Baker’s Dozen: The Top 13 Pre-War Baseball Card Sets of All-Time
Rankings lists are always subjective and usually quite dumb. That said, I enjoy the heck out of them and was thinking the other day about pre-war baseball card sets in general.
I tried my hardest to come up with a top ten of sorts but felt that I was excluding a few really important sets. Thus, I’m going with 13, which is perfectly acceptable because, well, it’s Friday the 13th and also because it’s my list. One disclaimer here is that I’m including baseball-only sets. Some of the great multi-sport sets, like the old 19th century Allen & Ginter Champions cards, for example, are not included.
With that said, before I get to that list, let’s take a look at a few sets that just barely missed the cut for me.
Every rankings list has an item that is just on the outside looking in. For me, one of those here is the E95 Philadelphia Caramel set.
This is a really great issue and it’s highlighted by the likes of Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Christy Mathewson. It’s going to be on the short list of one of the most popular caramel card sets for a lot of collectors.
The biggest issue with it is probably it’s small size. With only 25 cards, it’s packed with big names. But it also falls short of larger, more established sets in my mind.
Great set without question. And, if I’m being honest, it’s one that I prefer over others on this list. It just misses the mark here, though.
Another big time set MIA is T207. Those of you that know me and know what I collect may be surprised to see it not in the list. In short, I’m a really big T207 fan and ‘get’ the set while a lot of other collectors aren’t enamored by it. But at the end of the day, it’s just missing too many big names to warrant serious consideration. I love the mix of players in it, including quite a few obscure ones. But that’s not enough to make the list.
A few more, for various reasons, in the ‘Others Receiving Votes’ category for me were:
- 1934-36 Diamond Stars (I really considered this one but with no Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig, that’s a tough sell)
- 1910-12 M116 Sporting Life (a really underappreciated set, by the way)
- 1887 N284 Buchner Gold Coin (diminished a bit by the repeated images)
- 1933 DeLong (like E95, a wee bit on the small side)
- 1886 N167 Old Judge (very important set but mostly a team issue)
- N175 Gypsy Queen (a bit too rare to really consider – plus, N172 Old Judge is larger and more impressive)
- T3 Turkey Red (considered these but at nearly 6″ x 8″ in size, these are more like photos than cards)
- T212 Obak Set (one of my favorites but too many obscure players – same could be said for the T210 Old Mill set)
Alright, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to my top 13 sets.
No. 13 – 1939 Play Ball
The 1939 Play Ball set is usually considered the key of the three Play Ball issues. The 1940 set is larger and it could be argued that it’s technically better. It also has a lot of former players in it that dramatically strengthened the checklist.
The bigger issue for me with the 1940 set, though, is that it’s not really a pre-war set going by my definition. Even if I wanted to include it, I really couldn’t. Technically, it’s a war-time issue since it was issued after the war began.
The key to the set, of course, is the Ted Williams rookie card. And that card is one of the most iconic pre-war cards around. The design is a little bland and not having names on the fronts doesn’t help. Still, it’s considered an all-time great for a lot of gum card collectors and it makes my cut here.
No. 12 – 1894-95 N300 Mayo
While many collectors are familiar with the 1939 Play Ball issue, fewer certainly could tell you about the 1894-95 N300 Mayo set.
This is one of the few baseball-only sets from the 1890s and I’d argue that it’s a very important set. It’s very distinctive because of the black borders and all black backs, making it much different looking than sets that came before it.
With only 48 cards, it’s certainly on the smaller size. But it’s such a distinctive set that was produced in a time when there were not many baseball-only sets that it warrants serious consideration as a top release. And given the smaller size, the checklist is fairly strong, too, with all kinds of key players, including Cap Anson, Buck Ewing, Ed Delahanty, John Ward, and many more.
Given the distinctive look, the relatively strong checklist, and the extreme rarity of the set, I had to find a home for it.
No. 11 – 1922 E120 American Caramel
While I expect most pre-war collectors could tell you the difference between American Caramel’s E120 and E121 sets, some certainly would mix up the two.
But the E120 set, despite the name, was actually issued after E121. These cards used real players and include a whopping checklist of 240 cards. And even though the cards had American Caramel backs with team checklists, the set was used by others and blank-backed cards exist (classified as W573).
The set is no doubt a landmark issue and includes all of the big names, such as Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and Ty Cobb.
Because it’s such a large set and not as plentiful as the later gum cards, it often goes unnoticed. Still, the impressive checklist, larger style of card, and solid design easily earn it a spot here, despite a rather terrible typo.
No. 10 – 1909 T204 Ramly
I initially nearly kept the T204 Ramly set off of this list. But in the end, it’s too great to ignore.
Others, even, would rank it higher. The design of the cards is spectacular and the virtual square shape was really different from what other sets were doing. They were also issued with a Turkish cigarettes product, another unique feature.
So what gives? The problem with it is the checklist. The set boasts 121 total cards but didn’t bother to include a lot of important players.
A key card of Walter Johnson anchors it. That card is actually often cited as the Big Train’s rookie card since earlier issues of him were postcards or cabinets. But after that, there isn’t much else in terms of the really big names. No Ty Cobb, no Honus Wagner, no Cy Young. Still, the set is too impressive to forget about entirely.
No. 9 – 1909-11 E90-1 American Caramel
One of the reasons I gave for not including the E95 Philadelphia Caramel set on this list was its small checklist. But the counter to that set is the E90-1 American Caramel set, which is basically E95 on steroids.
Boasting a total of 121 cards, the set has just about everything. Lots of big names, a large checklist, pose variations, shortprints, a checklist mystery, a handful of key horizontal cards, and in the Shoeless Joe Jackson major league rookie card, one of the most important pre-war cards around.
Oh, and a rather unique variation, to boot.
As I’ve written before, some of the artwork leaves a good bit to be desired. It’s really the thing keeping this set from being elite. But factoring in everything else, it’s definitively a top ten set in my mind.
Lots of great cards in the set and a caramel card collector’s dream.
No. 8 – 1921-22 E121 American Caramel
The E121 American Caramel set belongs higher on the list than its E120 counterpart. And really, there are two different E121 sets.
One set was called Set of 80 while another was called a Set of 120. But like the E90-1 American Caramel set that mentioned there were 100 subjects in it, those numbers aren’t accurate. To date, more than 80 and 120 cards are known in each set, respectively.
The set gets a nod above the E120 set mostly because of the checklist. While E120 included big names, like T206, this set has multiple cards of those big names with numerous variations. The set includes several cards of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and others, and is a very tough issue when you consider all of those.
Another great thing about this set is that, like E120, it has a blank-backed version, classified as W575-1. But different from E120 (which has only a few), this one has a ton of back variations of those cards with different advertisements.
No. 7 – 1903-04 E107 Breisch-Williams
This is probably one of the bigger ‘upsets’ in that it’s a set that few could tell you too much about.
If we’re going by just collectability, the E107 Breisch-Williams set probably wouldn’t make the cut. But the set is so special that it clearly belongs.
This set includes portraits of players. While that sounds boring, one of my favorite things about it is that some of the subjects are actually wearing suits as opposed to uniforms. That could be a deterrent for some collectors but I personally think it breaks up the set a bit and makes it stand out.
Another key thing about this set? It was issued in the early 1900s, several years before the candy and tobacco card boom of the 20th century. Thus, the cards for several players are among the earliest known ones for them.
One of those? Christy Mathewson as the card is generally considered to be his rookie.
I don’t know. I could see some that aren’t too familiar with it slotting it lower. But it’s such an early candy issue that, frankly, looks great and has big names. That’s enough for me.
No. 6 – 1914/1915 Cracker Jack
We’ve got another two-set special here that I’m going to lump together. While the 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets are two separate releases, the checklists are so similar that there’s not much difference in trying to split them up. Plus, if Jefferson Burdick can lump them together as E145-1 and E145-2, that’s good enough for me.
Not too many notable sets were produced during World War I but the Cracker Jack cards were issued during that important time period and a rather significant exception. That alone makes them somewhat special but when you add in the thin nature of the cards, the fact that they were a prize inside of Cracker Jack products, and the distinctive red backgrounds, you’ve got a winner.
Oh, and that checklist isn’t too shabby, either. Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner — it’s basically a Who’s Who of that time period.
These are very iconic sets and the only argument is that perhaps they should be higher. The cards have really become even more collected these days, leading to some ridiculous prices for mid-grade and high-grade stuff.
No. 5 – 1911 T205
Simply put, the T205 setis hard to beat.
The cards start with some very incredible artwork. Combine that with a fully unique design and you’ve got a one-of-a-kind release.
Many of the other tobacco and candy cards from this era went with white borders. It was a clean look and it’s easy to see why everyone was going in that direction. But the T205 set really mixed things up with a gold border. The cards also had a unique design with National Leaguers getting head shots and American Leaguers having their portraits inserted into a baseball diamond design.
The cards are also revolutionary from a baseball card layout standpoint. They are often called the first set with both statistics and a biography on the backs.
Add in a bunch of error cards, some minor league players, a very special tribute card for a Hall of Famer, and a surprising amount of rarity compared to T206, and you’ve got a very nice set.
A few things could have made it better but the T205 set is a favorite of many collectors and it’s easy to see why.
No. 4 – 1916 M101-4/M101-5
The M101-4 and M101-5 sets are often called the Sporting News sets. But while that was one of the companies that had their advertisements on the backs, the cards were used by a slew of other companies, bearing their ads as well.
These two sets feature cards that have the same layout and most of the same players. But there are some differences in the checklist and those include the card numbers being different as well.
Now, there are certainly flashier sets. If we’re going clearly by eye appeal, nothing here is going to scream Top 5 ranking. But each is a very clear cut set with 200 cards and loads of big names. And the reason it gets such a boost here is quite simple — the major league rookie card of the legendary Babe Ruth. Today, it’s a six-figure card and one of the most valuable ones in history.
Don’t sleep on the full checklist, though. Others like Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and many more, add quite a bit here.
Some may think the set is too high on this list given that it’s not a tobacco or candy card set. But given that it includes an incredible checklist as well as the rookie card of the greatest player of all time, it has rightfully earned this spot.
No. 3 – 1886-90 N172 Old Judge
T206 cards are often considered to be the first landmark baseball card set by some collectors. But you actually have to go back about 25 years to find the real first set of baseball cards that generated considerable buzz.
The N172 Old Judge cards are believed to have been issued from 1886-1890. The cards were unique as they were actually miniature pictures of baseball players attached to cardboard to create makeshift cards before they were stuffed in packages of Old Judge cigarettes.
The set is so expansive that a complete checklist has never really been defined. The set includes all kinds of minor variations, resulting in some players having five, six, seven, or even more, cards. Even common players often have more than one variation. Even evangelist Billy Sunday, who began his career as a player but was hardly a star, has several cards. Most other players follow suit.
And of course, the game’s first stars are there. Cap Anson, King Kelly, and just about every other big name at the time (oh, and a dog, too) are found in the set. A rare variation of Cap Anson’s card picturing him in uniform is one of the rarest pre-war cards from a major set that can be found.
This set is sort of difficult to place. The relatively drab design (along with the fact that many images have been faded over time) doesn’t often present for very aesthetically-pleasing cards. The counter to that is that cards with clear images are stunning and that, as the first really significant baseball card set.
No. 2 – 1933 Goudey
Forget the pre-war era — the 1933 Goudey set is considered to be one of the top sets of all time from any era.
It’s hard to know where to start with the 1933 Goudey set. For one thing, it’s Goudey’s largest set. For another, it took a page from the playbook of other sets, including more than one card for some stars. Babe Ruth’s four cards are keys to the set, as are two for Lou Gehrig. But while those would be the most significant cards in many sets, not so with 1933 Goudey.
The key to the 1933 Goudey set is one of the top pre-war cards of all time — a card for Nap Lajoie that never was circulated in packs. At the time, the only reported way to get the card was by writing to Goudey, who apparently sent it to collectors that asked for it.
Few (by comparison to other cards in the set, anyway) have survived to date and these days, even low-grade ones start around $20,000, give or take.
There’s a lot more here, though. Throw in a gaggle of other stars, a single, solitary corrected error card, the card of a spy (Moe Berg), and the fact that this set was what really set the gum card era in motion, and you have an incredible release very much worthy of this lofty ranking.
No. 1 – 1909-11 T206
At No. 1, we’ve got a pretty clear cut selection with the famous T206 set. There’s a lot more to the pre-war tobacco era than T206 but, make no mistake, T206 is clearly king.
The T206 set has just about everything. And with an impressive checklist of 524 cards, building a set is no easy feat — even if you subtract the Big Four cards found in it.
The most famous of those Big Four, of course, is the Honus Wagner card. The Wagner card is known to even non-baseball card collectors and is the most valuable card in the world, pound for pound. The most valuable one sold for a record $3.1 million.
Issued by the American Tobacco Company from 1909-11, the cards really set off a wildfire of interest. Young boys pursued them extensively and the cards inspired an entire generation of baseball card collectors. Early tobacco collecting was sort of a craze and the T206 set is largely responsible for that. Even more than 100 years later, these remain as the most collected pre-war set on the planet.
Like others, the set includes many cards of the biggest stars. After the Big Four, as well as a pair of rare variations, the valuable four cards of Hall of Famer Ty Cobb are generally the biggest prize. Shooting up in value in recent years, it is getting harder to find a decent low-grade one much under $1,000 these days.
The set just includes so much more than the expensive cards, though. There is a wide selection of imagery found in it. There are six horizontal cards in the mostly vertical-oriented issue. Many are found with back stamps. Plus, the fact that the cards are still very accessible at mostly low prices makes them a highly collected set.
As I wrote here, I consider the T206 set as the best overall baseball card set of all time. Thus, it’s an easy declaration to make it the top pre-war set.
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