The Colored Jockey: Isaac Murphy’s 19th Century Cards are Few and Far Between
There are all kinds of subjects found in the 19th century champions sets of Allen & Ginter, Kimball, and Goodwin. And while the baseball players are typically the most valuable, subjects in other sports are also quite desirable. Tucked away in the N162 Goodwin and N184 Kimball sets, for example, are cards of Isaac Murphy.
Murphy was a famous American jockey. Not only that, but he stood out as an African American at a time when slavery had only just been abolished less than 25 years ago.
But even beyond Murphy’s color, he stood out because he was good. Really good. Some even regard him as the greatest jockey of all time. He won, by some accounts, as little as 530 races to as many as more than 600. That included winning three Kentucky Derby races (1884, 1890, and 1891). Given the dating of the N162 and N184 sets (believed to be 1887 and 1888), it is unlikely that those races were the reason he appeared in the sets. Rather, Murphy simply won a ton of races and that certainly qualified him for inclusion in those historic 19th century tobacco sets.
Those sets do not necessarily include any cards that are believed to be true shortprints. But Murphy’s seem abundantly difficult to find.
There have been many theories over the years. Perhaps Goodwin or Kimball did print less of his cards because they would not be as popular as those of white athletes. Or perhaps whites discarded his cards to a greater degree. Maybe, even, they are being hoarded. But whatever the reason, finding Murphy cards seems downright impossible at times.
I recently found an N184 Kimball card (left) of Murphy on eBay and cannot tell you when I’d seen another from that rare set for sale. The Kimball Champions cards are the rarest of the four issues (N28, N29, N162, and N184) and Murphy’s card is a tough find there. I had seen one of his N162 Goodwin cards on eBay but that was months ago. Most of the time, you will not find either card there and they rarely pop up for sale.
The population reports are generally pretty reliable but looking at Murphy’s cards there can be deceiving. For example, to date, PSA has graded 11 of Murphy’s N184 Kimball cards. That number is on par with most of the other commons in the set. But Murphy is not a common — his card is valued as if he was a star. And we know that star cards are typically graded more frequently because they are worth more. If you compare his cards with those, you see the rarity start to show itself a bit. The baseball cards, for example, have all collectively been graded a little more than 20 times each on average — about twice as much as Murphy’s cards.
To be fair, the baseball cards are typically worth more than Murphy. But compare Murphy’s cards with those of some of the more popular subjects from other sports and you still see the rarity show. For example, Murphy’s cards have been graded less than those of boxer John Sullivan, boxer Jack Dempsey, and sharpshooter Annie Oakley — the other keys to the set. In other words, compared to the other valuable cards in the set, Murphy’s is assuredly quite difficult.
We see a similar story with Murphy’s other primary card — his N162 Goodwin Champions card (right).
Even forgetting the popular baseball cards or the Beecher football card, which are the keys (with the baseball cards graded at about 50 times each), the rarity of Murphy’s card is seen if you compare Murphy’s card to some of the other valuable cards.
Murphy’s N162 card has been graded a total of 18 times by PSA to date. That is, like the N184 card, on pace with other commons in the set. But if you compare it to the more valuable cards, of which Murphy’s is, the rarity shows. Some of the other keys in the set that are frequently graded are for Wild West legend Buffalo Bill, boxer Jack Dempsey, and boxer John Sullivan — and Murphy’s has been graded fewer than all of those. Murphy’s is certainly not the only rare card in that set. In particular, the cards of three chess players are seemingly just as difficult to find. But make no mistake about it — it is a tough find.
Finally, if you don’t like the pop report angle, don’t take my word for it — look around. Collectors have looked high and low for Murphy’s cards and repeatedly come up empty. That is perhaps the best proof of its rarity.
The rarity has driven the prices for Murphy’s cards up. Even low-grade examples of both cards typically start around $75-$100. That is nothing to sneeze at though, I would argue that, the toughness in finding them combined with Murphy as a rare, elite 19th century African American athlete could drive them higher in the future. Few know of Murphy’s fame and given that he has so few period cards, they are understandably important from a historical perspective.