Baseball Cards: Past, Present, and Future

Baseball season is finally here. And what better way to celebrate than by purchasing some 2 1/2″ by 3 1/2″ rectangles of card stock with your favorite players on them. On the back of the card stock will be numbers representing their failures and successes in the game. There will also be a number, probably in one of the corners, telling you what place the card goes in the set. It is up to you if you want to treat the baseball cards like toys to be handled, used, and tossed about, or like priceless works of art–only to be viewed from afar behind inch-thick plastic.

Beginnings

Baseball cards have held a special place in the hearts of baseball fans since photography and baseball gained popularity, which was relatively at the same time. Ballplayers and teams naturally wanted to document their goings-on with a photograph. Teams would pose for pictures together or the individual ballplayer would pose with a bat in hand. Photography and baseball fever gripped the country and businesses saw an opportunity to promote their products. And thus, the earliest baseball cards were developed as such: photograph of the ballplayer on the front, and advertising on the back.

Candy and Tobacco Baseball Cards

Tobacco companies were the first to really dive into baseball cards, at the beginning of the 20th-century. The card served two purposes, the first being to promote cigarettes. The second purpose was to protect the cigarettes from being smashed, bent, or broken. The cards were typically 1 1/2″ by 2 2/3″ so as to fit the cigarette packs. These cards had photographs and beautifully drawn renditions of the players. Today tobacco cards are highly desirable and, because of their scarcity, pull big money from collectors.

By the 1910s children’s games and confection companies started producing baseball cards as well. These cards varied in size and became an instant hit with kids who had previously pilfered the cards from their parent’s cigarette packs.

Ebb and Flow

Throughout the history of baseball cards, there have been periods of ebb and flow typically dictated by economic downturns. When World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II affected the economy, baseball card production went down. This slowing in production created scarcity and drove up the value of cards manufactured during this time. The opposite of this, we’ll call it the flow, happened during the 1980s and early 90s. The country was experiencing great economic growth that started in 1983 and carried on through the early 90s.

One of the results of this economic growth was the mass production of baseball cards, so much so that the value of the majority of cards produced at that time has been greatly reduced. Many of these cards aren’t worth the card stock that they are printed on. This time of great baseball card bounty ended with the player’s strike in 1994. The strike drove fans away from the national pastime, and consequently, the card industry suffered.

The Point of Collecting Baseball Cards

So why collect baseball cards in this day and age?  The first and most simple answer is that it’s fun. It is fun for kids to collect as well as for adults. But kids and adults tend to collect for different reasons. Kids like baseball cards because they can trade with their friends, play games with them, and stuff them in their back pockets without any care of bending a corner. Adults tend to collect for nostalgia, art, and investment. Does this take the fun out of cards? The answer is no, but it does create an accessibility problem for kids.

Since the 1994 player’s strike, many card companies folded or were bought out by Topps and Upper Deck. Topps and Upper Deck are the only two companies that retain production licenses for Major League players, with Topps being the only company currently creating Major League Baseball cards. And since the great over-production of the 80s and early 90s, Topps has found that there is more to be made from scarcity. While this scarcity creates more valuable cards it also takes baseball card collecting away from kids and puts it in the hands of adults and greedy collectors. These collectors buy all of the available packs of cards and then resell them for greatly inflated prices, pushing the cards out of reach of hard-earned chore money. Sorry, kid, unless you have $3.9 million for a Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels) card you’re out of luck.

It’s Time For a Flow

There has to be a balance. While pulling a rare card is nice (who doesn’t like finding their retirement in a pack of cards?), it is also enjoyable to have enough for everyone, kids, adults, and greedy people alike. While the greedy people might not be too happy with this scenario, all of the other fun-loving, non-greedy people, who are hopefully in the majority, would be pleased to get the Baseball cards that they love. Following the acquisition of these little works of art, everyone can do what they please with them. Whether they want to put them in their bike spokes or lock them in an air-tight container, they may. And so they should; because it really is, all just about fun.

Players Mentioned:

Mike Trout

“Main Photo”
Embed from Getty Images


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