Springtime, Sunshine, Flowers and BASEBALL!

Part 1: The Early Days of the Baseball Card

By Bob Walden

It’s been a long winter. Now spring has sprung. The seasonal change! And with this change comes the change in sports. Baseball is here! And being an older person, my thoughts go to the past and my younger day’s hobby, shared by so many others, collecting baseball cards and baseball photos.

Let’s begin with a little baseball history. The history of baseball goes well back before the 19th century. Yes, there was baseball before Babe Ruth! Baseball was not loved by all initially. In 1791 the local government in Pittsfield, Massachusetts created an ordinance prohibiting the playing of baseball within 80 yards of the town hall meeting house. Many towns outlawed playing baseball on Sundays. Some people considered it the "Devil's" game. Only lazy, shiftless people had time for games!


Most think of baseball being an original American game. However, in 1744 a book called "A Little Pretty Pocket-Book" was published. It shows an illustration of children playing an English game called “Rounders” which is referred to as “Base-Ball." Some also consider "Cricket" an early form of baseball; however, there are fewer similarities between cricket and baseball compared to rounders.

Notice the pillars representing bases. The sentence "And then Home with Joy" after the ball has been "Struck."   

A Little Pretty Pocket-Book” published in 1744

Abner Doubleday was the "Father of Baseball." Uh, no his was not. This was a long-standing myth. Abner Doubleday came from a military background. He was a career United States Army Officer. A West Point graduate, Doubleday went on to become second in command of the garrison at Fort Sumter at the beginning of the Civil War and fired the first responding cannon to the Confederate army’s attack on Fort Sumter. While Doubleday was a military hero, he had nothing to do with baseball. Abner Doubleday’s only connection to baseball fame was the fact that he had at one time lived in Cooperstown, NY where the Baseball Hall of Fame is located. In fact, someone writing his obituary wrote of his dislike of outdoor sports.

Abner Doubleday 1819-1893

 It was all a scheme by a group of men led by Albert Goodwill Spalding. Albert Spalding was a well-known and respected baseball player and baseball pioneer. After a very successful career in baseball, he went on to become a major manufacturer of sporting equipment. He formed a group of men in 1905 to study the origins of baseball. Sadly this group did a poor and pretty much undocumented job of research. 

Albert Goodwill Spalding 1850-1915

The groups only source of information was a man named Abner Graves. Mr. Graves was (maybe) a mining engineer. In 1907 Graves supplied information to Spalding and his committee that he was boyhood playmate of Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY. Graves claimed he was present when Doubleday first outlined with a stick in the dirt the current diamond-shaped Base Ball field, including the location of the players in the field, and afterward saw him make a diagram of the field on paper, with a crude pencil, and memorandum of the rules for this new game, which he named ‘Base Ball.'.

At that time Graves would have been five years old, and Doubleday would have been twenty years old. Not likely playmates. Several other factors led to the lack of credibility of Graves claims. He was seventy-one years old at the time he wrote this; not in good health or state of mind. He married his second wife when he was seventy-five and his wife, Minnie was thirty-three. In 1924 he fatally shot his wife Minnie over her refusal to sign a bill of sale for the sale of their house. Abner Graves was committed to the state asylum for the criminally insane and died there in 1926. A weird and interesting man but a qualified source for information? I don’t think so!      


Abner Graves 1834-1926

Early baseball was a game played by amateurs. Neighborhood kids would get together on warm spring and summer days to play baseball. Farmers and factory workers, after a long and hard work week, would enjoy a spirited game of baseball to relieve their stress. Even schools encouraged baseball at recess, hoping the boys would come in more prepared to concentrate and study after all that exercise.

Boys playing sandlot baseball

How long could such a wonderful way for people to enjoy themselves playing baseball exist before someone saw a way to monetize it?

The Japanese Love Baseball Too!

Baseball cards were one way to draw fans of the game of baseball to a company's products. The early baseball cards were actual photos, with some exceptions. Some cards were illustrations rather than photos. For instance, Japan started issuing baseball cards, but they were only using illustrations of their players.

Early Menko Japanese baseball card

The first organized baseball team in Japan was the Shinbashi Athletic Club’s “Super Blurry” team. Yes, that was their name! Weird!

The Shinbashi Athletic Club’s Super Blurry team

The team was organized by Hiroshi Hiraoka who was a Japanese student in America studying railroad engineering. Hiraoka also became a big Boston Red Sox fan while studying here. When he returned to Japan in 1878, he organized the first baseball team in Japan and started Japan's love of baseball.

Before Baseball Cards Were Baseball cards.

The original baseball photos or baseball cards were a combination of actual images or illustrations. At the same time as baseball was in its earliest stages of developing, photography was starting to become popular. Previous methods of photography did not allow for multiple copies of photos. Thus the use of illustrations or art prints was the cheapest and best method used.

Ty Cobb illustration baseball card

The true early photo baseball card was a thin photo print; usually, an albumen print (a paper print with an egg white emulsion) mounted on a cardboard backing to keep it ridged.

Some baseball cards were made to fit the earlier and smaller format cdv’s (carte de visite). However, these are rare as the cdv’s had a short life. Invented in Paris, they didn't become popular in America until the early, and by the early 1870s, the carte de visite’s had been pretty much replaced by the larger cabinet cards.
Early carte de visite (cdv) of the Cincinnati Red Stockings

The larger cabinet cards standard size was 6.5 inches by 4.25 inches although sizes varied widely. Early cards were not mass produced and were mainly hand cut. The cabinet card baseball cards we still albumen photo prints glued to a larger cardboard backing.

Early albumen baseball cabinet card

A little bit of technical stuff.

The early albumen prints were thin prints and required a cardboard backing — the albumen prints needed to be exposed to light. Collodion printing papers were introduced in the 1880s. Collodion papers were a step up from the albumen papers. They still were thin and required a cardboard backing, but unlike the albumen prints, they didn’t tend to yellow as rapidly. Collodion prints were called POP (printing out papers) because they required being exposed to light and no chemicals were needed for development.

In the 1880’s silver gelatin papers were introduced. These papers were known as DOP’s (develop out papers), and the prints were made by exposure to chemicals rather than light. These papers were thicker and didn't require a cardboard backing. The silver gelatin papers were used until the photographic papers were made with a resin coating called RC papers. Some of my previous articles have discussed the reasons for and advantages of photographic papers.

Early Old Judge Cigarette Company albumen print

It would have been impossible to mass produce baseball cards using any of the early photographic processes. Lithography was the process used for mass production. First was the handmade chromolithographs made by hand on a printing plate. By the late 1890s, halftone lithography was being used and is easily recognizable but its dot patterns.

Back to the history of baseball cards!

There is much debate over whether the early cabinet cards and photos were really baseball cards. Basically, there are three categories of baseball cards/photos, IMO. The first category was the cardboard mounted photos of individuals and teams mostly representing local people involved in the baseball past time — those included team photos representing local businesses, much like our current Little League and Pony leagues. Players were most likely not paid. (Well, maybe a ringer once in a while).

Local early baseball team with a mascot
Organized local business team

The early photos, because of the photographic processes were very thin and needed to be mounted on a cardboard backing.

I also include in this category a group called the "Barnstormers." Credit is usually giving to the aviation industry and early pilots of the 1920s for the term "Barnstorming." My uncle was an early aviation barnstormer. We have photos of him standing and walking on the wings of early biplanes.  However, Hall of Fame records shows baseball players barnstorming in the 1860s. This was a way for players and teams to make money. Teams would form and go to nearby towns and cities and challenge local teams. 

Leagues of Their Own

Barnstormers were made up of amateurs but in later years would be matched up with professional baseball teams to draw an audience. And the barnstormers came in all shapes and sizes. Even women barnstorming teams were a big thing. Women's teams have been formed since the 1860s. The early women's teams were known as the "Bloomer Girls."

Bloomer Girls baseball team 1880s
New York Giants woman’s team 1900’s

Religion was represented by barnstorming baseball teams. The House of David colony was started in 1903 in Michigan. It was a Jewish religious group that stressed a good clean life, and one thing they encouraged was playing baseball for good, healthy exercise. In 1913 they started playing baseball against neighboring towns and cities. The team toured the rural communities from the early 1920s through the 1950s playing local teams and semi-pro teams.

House of David barnstorming baseball team 1915

One of my favorite barnstorming teams was the Fat Man’s Amusement Company team from Waterloo Iowa. They went on tour of the country in 1910. The team’s catcher, known as “Baby Bliss” was said to weigh 650 pounds; doubtful, but he was big! The Fat Man’s team on tour played against other semi-pro teams, and teams made up of tall people and short people (little people).

Fat Man’s Amusement Company’s team 1910

No history of baseball cards/photos would be complete without talking about the role played by the Negro Baseball League. Baseball was the National pastime and meant to be played by all. However many of the greatest players were not recognized because of the color of their skin. These men were also part of the barnstorming groups.

In 1890, an organization named the International League banned black and other colored players from playing any teams in their organization. That left the black players very few choices to play as professionals. One option was to continue barnstorming; the other option was to form their own Negro leagues. The Chicago American Giants was a Negro team owned by Andrew “Rube” Foster. In 1920 he formed the National Negro League.

Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants 1920

Forming their own leagues offered more opportunities, but segregation and racist professional league owner's still limited advancement. The players in the Negro leagues never lacked for talent. Satchel Paige, Josh White, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd (Babe Ruth said Lloyd was his choice as the greatest player of all time) and Ray Dandridge. So many great baseball players and well worth Google searches on their careers and lives.  

Gradually the players from the Negro leagues moved to the more established leagues. Many future great players who started as barnstormer’s future such as Willie Mays, Hank Arron, and Satchel Page moved to the Major leagues. The Negro leagues finally vanished in the 1950s. 

A quick quiz. Who was the first black baseball player to play in the Major League?

Simple, isn't it? But don't jump to conclusions. It was NOT Jackie Robinson. It was Moses Fleetwood Walker. Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. Sadly injuries and racial bias ended a promising career. Walker was a highly educated man and a strong player. Again, a Google search makes for interesting reading.

Moses Fleetwood Walker 1856-1924

Note: Some may give credit to William Edward White as the first black professional ball player. However White only played one game as a professional, and he passed himself off as Caucasian.

Most of the photos I have posted in this first group are albumen or silver gelatin prints. These photos may not be considered true baseball cards.  They were used as local advertisements or promotions of events.

Cigarettes and Bubblegum

What I consider the second group of baseball cards/photos, were used as premiums to help sell products. The baseball cards used to sell products had to be mass produced, so a mechanical printing process printed them. These cards would be inserted in packs of cigarettes and candy to attract interest and also to provide stiffness to protect the product. In 1869 Peck and Snyder, a New York sporting goods company issued what is considered the first commercial baseball card.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings 1869

The card featured the Cincinnati Red Stockings team on the front, and the back had an advertising message for the sporting goods company.

Other companies followed; seeing the baseball cards as a great marketing promotion the cigarette companies saw the value almost immediately. Early baseball cards were usually released in sets. Selling in sets encouraged people to buy more and often.

In 1887 the Allen & Ginter's Cigarette Company introduced their beautiful lithographic artwork on the front and their ad on the back.  

Allen & Ginters lithographic baseball card 1887

Another of the early cigarette companies was Goodwin Cigarette Company with their “Old Judge” brand.

Old Judge baseball card front and back
Old Judge lithographic cards 1887

The cigarette cards were a great success. A large part of the baseball fans were children. Tobacco baseball cards could hardly be aimed at that market. Along came the candy makers! One of the first was the American Carmel Company. The candy companies use the same marketing techniques as the tobacco industry, making the baseball cards available in sets.

American Caramel Company: Front & Back

In 1919 Enos Gordon Goudey started the Goudey Gum Company. In 1933 Goudey’s gum company became the first to offer a stick of gum in each package of baseballcards.

Enos Gordon Goudey 1863-1946
The highly prized Babe Ruth Goudey Gum card

Well, that's it for part 1! Stay tuned for next month's installment when we dice into classic baseball cards from the 40's and 50's

- Bob