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Breaking the Barrier
1:28 | MLB
Breaking the Barrier
Harry Swartout
Friday May 27th, 2016

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Everybody remembers opening their first pack of baseball cards, but when cards were first introduced they would have come in a very different type of pack. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, baseball cards came in packs of cigarettes. Used for advertising and as a way to protect the product from being crushed, cards were an evolution of the slips of cardboard fit in-between rows of pre-packaged cigarettes. The portraits and illustrations of baseball players on the front of the card were often accompanied with promotion for the tobacco company and were much smaller than today’s large glossy cards, often coming it at just 1 1/8” by 2 5/8”.

At the turn of the century, many of the tobacco ads moved to the backs of the cards, allowing more room for the all-important player portrait on the front. From 1909 to '11, packs of American Tobacco cigarettes included what would become the most sought-after baseball card ever made, one featuring Pittsburgh Pirates legend Honus Wagner. The card was pulled from production at the request of Wagner, arguably the greatest shortstop ever and one of the most respected players of the dead-ball era. Some believe that Wagner didn’t want his card prompting children to buy cigarettes, but it's also possible that Wagner didn’t want American Tobacco making money off his likeness without getting a cut for himself. More than a century later, the rarity of the card, combined with Wagner’s popularity, provided collectors with a holy grail of collecting and a reminder of a time when America’s pastime and tobacco were inextricably linked. One sold in 2007 for $2.8 million, and there are fewer than 60 known to be in existence.

As baseball and baseball cards grew in popularity, so too did photography. While early cards were often lithographed illustrations, the progress of photographic technology allowed picture portraits to become increasingly common. Early photography required finely controlled settings, so game action pictures were out of the question. Posed photos or team portraits (often shot in a studio) were used to showcase the medium.

In the 1930s, baseball cards experienced a renaissance. Sluggers like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx had brought new excitement to the game with their home-run-hitting prowess. To capitalize on children’s voracious appetites for all things baseball, bubblegum and candy companies began packaging their products with new brightly-colored baseball cards, and innovated on their design as well. The Goudey Gum Company began printing biographies on the backs of the cards in 1933 and soon other candy companies would follow suit. 

Babe Ruth (left) and Mickey Mantle
Getty Images (Ruth); Courtesy of Topps (Mantle)

With the integration of baseball in 1947, cards of black baseball stars were printed along with those of their white counterparts, helping make household names out of players who had previously starred in relative anonymity. Cards during this time period often included black and white photos with color added to them, producing a hand-painted look on the jerseys and backgrounds.

In the 1950s, baseball began to take hold in foreign markets as well. With Japan climbing out of the rubble of World War II and Cuba trying to build its infrastructure, baseball cards were an affordable way for foreign children to connect with their favorite players. These cards took on the shape of the cultures and companies that produced them. 

Jackie Robinson (left), Kaoru Betto
Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art (Robinson); Getty Images

Back in the US, baseball cards finally took on their more modern design when Topps added statistics to the back of their 1952 series. In later runs, Topps was also the first to add team logos and facsimile signatures to its cards. The flip sides improved too, with Bowman’s 1953 line of cards, which were the first to feature color photos. Better cameras and faster film speeds meant players could choose more dynamic poses for their photos, in addition to the still portraits.

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In the 1970s, cards finally began showing in-game action. Not only did those pictures improve the look and quality of the cards, it also began allowing the cards to retell the narrative of an event that collectors could actually see.

Ken Griffey Jr.
Courtesy of Topps

The next 20 years saw little change to a winning formula. Picture quality improved and printing techniques made cards more uniform, but the next big step didn't come until 1992. Collectors had long complained that the gum and wax from the packaging stained and damaged the cards, so Topps began selling baseball cards without gum in plastic wrappers. These improvements led to a golden age of card collecting in the 1990s, with card shows, a budding Internet and an economic boom creating a huge market for baseball cards.

Bartolo Colon
Courtesy of Topps

In the 2000s, cards went digital with computer generated graphics, digital photography and new apps. Packs can now be bought, sold, traded and discussed by people thousands of miles away through a tap of their smartphone.  The new production methods also allowed for quick design-to-printing turnaround times, leading to event based cards. Want to have a memento from Bartolo Colon’s first career home run? Topps had one available for order on May 8, just one day after Colon, the Mets' 285-pound, 42-year-old pitcher, became the oldest player ever to hit his first major league homer.

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