As you might expect, most of Canada’s pre-war issues focused on hockey. It’s the country’s primary sport and while there are some baseball cards packaged with other products, including food and gum, there’s only one baseball-exclusive tobacco card set.
In 1912, a tobacco company took a shot at baseball. Why? Who knows. But perhaps seeing the popularity of the earlier T205 and T206 sets in America, a baseball card issue might have sounded like a great idea to someone.
So, the 1912 Imperial set was born.
The 1912 Imperial set is a 90-card issue that featured only minor leaguers. Specifically, it included all eight teams from the International League. Still in existence today, the International League was born into existence in 1884. It is cataloged in the American Card Catalog as C46. The set was produced by Imperial Tobacco based in Montreal.
At the time, it featured teams from the U.S. and Canada. The Canadian teams were likely one selling point for its production. Only two of the eight franchises were Canadian (the Montreal Royals and Toronto Maple Leafs) but that was probably, in part, enough reason to justify the set’s creation. Plus, since the set was produced by Montreal-based Imperial Tobacco, having a team in their own city probably did not hurt.
Many of the players in the set made it to the majors but there are few big names in the issue. The key ones are Hall of Famers Joe Kelley and Iron Man McGinnity, as well as Chick Gandil, one of the eight banned players from the infamous Chicago White Sox team of 1919. Kelley and McGinnity had finished their major league careers by the time this set was released but Kelley was a minor league manager and McGinnity would pitch an astounding 16 more years in the minors until the age of 54. Gandil is the only one of the three that had a major league career after this set was released.
The set, by comparisons with American issues, is incredibly unique. Here are some of the biggest reasons why.
First, the card’s size is different from most of the American tobacco issues from the same era.
While it looks the same at first glance, to collectors familiar with both the Imperial Tobacco cards and many of the other period tobacco issues from the states, telling them apart is kind of easy.
Most of the significant American tobacco cards measured 1 7/16″. The Imperial cards, by comparison, were slightly larger at 1 1/2″. Whether that was done to accommodate a larger package, I’m not sure. But the cards do measure slightly wider.
One of the more interesting facets is that, while produced by Imperial Tobacco, the company’s name was not printed on the cards. That was in stark contrast to other cards, which basically served as walking, talking advertisements.
Part of the whole point of distributing tobacco cards, after all, was to get your name on them. The T206 set is a perfect example of this with its numerous brands printed onto the backs. Same for T205 and numerous other sets. Printing the cards and then not including your company’s name on them sort of defeated the purpose.
Sure, the cards were used as stiffeners in cigarette backs but why not take advantage of a free advertisement at the same time?
Okay, so let’s talk about this. Most tobacco cards from the same time period are known for one thing – colorful, lithographic pictures.
Yeah, so this set took a different approach.
Instead of bright, bold colors, these cards featured sepia-toned pictures of players. In addition, unlike other sets which included action shots, this set was produced using portrait photos.
In addition, the border/backgrounds are different, too. These cards made them look like a plaque of sorts. They have a faux-wood background and the player’s name on a nameplate at the bottom. Again, just not real attractive.
Different? Yes. Appealing? Not really.
Okay, so I spent a little bit of time talking about what the set got wrong. But they also got something right, too.
The best thing about this set is probably found on the backs. There are two great things about these backs that weren’t found on most tobacco issues: Biographies and card numbers.
The T205 set printed in 1911 is often cited as the first baseball cards with biographies of players. Well, the 1912 Imperial set wasn’t far behind. Their cards had helpful biographies to introduce the players to collectors. While that was helpful in the mostly major league T205 set, it was probably abundantly so for this issue.
Don’t forget – these cards were distributed to Canadians. And while it included some Canadian players, most were Americans. Also, we’re talking about minor leaguers here. Only ardent followers of minor league baseball would have been even remotely familiar with most of them. Biographies about these players was, in short, a really good idea.
The card numbers were also helpful. Abundantly so, actually. Most tobacco cards from that time period weren’t numbered. That made it difficult to track which cards you were missing. It’s easy, for example, for us to know all of the cards in pre-war sets since almost all have been appropriately checklisted. But imagine trying to build a set back then with no internet, checklist, and not even any card numbering.
Adding card numbers to these is another cool feature of this set.