Baseball cards, or some form of them, have been around for more than 150 years. With such a cloudy history, it’s easy to see why defining the first card has been so difficult to determine.
‘Determine’ is probably not the correct word, actually. If you present the evidence to individual collectors, many can come up with a determination of what they believe is the correct answer. The real issue, of course, has been gaining any kind of consensus.
A somewhat new contender for the crown is an interesting card of Harry Wright – the man that many believe is the father of baseball. But is this really the first baseball card?
The card in question is the 1863 Grand Match at Hoboken card featuring Wright. The ‘card’ was actually a ticket good for a series of games to be played. Wright and his family were famous cricket players (his father, particularly) but Harry eventually got into baseball. He would eventually form what was believed to be the first professional team, in fact.
The tickets were for an event where two cricket matches and one baseball game would be played. Basic tickets were without pictures and were a quarter. However, for fifty cents, the buyer would receive one of these special tickets with a picture on it. While a ticket, the item itself really wasn’t too much different in size from many types of baseball cards, measuring about two inches by four inches.
While the cards in the set generally have a cricket focus, the card of Harry is an interesting one. He is holding a cricket ball and wearing cricket apparel (compared to the uniforms worn by early baseball teams, such as the Knickerbockers) but the card is desirable because of his future link to baseball.
The dating of the card is what makes this card intriguing. Printed in 1863, the card easily predates the team cards that were later printed in the late 1860s by Peck and Snyder, featuring the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Those cards have generally been cited as the first true baseball cards but the Wright card has been named as a contender as well.
The Case for the Card
The case for the card is pretty simple. We’ve got a card-like thing with a legit image of an actual baseball player. Collectors often dismiss cards featuring generic subjects that aren’t real players. But this card shows a real, honest-to-goodness baseball player that would be taking part in a baseball game.
Further, while Wright was a cricketer, he had already been playing baseball well before the card being released. The first accounts have Wright playing baseball with the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, a team of amateur players, since 1858. Wright was not merely a cricket player at the time trying his hand at baseball. He had been playing baseball for some time.
And, as stated, it was released far earlier than the Peck and Snyder cards. Clear cut case? Not quite.
The Case against the Card
Here’s the thing. I can actually live with the fact that the card was a ticket. Lots of early cards, including the Peck and Snyder cards, weren’t the traditional baseball card. If you want the first card that is closer to an actual baseball card, you may have to wait around until the 1880s when the Old Judge cards were released. So , the non-traditional card thing I can deal with.
But there are a few other strikes against the card. First, technically, Wright isn’t even a baseball player on the card. He was a cricket player, holding a piece of cricket equipment, wearing a cricket uniform. While baseball was played at the event, it’s clear from the other cards in the set that cricket was the real attraction. And not only was it the attraction, it’s the sport depicted on the card.
Wright is appearing on the card as a cricketer for an event where cricket was the primary focus. It gets pretty difficult to define that as a baseball card instead of a cricket card just because he happened to play baseball, too. If Wright were pictured as a baseball player, the case becomes much stronger. But take the following example.
Let’s say Michael Jordan is playing at a weekend golf tournament. Jordan is featured in his traditional golf gear, with clubs, etc. Now, say that tournament includes an exhibition basketball game to benefit a charity or something. Would that suddenly be a basketball card? Not really.
Further, consider this. Professional baseball did not exist at the time of these cards. These were amateur players participating in an exhibition. That fact might not matter much to you but it’s the reason that the 1869 Peck and Snyder card featuring the Red Stockings is considered the first true card and not the card a year earlier picturing the 1868 Brooklyn Atlantics, which was, at the time, an amateur team.
Now, full disclosure here. I’m not sure I personally buy into the idea that a card featuring an amateur absolutely can’t be considered the first card. After all, if that’s the bar, then the N162 Goodwin Champions card featuring Harry Beecher can’t be the first football card, even though it’s generally accepted to be, since he’s featured as a college player. The point here, though, is that amateur teams vs. professional ones is a distinction made by many when it comes to finding the first baseball card.
But let’s say none of that fazes you. That you can get past all of that. Well, even if you get beyond all of that. Even if you conclude that this is still a baseball card, it’s not necessarily the first. The set of these cards also included a couple of players named Crossley and Hammond, and Hammond also had been previously playing baseball, according to this detailed article. Realistically, at least the Hammond card would have just as much claim to the title as the Wright card.
If you’re asking me, this is a cricket card. The real distinction that needs to be made here, I believe, is that this is perhaps the first card featuring a baseball player.
To be a baseball card, the sport of baseball should actually be represented in the picture or, at the very least, it should be part of a baseball set. And that’s not what we have here. Really, the card would be no different if it featured a picture of Wright eating, sleeping, or buying groceries. Sure, there are modern baseball card sets with players in casual attire and those are considered baseball cards. But this card is not part of a baseball card set. It’s part of a set of tickets used to largely promote the sport of cricket.
First card depicting a baseball player? Unless an earlier card surfaces, yes. First baseball card?