhuman in its baseness.”

Perpetrators of the card craze even earned a rebuke from the White House when a tobacco maker had the gall to print a card featuring the comely Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland and then the youngest first lady ever. Another inflammatory card was erroneously believed to depict Jeannette Halford, the daughter of E. W. Halford, the president’s secretary. Cops raided the studios where cigarette beauties were shot and sometimes hauled photographers away to jail. When a reporter for the New Orleans Daily Picayune asked a young woman on the street if she’d ever allow her photo to be taken for a “cigarette picture,” she bridled, “What a horrid suggestion! Only actresses, baseball players, and other dreadful people have such things taken.”

To young card collectors, those dreadful ballplayers were every bit the prize as much as the pretty stage ladies, and the advertising war instigated by Duke would usher in the first golden era of baseball cards. The first tobacco company to put a baseball player on an insert card was probably Duke’s competitor Allen & Ginter, a Richmond firm that had entered the cigarette market in 1875. (It’s also possible that company president Lewis Ginter, a former Confederate army major known for his marketing savvy, had started putting trading cards inside cigarette boxes before Duke did.) Allen & Ginter packed their cigarettes tightly in paper wrappers swathed with brightly illustrated labels, and the firm’s package designs were so ornate that they were featured in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition of the American Republic in Philadelphia. Allen & Ginter’s 1888 Worlds Champions series included ten early baseball cards, along with another forty cards depicting boxers, billiards players, rowers, wrestlers, and gunslingers such as Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill. The set could be housed inside an album that included more advertising for “the brightest, most delicately flavored” tobacco grown in Virginia. Duke answered with a set of baseball “cabinet cards”: cardboard-mounted photographs large and attractive enough to be displayed behind glass in living room cabinets.

When it came to insert cards, Ginter tried to take the moral high ground, eschewing the actresses that Duke rolled out for what he considered more manly subjects such as athletes. But Ginter certainly did his best to split the difference with his Women Baseball Players series of 1887, which featured staged shots of curvy ladies in snug uniforms, one of whom managed to gaze seductively at the camera while sliding headfirst into second base. Around the same time, the genteel citizens of Atlanta flooded the mayor’s office with complaints when a local tobacconist filled his window with images of the “luscious baseball nine,” a group of bat-wielding women who injected the game with sex appeal. The scandalous cards and displays had originated from an unknown company in New York, where a local Christian group and several newspaper editorial boards, including the New York Sun, launched a crusade against them. The Atlanta dealer drew such a crowd with his “female baseballists” that police were called in to disperse the oglers. “When the pictures of the female baseball players were sent out every dealer in tobacco in the country was crazy to get them as show window attractions,” the Atlanta Constitution reported. The story also noted that a college professor had threatened a group of students with expulsion when they decorated their walls with such cards; the students retaliated by putting a blind horse in the professor’s apartment.

For baseball fans, the timing of the tobacco advertising battles couldn’t have come at a better time. By the 1880s the sport had emerged as a far-reaching commercial force. Just a few years earlier amateur players and their fans were bemoaning all the money creeping into the game—the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first governing organization in the sport, had debated whether to declare professionalism “reprehensible” as recently as 1870. But the game’s purists were fighting a losing battle, as more fans turned out for games and players demanded more compensation for their play. The professional National League (NL) formed in 1876, with the Philadelphia Athletics and Chicago White Stockings among its eight charter members. A rival American Association (AA) was founded in 1881 and included teams from Cincinnati and Louisville. Players and fans of the priggish NL sometimes sneered at the AA, whose games were renowned for low gate fees and copious amounts of booze, earning it the nickname the Beer and Whiskey League.

As star-powered clubs became increasingly profitable, team owners often poached top players from rosters in the other league. This practice stopped with the landmark Tripartite Agreement of 1883, in which the two leagues, along with the Northwestern League, agreed to honor one another’s contracts. But the agreement also set the stage for a nearly century-long battle between players and owners by cementing the all-important “reserve clause” in baseball. The rule gave a team owner the right to “reserve” a player for another year at the end of each season, in effect binding the player to his squad in perpetuity. (The Tripartite Agreement also prevented teams from picking up players that had been blacklisted from other clubs, further limiting a player’s movements.) The reserve clause was widely despised among players, even though salaries rose during the decade; by 1885 the minimum annual haul of a player was a working man’s $1,000, with a cap of $2,000.

The agreement between the leagues may have been controversial, but it brought the sport the stability it needed to flourish. The May 31, 1886, game between the New York Giants and the Detroit Wolverines marked the first time a major-league game logged twenty thousand-plus fans in attendance; in October of that year the National League and American Association winners faced off in a world championship, a thrilling six-game series in which the AA’s St. Louis Browns topped the Chicago White Stockings in the sixth and final game, winning on Curt Welch’s “$15,000 slide” at home, so-called because of the cash prize it brought the St. Louis club. To mark the occasion, the Lone Jack cigarette company of Lynchburg, Virginia, put out a picture card for each of the thirteen St. Louis players.

In the months that followed, Goodwin and Co. Tobacco unveiled perhaps the most ambitious and fascinating set of baseball cards collectors would ever see. After a successful run of twelve cards featuring the hometown New York Giants, Goodwin began producing a series that would eventually number more than twenty-three hundred cards and depict more than five hundred players. Taken as a whole, the sprawling Old Judge set, named for a Goodwin tobacco brand, still stands as one of the great visual records of late-nineteenth-century baseball and the men who played it. The company’s primary photographer, Joseph Hall, tried to take pictures of every ballplayer on the rosters of forty major- and minor-league teams. Although baseball scholars consider him one of the game’s first great photographers, Hall probably spent more time shooting weddings and portraits than he did ballplayers. He was a chronicler of life in Brooklyn—one of his only surviving works aside from the baseball cards is a series of gorgeous photos he took of the borough’s Green-Wood Cemetery. The imagination and sheer breadth of Hall’s Old Judge photos, however, suggest that baseball was special to him.

Hall enjoyed plenty of artistic latitude in shooting the Old Judges. The cards were not mass-produced prints; they were sepia-toned photographs pasted onto heavy-stock cardboard. He shot some players in more than a dozen poses. In the photos, the mustachioed men wear dark, knee-high stirrups and collared jerseys buttoned to their Adam’s apples. Most of the players stand in solemn, dignified poses, but the most intriguing cards depict staged action shots set up in Hall’s Brooklyn studio—runners in frozen headfirst slides, infielders tagging out opponents as they look in the camera’s eye. Balls hang from visible strings, bases lie on the studio floor, and painted background cloths show stadium walls and city skylines. As Hall probably knew well, not even a seven-year-old would have taken these for spontaneous photographs. But they convincingly evoke the show-manship of the sport, often with genuine artistry. Each of his full-body portraits is unique, as if Hall was trying to capture not the face but the personality, and some remain inscrutable today, like the one of future Hall of Fame outfielder Ed Delahanty, who cups his hands and looks to the sky as if in prayer.

The cards catalog what had become, by the 1880s, a thoroughly professional game, with players moving regularly from team to team and leagues morphing from season to season as established squads went under and new ones sprouted up. The Old Judges reflect the game’s westward crawl, too, with players for such far-flung Western Association teams as Omaha, Nebraska, and Sioux City, Iowa, featured on cards in 1888. The final installment of Old Judges, from 1890, showed men from the newly formed Players League, a group that had splintered off from the National League because of labor issues, most notably the reserve clause. The Players League had no salary caps, but it folded after just one season.

It was clear that Goodwin’s card makers followed the game closely, and the youngest baseball fans appreciated the attention to detail. In one of the earliest remembrances of card collecting, published in the New Yorker in 1929, Brooklyn native Arthur H. Folwell explained that, “To many a boy, back in the eighties, the pictures given with Old Judge cigarettes were the most fascinating. Birds, dudes, soldiers, flags of all nations were well enough, but miniature photographs of leading ball players in all the leagues, even the Western Association, were far and away the best. There has never been anything like the Old Judge ball players.” The author went on to recount how stunned he was as a boy to learn that Goodwin and Co. managed to correct card issues after midseason trades between teams. On the card of celebrated outfielder and after-hours evangelist Billy Sunday, for instance, “The picture showed him, bat in hand, standing before a homeplate that looked suspiciously like a newspaper thrown on the studio floor.” Sunday clearly wore the uniform of the Chicago White Sox, but he had the word “Pittsburgh” scrawled sloppily across his chest. “Old Judge watched over us,” Folwell wrote, “and kept the record straight.”

The basic premise of baseball card collecting has always been to obtain each card in a particular set. An avid collector could spend the better part of a lifetime trying to track down every Old Judge card, and even then, as the card historian and collector Lew Lipset noted in his Encyclopedia of Baseball Cards, “completion is hopeless.” There are simply too many different cards for too many players; no one even knows for sure how many there are. Modern collectors tend to impose a discipline with Old Judges, such as pursuing all of the cards of a particular player or of a particular team. There are perhaps fewer than ten collectors in the world currently chasing the Old Judge set in its entirety. And those few must be prepared to spend an awful lot of money. In 2008, one pristine Old Judge card showing Hall of Famer John Ward sold for nearly $30,000 at auction. The set fascinates collectors in part because new cards that have never before been cataloged continue to surface in basements and attics around the country.

Conventional wisdom holds that the cigarette launched the baseball card. But one could just as easily argue that, in the United States, the baseball card launched the cigarette. News reports show that the popularity of baseball cards like the Old Judges helped win over not only smokers but tobacco salesmen as well. “I told him I wouldn’t handle cigarettes under any circumstances,” one New York tobacconist recalled telling Duke upon first meeting him. “[But] Duke began putting into each package a picture of a famous actress or athlete or the flags of all nations. That was a million-dollar idea, for the pictures came in numbered sets and the kids began pestering their dads for them. Soon collecting pictures became a craze and we had to order the cigarettes in quantity. I think this one stunt, more than any other, really put the cigarette over with the public.”

In response to collector demand, Duke and Allen & Ginter printed loose-leaf, string-bound portfolios into which cards could be pasted. Throngs of children reportedly showed up outside cigarette factories in New York City on the weekends, vouchers in hand, demanding new albums for their cards. Every picture card had its market value among schoolboys, and hard-to-find cards could run as high as a quarter apiece, which was several times the cost of the cigarette pack itself. Boys badgered strangers on the street for the cards from their packs. “The life of the dude is made a burden when he appears on the public thoroughfares with the end of a cigarette gingerly clasped in his pearly teeth. He is besieged on all sides with requests of ‘Please, mister, give me the picture!’” one news report explained. “Whenever a number of urchins can be found together, you can wager your last cent that they are comparing their treasures.”

Though they didn’t stir the unholy passions that actress cards did, baseball cards such as the Old Judges were believed to help hook children on smoking. The dangers of tobacco were a widely accepted fact in the nineteenth century, and cigarettes, due to their rapid consumption among kids, were considered a particularly treacherous form of the stuff. When a nineteen-year-old shoe-factory worker passed away in Camden, New Jersey, in 1892, the papers printed the habitual smoker’s dying words: “Tell all my friends ‘Duke’s Best’ have killed me, and beg of them never to smoke another.” It wasn’t unusual for a boy as young as ten to develop a cigarette habit. Excessive smoking was believed to damage the nerves and cause fits of madness, and concerned schoolchildren joined together in antismoking groups in the hope of saving their classmates. Laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors sprouted up around the country but were generally ignored, allowing a child in 1887 to buy a pack of cigarettes just as easily as an adult in many towns.

News reports of the day suggested that tobacco makers were expressly targeting children with their cards. The cigarette “would lie down and die tomorrow” if it weren’t for the high volume of sales to “small boys,” one tobacco man told the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1888. Indeed, it was the fickleness of young consumers that made cigarettes among the most heavily and beautifully advertised products of the post-Civil War period. “Today he swears by the ‘Troubadour Straight Cuts,’ tomorrow he grows enthusiastic over the ‘Old Judge,’ and the next day calls loudly for the ‘Perl’s Pet,’” teased a reporter in 1889. Parents and teachers rummaged through their children’s pants pockets and destroyed whatever cigarette cards they found, and even some tobacco salesmen grew convinced that the pictures were instrumental in turning a generation of city boys into cigarette “fiends” in the 1880s. One dealer told the Tribune that, “It would do away with half this boys’ trade, I think, if there was a law prohibiting the giving away of pictures in packages of cigarettes.”

Politicians in several cities around the country tried to put just such laws on the books. Charleston, South Carolina, effected an ordinance in 1887 prohibiting the sale of cigarettes with baseball cards, forcing tobacconists to strip their packs of the likes of Cap Anson and King Kelly. Duke had a pragmatic take on this new law, telling a Durham newspaper that he didn’t begrudge the mayor one bit for it. In fact, he said he’d prefer to see a nationwide ban on tobacco cards: “We would give a chromo to the Mayor of Charlotte, and a nice per cent if he would stop the use of the pictures throughout the entire country, as it would save us $180,000 per year, or nearly $2,000,000 in the next ten years. Competition forced us to adopt this method of advertising.”

Duke’s competitors shared his frustration, because baseball and actress cards were brutally expensive to produce. Duke put the card costs for his own firm at about $500 per day, or about $62,000 per day in today’s economy. The most attractive baseball cards could cost Duke as much as half a pack of cigarettes to make. One Manhattan plant alone was turning out seventy-five thousand cabinet cards daily, with hundreds of workers toiling around the clock to produce enough cards to meet demand.

Of course, if cards hadn’t meant much to smokers, Duke and the other tobacco companies wouldn’t have shrunk their profit margins rolling them off the presses. As the hobby of card collecting grew, the sale of cigarettes grew with it, and Duke proved as much a master of manufacturing as of marketing. When there were rumblings of a strike among cigarette rollers at Goodwin and Co. in New York, Duke managed to poach 125 of his rival’s laborers by luring them to Durham with the promise of housing and generous wages. When smokers complained that they were mutilating their cigarettes as they pulled them from their soft packs, Duke developed a hard box that protected the smokes without prohibitively boosting their price. And to keep up with growing demand, Duke was determined to slash production costs by shifting from hand-rolled cigarettes to cheaper ones rolled by machine. For years, a mechanic from Virginia named James A. Bonsack had been tinkering with a contraption that, in theory, would be able to produce almost fifty times as many cigarettes per day as the average laborer could. After Duke bought the Bonsack roller in 1884, he and his team worked out the kinks and in their first year of using the machines rolled out 744 million smokes, which was more than the entire industry had been producing annually.

Duke then had the liberty to slash his prices, reducing a pack of ten smokes to a nickel, or about half the going rate. His competitors did what they could to stigmatize machine-made cigarettes as substandard—Allen & Ginter had foolishly taken a pass on an early version of the Bonsack roller, for fear that its customers would sneer at anything but hand-rolled cigarettes—but by the late 1880s, with Duke controlling almost 40 percent of the market, they had no choice but to adopt the same method. The massive production among just four or five tobacco companies created a handful of nationally recognized brands, nearly all of which felt compelled to give buyers more and more of the trading cards they craved.

Even so, card-collecting mania was helping to break Duke’s rivals. The five highest-producing tobacco firms were splurging a combined $2 million per year on baseball and actress cards by 1890, a staggering expense for the time. The president of tobacco company F. S. Kinney, which offered Sweet Caporal cigarettes, believed that he was peddling cardboard as much as he was selling smokes, admitting that he was “most eager to get out of the advertising madhouse” and “the damned picture [card] business,” both of which ate insatiably into his profits. The card craze was also hurting Duke himself, who poured twenty cents of every dollar he made into advertising and marketing. He was coughing up nearly $1 million a year in advertising by 1889, much of it going to inserts and the larger cabinet cards. “Hit your competitors in the pocketbook,” he once said. “Hit ’em hard. Then you either buy ’em out or take ’em with you.”

That year, Duke decided it was high time to take his competitors with him. In typically ruthless fashion, he decided to spend even more money on marketing, forsaking his already slim profit margins just to bury the other companies beneath his advertising. His competitors realized that folding their companies into Duke’s was the only choice; a trust would eliminate the need for expensive picture cards. Even Lewis Ginter, who despised Duke personally, proved willing to join in the budding monopoly. The heads of the five major tobacco firms met at a Fifth Avenue hotel in Manhattan in April 1889 and created the American Tobacco Company. “The great question that agitated them was how to stop this picture-giving business,” the Picayune reported of the trust’s firms. “For years the small boy has collected a valuable collection of Indians, painted in their most villainous dye, of sturdy athletes, baseball players and whatnot—enough to set up a Louvre gallery of art in Smallboytown. . . . As long as one [cigarette company] gave, the rest had to do it too, to keep in the tide of popularity.”

In other words, the popularity of baseball cards helped to spur the formation of one of the most powerful monopolies in American history. The American Tobacco Company’s new president, Buck Duke, managed to drop production costs to ten cents per thousand cigarettes and was well on his way to swallowing up some two hundred additional companies. The controlling parties divvied up their territories and kept out of one another’s way. The tobacco trust had virtually no competition, and without competition there was no need for costly advertising—certainly not for elaborate insert cards, as much as the public adored them. Baseball and actress cards would all but vanish for the next twenty years.

The decency police deemed it a small victory. “They have probably concluded to kill the boys without corrupting their morals,” a Detroit Free Press editorial said of the tobacco moguls, “and for this much the country should be thankful.”