Max Schmeling and the Rise of German Cigarette Cards Created a Perfect Storm

The height of the former boxing champion’s popularity coincided with the rise of tobacco cards in Germany

Around the world, Max Schmeling was already viewed as one of the top heavyweight fighters of his era. But in Germany, his popularity took on even greater heights.

For a time, and because of the vast popularity of boxing, Schmeling was to Germany what Babe Ruth was to America. That culminated with a 1930 victory over Jack Sharkey to become the world heavyweight champion. Schmeling, who had dominated Europe, won a slew of championships before appearing on the U.S. scene, appearing in fights in Madison Square Garden and even Yankee Stadium.

Schmeling wouldn’t hold the title very long. After a successful defense against Young Stribling in 1931, he’d lose to Sharkey the following year in a rematch.

But to Germany, Schmeling was still a beloved figure. He still remained a force in the sport with many more victories, including one against Hall of Famer Joe Louis in 1935 before mostly retiring in 1939 and eventually serving in World War II (he made a brief comeback in 1947-48).

And in the 1930s when German cigarette cards were being produced in heavy quantities, Schmeling was front and center.

The 1930s were an interesting time for cigarette cards. While those sorts of cards were out of style in America by that point, they were at their height of popularity in Europe.

Cigarette cards were certainly printed earlier in Europe. As was the case in the U.S., some dated back to the 19th century. But the 1920s and 1930s were when production really was in full swing overseas.

German cigarette cards, in particular, were pushed heavily in the 1930s. Those cards sought to promote Germany as a world power and the use of sports and entertainment was evident. Many sets in Germany centered around the 1936 Olympics, which were hosted by Berlin. But the country also produced a gaggle of sets related to actors and actresses, as well as other athletes. It is difficult to quantify how many of these sorts of cards were printed. However, given the quantities that still exist today, we know there could have been no shortage of them.

Many of the German-issued cards were intended to be pasted into books. Today, you’ll still find some of these books in circulation — sometimes with all or many of the cards present. But a great many of the ‘unpasted’ cards still exist, too. Large quantities are one reason that many of these cards are affordable. The cards, too, are often in very good condition. That is because cigarette card collecting overseas was more of an adult interest. Collectors took better care of their cards while, in the U.S., card collecting often an interest of children (hence, the emergence of gum and candy cards here in the U.S.).

Schmeling’s popularity coupled with the many German cigarette cards being printed created a perfect storm of sorts. Very quickly, Schmeling found his image on countless trading cards.

Max Schmeling’s rise in boxing quickly made him into a key subject in many of these sets. That we find Max depicted as a boxer is hardly a surprise, of course. He is featured in boxing gear in countless sets.

But what I am surprised by, too, are the number of sets that picture Max ‘out of character,’ so to speak. Those really give us a glimpse into just how popular Schmeling was in Germany.

Schmeling is pictured in plain clothes in many sets. The reason for that could not have been a lack of boxing images. Schmeling had already appeared in roughly 50 fights before 1930, after all. Part of the reason for Schmeling’s plain clothes appearances, if I had to guess, were more of an effort to depict Schmeling as more than a boxer. He was a representative of Germany and not simply an athlete.

Another reason for the many plain clothes appearances of Schmeling? Many of those cards were in sets of actors and actresses. He was married to a famous actress named Anny Ondra.

Schmeling is pictured on several cards (like this 1930s Garbaty Cigarettes card) alongside his famous wife where he naturally would have been in non-boxing gear. The pair married in 1933 and Ondra, herself, is featured on many cigarette cards individually. Even though she was Czechoslovakian, the majority of her films after the silent film era were German ones. Schmeling even appeared as an actor in a few films himself. The majority of his appearance in actor and actress card sets, however, were alongside his wife, who starred in about 70 films.

Schmeling pictured alongside his wife was a way to kill two birds with one stone. Ondra was a legitimately well-known actress and Schmeling was the most famous athlete in the country. Even beyond that pairing, German cigarette card makers were so anxious to get Schmeling into other sets that they figured any poses would do.

One famous card is from the 1932 Bulgaria Sport set that pictures Schemling eating dinner with his mother. Another one, shown here, is from the 1932 Monopol Cigarettes set. This one features Schmeling participating in ping pong. Anything with Schmeling was worth showing because of how utterly popular he was.

Because many of Schmeling’s cards came in the popular German cigarette card era, a lot of them were in overproduced sets. That, more than anything, has probably helped keep their values down, even as everything else seemingly has increased.

Some of Schmeling’s 1930s cards, depending on the set, start as little as $10 or so. On occasion, you might even find some slightly lower. But even the majority of his cards don’t exceed $20-$30. Some cards, such as rarer issues, or his 1926 Greiling cards, commonly cited as his rookies, certainly exceed that. But most of Schmeling’s cards are quite affordable.

Arguably, the most famous of Schmeling cards, though, is another one that is a bit pricier.

Schemling appears on one card alongside the legendary Babe Ruth in the 1932 Bulgaria Sport set (the same one that included a picture of Schmeling with his mother).

I’ve written about this card in the past and it’s one that has always been popular.

Schmeling is pictured, in plain clothes, alongside Ruth, who is in full baseball uniform. The reason for the mix in clothing is because Schmeling is shown with Ruth at an actual game. If you look closely, you can see other Yankee players in the dugout behind them.

The card likely never would have been created had Schmeling not been in town for a fight in Cleveland in 1931. He appeared there to fight Young Stribling as world champion while Ruth’s Yankees were in town playing the Cleveland Indians. It’s a fascinating card that shows the two kings of their sport at the time.

For years, the card was sorely underpriced. You could routinely find modest examples for $100 or even less. But today, it’s grown in value significantly and usually starts around $300 in lesser condition.

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