1886-90 Old Judge Set (N172)
‘It’s In The Details’
|Title||N172 Old Judge|
|Size||1 7/16″ x 2 1/2″
|Type||19th Century Tobacco
|Number in Set
N172 Old Judge Overview
In 1886, Old Judge Cigarettes produced a small set (N167) that is among the scarcest pre-war card collectibles around featuring baseball players, boxers, and women. They followed that up with the largest pre-war card issue ever created in the N172 Old Judge set.
Some collectors identify it as the first true baseball card set. But even if that is not true, it is certainly one of the landmarks in collecting and is largely responsible for the craze around tobacco cards that began in the late 1880s.
Produced by Goodwin and Company for its Old Judge brand of cigarettes, the N172 set is so large, in fact, that new cards are still being discovered. Currently, more than 500 baseball players are known to exist but there are a few thousand cards in all since many players have several different poses. The Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards, for example, states that there are more than 3,500 baseball cards.
Other subjects, including boxers and wrestlers, are found, too. Those can be considered part of one large set with the baseball players or as separate, distinct sets. Old advertising posters for the cards indicated that there were ‘over 2,000 different subjects,’ which sort of hints they could all be considered as one single issue. While worthy checklists have been assembled, it is likely that none will every be completely confirmed.
The cards have a sepia-tone and are actually two separate pieces – a photograph of a player affixed to a piece of cardboard. And with blank backs, this has led to collectors rebacking cards by removing other more favorable backs from cards and replacing less favorable ones.
Also of note is that the set doesn’t exactly have a uniform design. Some cards have handwritten names on them. Others have the Old Judge Cigarettes name in various shapes, sizes, and parts of the card. The set is sort of all of the place when it comes to design.
The set is absolutely star-studded. It includes many early Hall of Fame players, such as Cap Anson, Dan Brouthers, John Clarkson, Charles Comiskey, Roger Connor, Hugh Duffy, Buck Ewing, Clark Griffith, Tim Keefe, King Kelly, Connie Mack, Jim O’Rourke, Old Hoss Radbourn, John Ward, Mickey Welch, Harry Wright, and several others. And the numerous cards of these players makes the set even more full with big names.
While the big Hall of Fame names are obviously the keys to the set, some other cards have gained quite a following over the years for various reasons. One of those is the Art Whitney card picturing him with a dog. Whitney was generally a common player but that card can often sell for more than $1,000.
Another popular player found in the set? Evangelist Billy Sunday who had a baseball career early in life. His cards remain very popular with collectors and can be quite expensive, despite not being a star player.
Rarity is a key component to this unique set.
Most cards probably don’t have more than a few dozen in existence and some have only a handful. Collectively, the cards aren’t too rare. For instance, finding any Old Judge card isn’t difficult. However, finding specific ones, particularly of non-stars routinely for sale, is very hard.
In theory, most individual cards, if not all, are likely rarer than any number of exclusive issues, including the Honus Wagner T206 card. Collectors looking for individual players, specifically obscure ones, can have a difficult time.
Cap Anson Uniform Card
While all of the cards in the set are technically pretty rare, the Cap Anson uniform card is the most desirable one in the entire release.
Anson has a second card in the set that features him in a suit and tie. That is the more common card seen and while it is desirable, his card picturing him in his Chicago baseball uniform is a true rarity.
Only a few known copies exist and in 2001, a low-grade example sold for more than $66,000. If offered today, it would likely fetch much more.
As I wrote here, the card is not only one of the top pre-war cards available but it might even be the top card of the 19th century for a variety of reasons.
Additionally, within the set are what can be considered some subsets.
One of the most popular ones is a short series that includes players from the New York Mets wearing spotted ties. These cards are heavily pursued and even low-grade examples of commons can easily top $1,000.
Additionally, a subset for the championship St. Louis Browns team is included in the set. Those cards are not quite as valuable as the Mets cards but they do sometimes sell for a bit of a premium over other Old Judge cards.
Similar to other like-designed cards, the biggest problem with the cards is easily fading.
Some issues, particularly those exposed to light, have become barely recognizable by collectors unfamiliar with them. This makes for a premium on cards that have sharp, clear pictures. Even graded cards with a low technical score are heavily-desired if the pictures are clear. Similarly, cards graded well with faded images are not quite as desirable as they otherwise should be.
The best way to store Old Judge cards is out of light, obviously. Dealers displaying them at card shows or collectors displaying them in rooms exposed to light are advised to seek other alternatives.
N172 Old Judge Checklist
PSA has a checklist of nearly 1,100 cards in its master list on the set registry – you can view it here.
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