The Auction Insider

In January of 1960, the Long Beach Independent newspaper asked a number of music publishers to give their prognosis on the future of rock ‘n’ roll. One unnamed source boldly predicted: “It’s going out very fast. I think it’s pretty well done.” From our perch in 2019, such an opinion seems inconceivable, especially as in the early days of 1960 rock music was still very much in its infancy. Of course, no one can tell the future and hindsight is always 20/20. However, a better forecast could have been made if cultural climate and current media trends had been more carefully assessed. Another publisher, Herbert E. Marks, did just that before giving his opinion on the status of rock music: “It has changed, perhaps, and become somewhat different. It has softened, the lyrics are better, it is a little less monotonous. This changing format seems to suit the kids, as long as they get a beat. But the kids still want rock ‘n’ roll and the kids are the music buying public today.”

With preemptive apologies for possibly causing some mental whiplash, I would like to make clear that this blog is not, in fact, about rock music. The connection here is to the prudent publisher, Herbert E. Marks, who gave his comment to the Long Beach Independent nearly 60 years ago. Born in 1902, Marks graduated from Dartmouth and first worked as a reporter for Variety magazine, but by the time of his death in 1984 he was best known as the president of his family’s company, the E.B. Mark Music Corporation, and as one of the leading publishers of Latin American music in the United States. Witherell’s is pleased to have received as a consignment Marks’ personal and prolific baseball card collection. A number of Marks’ cards are available in our February Third Thursday Discovery Auction (which ends February 21st) and more baseball cards (many PSA graded) will be featured in our annual Father’s Day “Mantuary” Auction this coming May. Although it would be misleading to present rock music and baseball cards as having parallel histories, they can each trace their origins back to the Civil War era and, more importantly, like rock ‘n’ roll, baseball cards occupy a unique space in the history and culture of 20th century America.

In the late 1860s, just after the Civil War, when both baseball and photography were becoming increasingly popular in America, these new forms of art and entertainment were combined in the production of “cabinet cards” (photographic portraits about 4” x 6”) and their smaller counterparts, the carte de visite (smaller versions, the size of a calling card, about 2.5” x 4”). In the latter half of the 19th century, many American companies began to print “trade cards,” smaller and cheaper versions of the cabinet cards, which featured fun and interesting artwork on one side and advertising on the other. Trade cards were also very popular and were similarly collected, displayed and exchanged. By the mid-Victorian era, trade card advertising found its most successful form in the cigarette card – small rectangular cards, typically made out of cardboard or thick stock paper, included in cigarette packs. They simultaneously protected the delicate tobacco product and provided entertainment for the customer, all while effectively promoting the company by displaying its name and trademark. The entertainment factor came from the graphic element (illustrations or photographs) featured typically of an iconic person (beautiful women, prominent politicians, famous actors and actresses were common subjects), an interesting object (national flags and coins were popular), or sometimes exotic locations, plants or animals (often accompanied by explanatory text).

In 1868, Peck and Synder, a sporting goods company out of New York, produced what is considered to be the very first baseball card – a trade card featuring a photograph of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, one of the first famous baseball teams in America. The baseball card as we know it today was just one variation of the many different themes adapted by cigarette and trade card manufacturers. By the late 1880s, as amateur and professional baseball grew enormously popular and gained a national following in America, the audience for baseball themed trade cards grew. In turn, more businesses (tobacco companies in particular) began producing baseball cards. The combination of increased production and keen audience interest helped to establish an independent identity for baseball cards, which were understood as objects that shared characteristics with, but which were distinct from, other run-of-the-mill cigarette cards.

In 1909, the American Tobacco Company (which by that time produced about 80% of all U.S. tobacco products) released one of the most famous baseball card sets of all time, known as the T206, or the “White Border,” series. This issue, which ran from 1909 until the American Tobacco Company’s dissolution in 1911, was distributed by 16 different brands (including Sweet Caporal, Piedmont, and American Beauty) and featured some of the game’s greatest players, including Ty Cobb, Cy Young and, of course, Honus Wagner. Launched by the success of the T206 series, and propelled by the break-up of American Tobacco’s market monopoly, the period from 1909 up until World War I is often considered the “Golden Age” of baseball cards, as people of all ages began collecting and trading baseball cards and more commercial businesses, including non-tobacco companies, began to manufacture their own unique card sets. The baseball cards reflected public interest in the ups and downs of the teams and players involved in America’s “national pastime.”

With U.S. involvement in World War I, baseball card production slowed and tobacco companies in particular focused their efforts towards supporting and supplying American troops. Consequently, gum and confectionary companies increasingly took over the baseball card production. The target audience for baseball cards logically shifted from adult men to young men and boys who quickly made a popular hobby out of acquiring, collecting and trading cards. By the late 1940s, the market for baseball cards was again thriving, this time dominated almost exclusively by chewing gum companies, with Bowman leading the way and introducing the concept of the “rookie card” in 1951. The Topps Company manufactured its first set of baseball cards in 1952, bought out Bowman in 1956, and by the early 1960s the young company enjoyed a veritable monopoly in the baseball card industry for decades to come – a monopoly supported by contracts with players, which allowed them to appear exclusively in Topps-issued card sets. During the second half of the 20th century, a number of legal battles limited market domination by certain companies, revoked publishing rights from others and caused some card-issuing companies to fold. As of 2009, Topps has been the only major trading card company to enjoy a contract with Major League Baseball.

It might be hard for us to understand the sometimes frenzied public interest in baseball cards “back in the day,” or for us to recognize what the exact entertainment value of these cards was, but this is because in our modern world we are not only used to seeing images, we are seeing them constantly. What’s more, information is not doled out to us in small amounts at someone else’s discretion. We are continuously inundated by and have instant access to visual information on phones and televisions, on our computers and even during our daily drives (with advertisements and signs and billboards).

In the late 19th century, the image was still a very novel thing. At that time paintings and illustrations were understood as deeply engaging, sometime amusing, and always entertaining. The Hudson River School artist Frederick Edwin Church famously displayed his colossal landscape paintings in dramatic single artwork exhibitions in New York for which people paid a fee just to view paintings like Niagara and The Heart of the Andes for a few, heart stopping moments. Photographs, an understandably fascinating new phenomenon, must have seemed miraculous – the camera captured reality and communicated visual truth across space and time. Film, the medium of the moving image, which is now so ubiquitous, did not emerge until the very late 19th century. In 1905, the Nickelodeon in Pittsburg opened its doors as the first permanent movie theater in America; in 1910, In Old California was the first movie to ever be shot in Hollywood; and in 1927 the first feature film with synchronized sound (The Jazz Singer) was released. One hundred years ago the world of entertainment was vastly different; it is, in many ways, incomprehensible to us now. However, one thing is abundantly clear: the power of the image to capture interest and to evoke feeling, to amuse and delight, to stimulate cannot be underestimated and it is the image that is and has remained at the heart of the baseball card. Whether the player is depicted in an illustration, in a photograph, as a caricature, or even with a hologram, it is that image of the player that the customer has always been after.

The baseball card was a personal possession easily procured, stored and shared. In some ways it was a private entertainment best enjoyed by an audience of one, the individual who can closely inspect and admire the different elements and unique characteristics of the card and the player. The large quantities of baseball cards printed along with the reasonable price and the small size of the item seemingly anticipated the desires of the amateur collector who could regularly relish each new acquisition and prize every card as his.

When the primary production of baseball cards transitioned from tobacco companies to candy and gum companies, children had more access and more autonomy in purchasing baseball cards for themselves and, as a result, more influence in the market. Eventually, no longer were baseball cards being sold with gum … gum was being sold with the baseball cards! While the joy of chewing gum is short-lived, the amusement provided by the card is lasting. Baseball cards were for kids to do with as they pleased – to play with and to share with others, to organize and to examine, and, perhaps most importantly, to simply treasure for themselves.

In my last blog I described the collector as one “who shrewdly acquires, carefully catalogs, and meticulously arranges.” While we may not be shrewd, careful, or meticulous, many of us, especially as children, were collectors. I collected seashells and, for a short time, Pez dispensers. When I think of Herbert E. Marks, who may have started collecting cards at a young age, I am reminded of the many unconscious collectors – “collectors” who wanted to acquire complete teams, to obtain their favorite players, to save the cards with the intention to examine them later and to show their friends, perhaps sorting them into piles and separating out their most impressive cards.

In the 1980s, collecting baseball cards became a serious pursuit. Boys who enjoyed baseball cards in their youth became men interested in revisiting their childhood hobby or in some cases adding to the collection of cards they had maintained throughout the years. Many of these now successful adults had the means to pay big bucks for certain cards which were perceived as valuable – generally rarer cards (produced in smaller numbers) featuring images of great players dating from the early 20th century. Even young boys began buying cards for their perceived market value rather than for the sheer enjoyment. The most desirable baseball cards were the most expensive ones.

There is much speculation about the value of baseball cards today and going forward. Will they become more valuable as they become older and more rare? Or, as we move farther away from the “Golden Age,” of baseball cards will they become obsolete? The fact of the matter is no one can tell the future. Revisiting the quote Marks gave to the Long Beach Independent all those years ago, it seems unfathomable to us now that in 1960 a newspaper would be speculating about the end of rock ‘n’ roll, but at that time enough people must have felt skeptical about the future of the genre to contact a number of high profile music publishers for their two cents. While it may be tempting to take a firm position — baseball cards will either be in or they will be out very soon — we should take a page from Marks’ book and understand that the market is, to a great extent, unpredictable and that our best bet is recognize the interests and commercial behaviors of young people who are, really, the buying public today.

Regardless of estimated market value, each and every baseball card we are offering is a relic – a special and unique reminder of a time passed, physical evidence that survives, that was touched and treasured by whoever was lucky enough to pull it out of a cigarette pack or a stick of gum many, many years ago.