Collector’s Conundrum: When was the first baseball card issued?

There’s something thrilling about tracing the history of a card and finding out new trivia. That’s part of the reason we collect. We recently polled our Twitter followers to see if they could tell us when the first baseball card was issued. Their options were 1886, 1891, 1901, and 1897. As it turns out, it wasn’t so easy to give them the right answer. The history of the first baseball card is contested, and searching for the answer will give you largely different results. Here’s what we found:

According to the PSA lingo guide (where we originally found our answer), the first baseball card was issued in 1886. Collectors Weekly supported this answer, and gave us a brief history

The first baseball cards were distributed in 1886 in packs of Old Judge and Gypsy Queen cigarettes, both of which were manufactured by Goodwin and Company. Measuring 1 1/2 by 2 1/2 inches, these early black-and-white cards from the late 1880s depicted players posing in front of scenic backdrops set up in the Joseph Hall Studio of Brooklyn. Other cards were reproduced in color as portraits. In all, some 2,000 Old Judge cards featuring some 700 players from the National League and American Association were produced. In 1887, Old Judge smokers got an added bonus: cards featuring the previous year’s champions, the St. Louis Browns and the New York Mets.

Thinking we had the right answer, we posted the poll and challenged our followers to pick correctly. Much to our surprise, there was more than one answer! One of our followers replied saying the first card issued was a team card in 1865. An article from Reuters supported this, and interestingly enough it was actually a team card for the Brooklyn Atlantics. It was a carte de viste, so more of a photograph than a card, but it was issued by the team. As it happens, an antique admirer in Maine found the card at a garage sale not knowing it’s history. He bought it with some other items for $100. It sold for over $90,000 at auction. 

With another “right” answer in the midst, we became even more intrigued. After some more hunting, we found another article from PSA as recently as 2013. It is here that they wrote the first baseball card was from 1863: “The Grand Match at Hoboken” Harry Wright card. From their article

Picturing Wright, the father of baseball, in a full-length studio pose, this card was created to promote attendance, and the sale of admissions, to a special series of games held in September of 1863. Harry Wright was a member of the New York Knickerbockers from 1858 to 1863, and this card was sold to allow attendance to a series of three games: the first two were cricket matches; the third was a baseball game.

There are even more reports out there of the “first” baseball card to be issued. We suppose the correct answer lies in what collectors consider to be an actual baseball card – an individual player or an entire team? And what is the purpose of the card? Regardless, our simple trivia game turned into a fun history lesson on the hobby. It was a welcome reminder that there’s always more cards to be discovered. If you think you know the real answer, let us know in the comments.


6 thoughts on “Collector’s Conundrum: When was the first baseball card issued?”

  1. I’d love to find something like that at a garage sale… collectors dream about that kind of stuff. This is the best article I’ve read regarding the history of the first baseball card. Well done.

  2. Hey there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my myspace group?
    There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content.
    Please let me know. Thank you

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