Baseball Subjects are Only One Small Part of the Pre-War Card Era
Baseball cards lead the way but they are only a fraction of sports cards from the era
Among Americans and by a considerable margin, baseball cards are the most collected sports cards from the pre-war era.
That fact isn’t able to be reasonably disputed. The T206 Honus Wagner card is the most valuable sports card in general and the other most valuable pre-war sports cards are baseball issues, too. Off the top of my head, I’m not even sure I could identify the most valuable pre-war cards in other sports.
But while baseball is king, they are a very small fraction of the overall sports cards that were produced in the pre-war era. Even setting aside the millions of non-sports cards that were created, there are a considerable amount of important sports cards out there that don’t involve a baseball.
Among the earliest tobacco cards were the ‘Champions’ issues. Primarily, these are the old Allen & Ginter (N28 and N29), Goodwin (N162), and Kimball (N184) sets. Now, these sets all had baseball in them. But, like the theme of this article, it was only a small part of each one. Of the 200 total cards in those sets, only 28 featured baseball players — a little less than 15%. Plenty of other sports are represented in those sets, including boxing, tennis, wrestling, and even American football.
When looking at the major sports, football and hockey were also sports being featured on earlier cards.
American football cards have origins dating back to the late 1800s and emerged in the next century with cards depicting early professional stars like Red Grange and others. Hockey cards, at least in Canada, were even more popular with many sets being produced in that country. Most issues were produced outside of the U.S., but sets like the 1910-11 Sweet Caporal postcards helped bring these types of cards to America.
Postcards, by the way, were another type of cards with baseball accounting only for a small fraction of them. In particular, many generic college cards with a football theme were issued around 1910. Don’t get me wrong — a good amount of baseball cards (even those with real players) were issued. But postcards routinely included subjects participating in many sports, most notably, perhaps, football and basketball. Female subjects playing basketball were quite popular.
And while the aforementioned Champions theme sort of faded as time went on but the idea of multi-sport sets did not.
Several of those were created in the 1900s, with popular ones such as the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings issue. If you take a look at that set, baseball is emphasized even less with only three cards from that sport in it. That’s ironic given that Goudey was the primary producer of baseball cards in that decade.
The lack of baseball in that set could have been intentional as Goudey also created a 240-card set composed entirely of baseball players that same year, after all. Still, the Sport Kings set includes only three baseball cards in it among the 48 in the set. It can also be argued that the basketball cards (often credited as the first professional ones) and the football cards in that release are more significant. Some very popular sets, like the T218 Champions sets, for example, did not include baseball at all, opting for boxing and more Olympic type sports, like track and field and swimming.
In the pre-war era, boxing was also a major player. Like baseball cards, they started to appear in tobacco sets in the 1880s and were quite popular.
Boxing, as I’ve written before was, at its height, just as popular as baseball — perhaps even more so among adults. While there weren’t as many boxing issues as there were baseball sets, plenty of American tobacco and candy card sets were made. Boxing cards also found their way into a good number of strip card sets and, in some cases, sets were comprised entirely of boxers. Also, in particular, boxing cards were very popular on an international level with plenty of issues coming from all sorts of countries.
Finally, speaking of UK boxing issues, none of this even mentions the many international sets that were created. Many of those have European origins where baseball was not being played to a large extent.
As a result, many of those sets did not even include baseball at all. An absolute gaggle of international sets featuring soccer and track and field are so large they can barely be counted (though sites like Athletic Cards and the Football Cartophilic Info Exchange do an incredible job of keeping track of them. Of course, that doesn’t include the many other types of cards that are popular in other countries, such as the many golf, cricket, rugby, and tennis issues out there.
Baseball cards are clearly the most important to American collectors and easily the most valuable. But at the end of the day, they are a very small part of the sports cards that were produced before World War II.