Sophomore Slump: Cutbacks were Common in Second Years of Popular Card Series’

Follow-up sports card series’ were often not printed with the same intensity as the inaugural sets

While many sports card sets disappeared after a single year of production, others returned year after year (or in the case of Zee-nut cards, year after year after year after … you get the idea).

But there’s a pretty interesting trend if you look at the second year of issue for some of the most popular sets.

Often, those sets were printed in far fewer quantities.

We don’t typically know the exact print run of sets. Sometimes we get lucky and that information is spoon-fed to us. But most of the time, we’re sort of left to make some creative assumptions based on population reports by grading companies, since those at least tell us how often a certain card is graded.

The trend started all the way back at the time of some of the earliest sets with the N28 and N29 Allen & Ginter Champions sets. The N28 set is believed to have been issued in 1888 with N29 coming a year later. But the N29 set must not have been nearly as popular as the first release since pop reports suggest that those cards were printed in much fewer quantities.

Sure, part of that could have been because all of the big names from the first series in 1888 (i.e. Cap Anson, King Kelly, John Sullivan, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, and others) were not repeated in the 1889 set. But it also could have been because Allen & Ginter was simply printing other types of cards and needed to focus efforts on different sets. Allen & Ginter, of course, was quite busy printing numerous sets. The American Card Catalog has listed nearly 70 cataloged sets from that company.

For whatever reason, production must have been lower. PSA has graded more than 5,000 of the 1888 N28 cards but not even 1,500 of the 1889 N29s.

The next big releases of consecutive years of baseball cards came around 1910. The landmark T206 set began production in 1909 and with printings continuing through 1911. We know that was one of the most produced sets of all time. You don’t even need to see the population reports on those. A cursory glance at eBay where you can practically buy a 520-card set at any time will show you the cards are somewhat plentiful by pre-war standards.

But just in case you want hard evidence, more than a quarter of a million T206 cards have been graded by PSA alone. Compare that to the T205 cards issued soon after and you get a much different story. To date, not even 50,000 of those cards have been graded.

Part of that, surely, is because of the size differences between the two sets. While only a little more than 200 T205 cards were printed, the T206 set contains a massive 524 cards. Still, that alone doesn’t count for the size disparity. After all, there are more than five times the amount of graded T206s than T205s.

That, too, could have been the result of the American Tobacco Company spreading its wings in printing many more sets. The company issued all sorts of sets, sports and non-sports, in the same time period.

It wasn’t just tobacco cards with this issue. The only two Philadelphia Caramel cards have this same pattern.

The 1909 E95 set is among the most popular early caramel sets out there. It doesn’t have the massive checklist seen in the E90-1 American Caramel release, but is heavily sought after because of its big names, including Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and more.

But since the company didn’t repeat the players used, their E96 set in 1910 didn’t have anywhere near the big names that the E95 release did. That’s important because, obviously, cards of star players tend to be graded more than frequently.

PSA has graded more than 2,200 E95 cards but has slabbed less than half that in the E96 set issued a year later — despite the fact that the E96 set includes more cards (30 to 25 found in E95). The inclination is to suggest that is surely related to the bigger names found in E95. But all you have to do is compare the graded copies of common cards to see the rarity in E96. PSA has graded only about 20-30 cards of most commons in the E96 set but has graded more than double that for many E95 commons.

With all due respect to the Cracker Jack cards, the next truly landmark set after T205/T206 was arguably the 1933 Goudey set. Those cards were extremely popular and printed in large quantities, too. But if you trust the population reports, Goudey really cut back in 1934 — both in terms of number of overall cards and in terms of how many were printed. Nearly 100,000 cards have been graded by PSA from the 1933 set but the follow-up 1934 issue has only about 1/4 that many slabbed cards.

The population reports are a bit deceiving in terms of the Goudeys, to be fair. For one, the 1933 set (240 cards) is considerably larger than the 1934 release (96 cards). For another, the 1934 set doesn’t have as much star power as the initial 1933 offering. The Babe Ruth cards are a factor. There have been about 5,000 of those graded in the 1933 set. That set has a total of four Ruths and Ruth did not appear in the 1934 set. Still, the 1934 cards do appear to be rarer.

A final example is seen in the Play Ball sets. When Play Ball baseball cards first hit the street, they had to be popular. That’s because, at the time, they were one of the few comprehensive sets being issued in 1939. The set included 161 cards, highlighted by the rookie card of Ted Williams.

The cards were so popular that Play Ball upped the checklist to a significantly larger 240 cards the following year. But just because more cards were in the set doesn’t mean that the distributor, Gum, Inc., was in a hurry to dramatically up production. PSA’s population reports show about the same number of cards graded among the two sets. But given the 1940 set’s much larger checklist, that almost certainly means there were fewer of those cards printed overall. After all, if the checklist is bigger and the same amount of cards were printed, the population report would show a significantly larger quantity of 1940 graded cards.

Now, not all sophomore issues followed this pattern. There are instances where production went into overdrive in the next season. A good many of them, actually.

One of those instances is seen in the popular minor league Obak cards, where many more 1910 cards are in circulation than the inaugural 1909 release. 1914 Cracker Jack cards, too, are rarer than their 1915 counterparts. But it is notable that, for whatever reason, some of the most popular pre-war sets of all time suddenly saw a sharp decline in the number of cards printed the following year.

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