Baseball cards started as an afterthought. First in the 1860’s by Peck and Snyder, a New York based sports company who used the Cincinnati Red Stockings team photo, still just a “baseball club” as a marketing gimmick for an equipment company. It wasn’t exactly world changing but that didn’t stop companies from trying. People back then smoked - a lot - and the next marketing ploy would hit differently. If you’re a fan you already know this and the name N167 doesn’t sound like the next flight departing for Delta out of La Guardia or Space-X rocket launch out of Cape Canaveral.
To the baseball historian and more importantly the card collector this combination in letter and numbers represents the first “set” of baseball cards released in 1886 by the Goodwin Tobacco company. This would be referred to as the “Tobacco Card Era” where pictures of players were used to both keep cigarettes from breaking AND market their tobacco sticks to adult males. Also known as “the Old Judge Set” these cards were only made for one team, the New York Giants. Save your Bill Parcells jokes because these New York Giants played baseball and the reason they became the poster child of the generations spanning the next 134 years is simple. Location, location, location. Based in New York, Judge Cigarettes got lucky and little did they know at the time they would span generations of fathers, sons, fans and collectors. Now tobacco may have been the jump off for what would become today’s baseball card, but it wasn’t the only item. In 1930, Fleer (the creators of Double Bubble gum) started packaging cards with gum and selling them together. In 1951, Topps came onto the scene and introduced the first baseball cards sold with taffy. The taffy was soft and absorbent and created an issue by absorbing the varnish off the baseball cards and leaving an awful taste. That only lasted a year as well - before they switched to the hard, dry and virtually indestructible substance we all came to know and love as children. Like a flavorless piece of pink chalk, we not only ate this without long term health effects, we sought it out. Gum has come and gone throughout the years with a mix of nostalgic complainers who desire the tasteless wonder and serious collectors who hated it and the damage they claimed it did to the cards. Tobacco and gum would be the 1A and 1B of vehicles used to drive what we know today as baseball cards, but you know this, so let’s look at some of the more unique ones- cookies and marbles.
People always said Mother’s Cookies tasted like cardboard
Mother’s Cookies. No, not my mother’s and not yours either. Focus. We are talking about baseball cards here. The Mother’s Cookie Company sold baked goods west of the Rockies from 1914 to 2008. This west coast-based treat factory dipped their toes into the baseball card game in the early 1950’s and stayed relevant for decades. Since they owned this side of the map it made sense for them to partner with the Pacific Coast League when they first rolled out the idea. Simple stuff too; buy a pack of cookies and get a card. These cards weren’t far off from something you would see later in the 70’s and 80’s with a color photo, team representation, replica signature (depending on the year) and action shot. The back was similar with a stat section and usually some type of advertisement, like a trading card album you could for the extremely reasonable price of $0.25 and 2 “Mother’s Cookie” labels. Now here’s where it gets interesting. The baking giant didn’t stay in the card racket for long. With the original set introduced in 1952 and a follow up set in 1953 you would think they were onto something years before anyone else would market cards to a younger generation. Future Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Joe Gordon debuted in the original release. Mother’s Cookies came in and out of the card game after finally releasing a third set in 1984, a mind-blowing 31 years after the original two. This set included some real heavy weights such as Goose Gossage, Tony Gwynn and Nolan Ryan and was available as single cards but only featuring four teams (Astros, Athletics, Giants and Padres).
This trend would continue three years later when the 1987 set came out featuring more single player cards from west coast teams. Good luck finding your favorite Yankee in these sets- they didn’t exist, but several future Bombers could be scooped up over the years. This is how Mother’s Cookies would continue to dip its toe in and out of the card game more often than a Brett Favre retirement decision until finally folding for good in 1998 with the final set. This last and underappreciated collection was jammed packed with All-Stars, World Series Champions and Hall of Famers such as Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Ricky Henderson, Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman. I wonder if they consistently produced cards they could have become a big player in the hobby or partnered with one of the bigger card companies down the road, but I guess we’ll never know. In all the decades they produced baseball cards only four errors were ever found.
*Insert “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” joke here.*
Finally, my favorite of the selling vehicles - and most interesting in my opinion- the baseball and marble marriage. The year was 1960 and Leaf Baseball was about to make its re-entry into the world of sports cards. After failing to capture the hearts and minds of collectors 11 years earlier Leaf decided a new approach was needed to carve out a niche: marbles. By 1960 Topps already cornered the gum market and since tobacco wasn’t exactly the best marketing tool for children, Leaf would include cards in their packs of marbles. This 144-card set was available for one year and only printed in black and white; a bold strategy given color printing was the norm at this point. If this wasn’t alienating enough, Leaf also decided to print the 1949 set smaller than traditional baseball cards at the time - and square- so when the 1960 run was introduced and looked more like today’s cards people took notice. This new set also featured some of the coolest card backs ever seen. Devoid of the advertisements, the Leaf set featured team/player information, stats and a cool player biography unique to the time period and resetting the back of cards moving forward. Funny, with all this new and amazing information on a single piece of cardboard they forgot to print their own name.
Now you’re probably expecting some kind of awesome marbles story here, but don’t get your hopes up. The 1960 Leaf Card company did use marbles to sell baseball cards, but there was nothing unique about them- they were Plain Jane, mass produced and never coveted… marbles. The next attempt I found where marbles were the driver was in 1968. Creative Creations released a set of decorative marbles with players such as Pete Rose, Willie Mays and Johnny Bench. Sold in packs of 20, these plastic collectibles featured a player face on the front and replica signature on the back. These are pretty rare nowadays but can still be found on eBay, yet not as rare as the check lists that most kids threw out with the packaging. We would have to wait all the way to 1997 when Topps released the “Pro Shooters Marbles” sets to give us something consumers would actually want to collect, although most kids just played with them. On one side of these plastic children’s toys featured a player’s face. Flip it over and you would find their name, team logo and set number. A set of 60 was created and released as a test in Canada, although it is believed to have selectively reached a small portion of the United States. They were sold in packs of two, for a total of 60 and featured all the stars from Bonds, Canseco and Jeter to the coolest juniors of our era, Ken Griffey and Cal Ripken. Another one hit wonder that faded faster than Harold Miner’s “Baby Jordan” comparisons.
So once again, what started with a single card ended in a never-ending trip down discovery lane. Baseball and more importantly, baseball history will do that to a person. There is so much more unique and obscure baseball related content lost in the world than remains. My intention is to find the weirdest, most unique and often forgotten of them all. Sure, I’m #thefoodguy and everyone wants me to write about hot dogs - and I will - but only when that’s the road traveled. Today we found our marbles while just hoping to bake your day a little better with stories about cookies, gum and tobacco. We gave the collectors something else to go out and collect. We didn’t cook, but we made you hungry for baseball. We told you a story you didn’t know you wanted to hear and with that I leave you hungry for more.
Stay tuned and stay hungry.