1916 M101-4/M101-5 Mendelsohn Sets Among Pre-War’s Most Underrated

Here are six important things that make these sets so special

When the discussion of best pre-war baseball card sets comes up, most collectors point towards tobacco sets (i.e. T205 or T206, for example), early American Caramel candy card sets, or the later 1930s gum cards made famous by Goudey and others.

But one sneaky good pair of sets that deserves recognition are the M101-4 and M101-5 sets. In fact, I think these are among the most underrated pre-war sets that were ever created.

First things first — let’s hit the basics. These sets were issued in 1916 and 200 cards are in each one. While these sets are very similar, they also have some slight differences with regards to the checklists, in particular. The frontal design is the same for each with the cards featuring real black and white images of players, a basic white border, and their name, position, team, and card number at the bottom.

So what makes these sets so special? Here are six important things to know.

1. Varied Back Advertisements

Baseball card sets with assorted backs in the pre-war era are nothing new. In the case of T206 tobacco cards, for example, collectors find an assortment of backs featuring various cigarette brands. That’s because the cards were mostly distributed inside of those various brands of cigarette packages and each one served as a bit of an advertisement for that particular type of cigarette.

This practice was seen in early candy cards and strip cards, too. In those instances, basic blank-backed sets of cards were printed and then used by local candy companies or other businesses, who then added their own printing or stamp on the back — same cards, different sponsors.

That same instance is also seen in the M101-4 and M101-5 sets.

The cards are labeled as M-Cards (cards distributed by publications, such as newspapers or magazines) but that isn’t entirely accurate. That’s because the types of businesses that distributed these cards extended beyond publications. They are most commonly called Sporting News cards because a great many of them are known with advertisements on the back for that publication. But they were also used by department stores, baking companies, and even a brewer and movie theater, so some are certainly not M-Cards.

Like T206, the backs do not all carry the same weight. Some, like Sporting News are relatively common by comparison. But most are rare (in some cases, extremely rare) and that largely affects the price. The different back advertisements are one of the great things about these sets.

So why so many backs? A photographer named Felix Mendelsohn (not the famous composer) put this set together. The ins and outs, of course, have been lost to us over time. But he had these cards printed and then took them to various businesses to try to sell them as promotional items. The businesses could them do what they wanted with them. Some sold them while others offered them as part of promotions. Others even gave them away. The cards were printed with blank backs and then the business could have their name printed or stamped onto the back as a sort of advertisement.

2. Babe Ruth Rookie Card

Every set needs a headliner and the main attraction in the M101-4 and M101-5 sets happens to be the rookie card of the most popular baseball player of all time.

Babe Ruth’s rookie card is found in both sets. Ruth’s first major league season was in 1914 with the Boston Red Sox but he wouldn’t become a full-time player until 1915. This set issued in 1916 holds what most collectors consider to be his first major league baseball card.

The Ruth rookie card, ironically, depicts him as a pitcher. Ruth, of course, was a pitcher in the beginning of his career, and was even quite good. In 1916, he led the league in starts (40) and, more impressively ERA (1.75) and shutouts (nine). But the card is interesting from a historical perspective because Ruth would reach much greater heights as a hitter, setting all sorts of records, including most famously, baseball’s career home run mark.

The Ruth cards are not only the key cards in each of these sets, but, as you would imagine, they among the most important baseball cards ever produced.

Here’s a closer look at the Ruth cards.

3. The Era

Also quite important to what is in these sets is when they was created.

The cards were issued in 1916 and that’s important from a historical context. They were distributed smack in the middle of World War I and that was critical to the hobby as there were so few sets being produced at that time.

Save for possibly the 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets, the few sets produced during the war do not hold the prestige of these sets. That they were issued when they were meant they helped keep card collecting alive during the down period of the war.

4. Incredible Rarity

One of the important parts of this set that is often overlooked is just how rare it is.

I mentioned earlier that the Sporting News-backed cards were somewhat common but that is only by comparison with the other backs in the set. Both the blank-backed cards and the Sporting News-backed cards are the easiest to find and even those are relatively tough.

How rare are the cards? As a barometer, PSA has graded fewer than 4,000 of the Sporting News and blank-backed cards in both sets. Each set has 200 cards so, on average, fewer than ten of each card have been graded by that company. What about the Ruth card? To date, only about 55 have been graded by PSA.

Calling the sets scarce is probably too big of a reach. But the cards are much tougher to find than many collectors realize.

5. Massive Checklist

A common theme in many pre-war baseball card sets is that they are quite often missing stars. Even the massive T206 set is missing some key players despite consisting of more than 500 cards. But the M101-4 and M101-5 sets had just about everyone.

Ruth’s rookie card is the biggest one in the set, obviously. But there’s plenty more to like here, too.

After Ruth, you’ve got the likes of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, and more. A couple of those guys are important contextually, because they had fewer cards than you might thing. Jackson’s career, of course, was effectively ended with his ban after the 1919 World Series scandal, but World War I coming smack dab in the middle of his career was one of a few reasons he doesn’t have very many cards. And Wagner, of course, was left out of most tobacco releases as he is famously believed to have opposed appearing on cigarette cards.

On top of those keys, the sets also included more than two dozen other Hall of Famers. And a card of all around athlete and football legend Jim Thorpe is there, too, appearing in the M101-5 set as a member of the New York Giants.

6. Chicago Black Sox

Finally, another reason these sets are worth your attention is because they contain most of the eight banned players from the 1919 Chicago White Sox team.

Cards of the ‘Black Sox’, by which they became known, remain extremely popular. Many of the players have few cards and these sets have more than half of the eight banned players.

In these sets, collectors find the aforementioned Shoeless Joe Jackson, as well as Chick Gandil, Buck Weaver, Eddie Cicotte, and Hap Felsch. Jackson is the big one, obviously, but the others command plenty of attention, too. Cards of Felsch and Cicotte are typically the most affordable and even in low-grade condition, usually exceed $200 each.

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