The Art of The Trim: Practice of Cutting Baseball Cards Began Earlier Than You Might Think
While for a different purpose, the act of cutting cards has been around since the beginning
The latest and greatest scandal to hit the sports card hobby is the rash of trimmed cards that are somehow making their way into slabs as high-grade examples. While a trimmed card should automatically result in an Authentic grade (the lowest such grade), some of these cards have been undetected by grading companies and are being assigned perfect or nearly perfect scores.
Almost all collectors that have been around for some time are familiar with the term. However, if ‘trimming’ is a new one to you, essentially, it is the act of narrowly cutting the edge of a card. If done well enough, a card with previously dinged corners that hurt its value can end up with sharp corners and clean edges, thus improving its appearance. Grading companies do catch trimmed cards. But, as we’ve seen with the Blowout scandal linked above, many trimmed cards have gotten by them.
Trimming as been with us for some time now but when did it really begin?
I don’t know that anyone can say with any degree of certainty. Card shows started to become popular in the 1970s as collectors began to connect more and more. But we know that cards were being valued much earlier than that. In Jefferson Burdick’s American Card Catalog, for example, he lists prices for cards but adds that they must be in ‘good’ condition to receive those values.
Additionally, he cites 1945 as the year when card values really began to take off. 1945, of course, was the end of World War II and when life began to return to some degree of normalcy. That it was the year cited by Burdick is not a real surprise, I suppose.
That doesn’t give us an answer to the trimming question but it does provide some insight into when card values were starting to be taken more seriously. And given that trimming is done to enhance a card’s appearance and inflate its value, the two obviously go hand in hand.
I don’t know if the act of trimming to improve a card’s value began in 1945 (I personally suspect it was probably in the 1960s or 1970s, if I had to guess). But we know that trimming to alter a card’s appearance certainly began long before that.
The First ‘Trimmed’ Cards
The first baseball cards being mass produced generally came in the 1880s. Earlier cards certainly exist but when you look the origins of baseball card collecting, the 1880s are generally where things really started to get going.
At that time, you mostly had two types of baseball cards, really — trade cards and tobacco cards. And since most trade cards didn’t feature real players, the tobacco issues are really the ones that define the beginning the collecting area for many people.
I’ve written quite a bit about tobacco cards in the past. But while they were pursued by kids and collected by adults, even, there were many people who opposed them. Some shunned them altogether but others took a different approach.
Now, cards weren’t being trimmed in the 1800s to make them more valuable. These cards were not trimmed in the way we think of trimming today. We know that for a variety of reasons.
First, the condition of the cards wasn’t nearly as important as it is to today. The cards also didn’t have the kind of values as they do today. Additionally, these trim jobs were not mild ones. Often, a large portion of the card was cut. It isn’t uncommon to see trimmed cards from this era missing a half inch or so. And that portion was often related to the tobacco company and brand names.
One of the greatest examples of this trimming is seen in the Old Judge cards. While many of those cards are often found in complete form, the cigarette brand names are often cut off from the bottom, leaving for a much shorter card than was originally printed. TO some, that likely meant for an improved card. To others, it made the fact that they were tobacco cards more tolerable.
Shown above is an example of a Billy Sunday card I have to the left missing the tobacco branding at the bottom. Just for the sake of comparison, another Sunday card is pictured here on the right with the full Goodwin & Company name.
The act of trimming these cards appeared in other sets, too. Another one where you see it quite often is in the N28 Allen & Ginter Champions cards.
Those cards are often found with the Allen & Ginter name at the bottom removed. Interestingly enough, the company later altered the design with the printing of their N29 set, which was a virtual continuation of N28.
As shown here, the N29 cards did not include the Allen & Ginter name on the front. Instead, it was printed on the backs. Pictured to the left is a card of Cap Anson from the N28 set and on the right, we’ve got Buck Ewing from the N29 series. Both of these cards are untrimmed and the N29s also provide some insight into the trimming deal. While you see many N28 cards missing significant portions of the bottom to ditch the Allen & Ginter’s name, you don’t see that with N29 cards.
One has to think the ditching of the name from the front was intentional. The design of the cards was virtually unchanged with that being the biggest change. It’s quite conceivable that the company received complaints or saw the cards routinely being cut and wanted to leave their name off the front.
An International Affair
It is also noteworthy that trimming was not limited purely to American cards. The practice of removing cigarette brand names was also performed in other European sets overseas.
A notable example there are the cards from the numerous Ogden’s sets produced near the Turn of the Century. Ogden’s produced a gaggle of sets and many shared the same, basic design — black and white image in the middle, dark black borders, and the Ogden’s name in white ink at the bottom.
Like the American tobacco cards from this time, you can also find the Ogden’s cards in similar condition. Many were left intact but a good number were also trimmed. I’ve got in the neighborhood of 800-900 Ogden cards, for example, and probably about 200 or so have the bottoms trimmed off.
Shown here are examples of the Ogden cards both trimmed and untrimmed.
The Long-Term Effects
While early collectors didn’t think they were doing much harm by cutting parts of the cards off, the obvious reality is that they did. Predictably, values for the trimmed cards are significantly less than untrimmed versions.
As mostly a low-grade collector, I don’t mind them in my sets at all since hit helps to keep the costs down. But the values for them are drastically hurt.
Case in point, I once bought a trimmed N28 Allen & Ginter card of Hall of Famer Tim Keefe that was otherwise a very nice card. If fully intact and the missing portion was as nice as the rest of the card, I’d say the card probably would have graded at about a PSA 5 or even a PSA 6. Typically, that card would sell for somewhere around $750 or $1,000. Maybe a bit more. But in its current condition with the bottom missing, I was able to get it for about $100. Trimmed cards aren’t for everybody but they can be a nice way to pick up expensive cards for significantly lower prices.
The purpose for the trimming isn’t exactly the same as it is today. But the act of altering cards in that manner has been with the hobby for a very long time.