A baseball card is a wallet sized cardboard picture featuring the picture of a baseball player as well as statistics on their play. The term "baseball card" can sometimes be used to refer to a pocket sized picture for any topic. Baseball cards first came into existence in the 1800s in the United States and have enjoyed popularity throughout the following centuries.
The first baseball card was seen in the 1800s, around the time of the Civil War. Baseball was becoming popular at the same time that photography was first picking up public interest. Fans enjoyed baseball-themed pictures backed on cardboard. Large versions were called "cabinet cards" and meant to be displayed on or near a cabinet. "Carte de viste" were pocket versions of these cards.
The first commercially made cards were produced by baseball equipment manufacturer Peck and Snyder that used them as advertisements for their products. They were called "trade cards" since they were advertising a particular trade. They were handed out on the street much like a paper leaflet.
Throughout the latter part of the 1800s, trade cards increased in popularity. There were trade cards available not just for baseball, but for a variety of topics. The baseball card found a solid home with tobacco manufacturers during this time period. Cards with pictures of baseball players or team photos were placed into packs of cigarettes and tobacco products to try to boost sales and draw customers away from competitors.
Cabinet cards also saw a return during this time. They were used as a form of reward for loyal customers. Tobacco users could collect premiums off the packages to redeem for large versions of their favorite cards.
Cards grew significantly in popularity during the period from 1909-1915, which is often called the golden age of the baseball card. There were several tobacco companies competing for customers at that time who produced a wide array of cards that in many ways were works of art. They are some of the highest valued cards of all time, with some card values going as high as $500,000 US Dollars (USD) per card.
Chewing gum became the next great outlet for baseball cards. Goudey Gum of Boston was one of the first, followed by National Chicle Company and Delong Gum Company. Baseball cards took a brief respite from popularity during World War II, as paper became more scarce.
Following World War II, Bowman Gum began producing baseball cards, followed by Topps™ Chewing Gum. The two competed for some time until Topps Inc. eventually purchased Bowman. The first set of cards produced by Topps in 1952 is still one of the most sought after sets of collectible cards. Topps was the primary producer of baseball cards for some time.
In 1980, courts rules that Topps could no longer have a monopoly on baseball cards, and competitors Fleer and Dunruss were brought into the mix. By the late 1990s, there were numerous companies selling cards, each with several options for brands. In the early 21st century, baseball cards were still produced with competing companies like Topps Company, Inc and Upper Deck Company leading the pack. Values are based on rarity, player statistics, print, age, condition and completeness in the case of whole sets.