Obscure Card of the Month: John Sullivan 1882 E.B. Duval Rookie Card

A rare boxing rookie card checks in as this month’s obscurity

Trade cards dating back to the 19th century are generally viewed as the earliest types of sports cards. These cards often depicted unknown subjects but a select few pictured actual athletes.

One such card is found in an 1882 set known as the E.B. Duval cards. This set featured cartoon images of subjects and was primarily a non-sports set. Unlike many trade cards, we can effectively pinpoint the date on this one as the cards bear an 1882 copyright. They are known as the E.B. Duval cards as that is the name of the printer or artist printed on them.

While most of the cards in the set go overlooked, one does not — a card of legendary boxer John L. Sullivan. The card has always held some notoriety to collectors but it’s become one that has grown incredibly popular in recent years as it is held as the rookie card of Sullivan.

Most early Sullivan cards did not come until the latter part of the 1880s or the early 1890s with his appearance on numerous tobacco issues. However, this one seemingly predates those by several years and was printed in the earlier part of Sullivan’s Hall of Fame career, which began in 1879.

Now, if you’re looking for a favorable image of Sullivan, this card doesn’t provide that, unfortunately. Here, Sullivan is shown mangling another opponent and about to strike. His full name doesn’t appear on the card and I don’t know if any collectors have seriously contended the image is not his own. But the ‘Sullivan’ moniker at the top is enough for most boxing collectors to recognize this as the legendary fighter, even without the proper aesthetics appeal.

How did Sullivan end up in this set of otherwise non-sports subjects? That answer likely lies in the 1882 date. In February 1882, Sullivan defeated Paddy Ryan to become the bare knuckle champion of the world — a title held by Ryan who won the title in 1880. We don’t know if the opponent pictured here is intended to depict Ryan. But, if nothing else, Sullivan’s rise to fame really got its start that year by winning the championship and that would have been a credible reason to feature him.

Depending on where you come out on cabinets, Sullivan has another potential rookie issue, as outlined in this article by noted boxing collector, Adam Warshaw — an 1882 cabinet card.

To the card’s value, it is a bit difficult to place. Not too long ago, it could be bought for around $100. But the current rookie card craze has meant this one has seen an increase, too, with $200, a more likely starting point for lower-end cards. And an increase over even that figure seems possible, if not likely.

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