When the topic of the most beautiful card set comes up, many hobbyists start and stop with the Turkey Reds set, issued by the American Tobacco Company in 1910 and 1911. Unlike the "standard" sized tobacco cards of the day, the Turkey Reds are magnificent masterpieces. They are 5 ¾ x 8" in size compared to the tiny 1 7/16 x 2 5/8" that were made to fit the small cigarette packs of the era.
The Turkey Reds set consists of 100 baseball players listed as T3's and 26 boxers referred to as T9's. They were produced in two series with the baseball subjects listed in alphabetical order from #1 Mordecai Brown to #42 Cy Young. An additional 8 action shots were also included. The set is then continued with card #'s 51-76, which feature boxers. The 2nd series starts with #77 Red Ames and finishes with #126 Owen Wilson.
Thirty seven of the baseball subjects share the same image seen in the T206 set. The similarities are also shared with the L1 leathers and the S81 silks. The T9 boxers share the same or similar shot depicted in the T218 Champions set as well. Four of the baseball players have 2 versions, #28 Harry McIntyre is listed with Brooklyn and also as Brooklyn/Chicago. Card #90 (Mickey Doolin) has another version with his corrected name Mickey Doolan. In addition, card #112 (Dode Paskert) is listed with Cincinnati as well as Cincinnati/Philadelphia, and finally card #144 (Fred Tenney) is listed with NY as well as NY/Boston.
There are five different card backs in this terrific issue, a Turkey Red advertisement back showing a pack of cigarettes and four different checklist backs. Three of the four checklist backs are very similar; the numerical sequence is the only real difference. One has 1-75 depicted, another has 1-76, and the third has 51-126. All three state, at the top, that you should "Order by number only" and that you can exchange 10 Turkey Red coupon vouchers (that were inserted into cigarette packs), or 25 Fed or Old Mill coupons for a player/boxer of your choice. The address to ship the coupons to was listed as "Drawer S, Jersey City, NJ". The offer expired on June 30, 1911.
According to the coupon voucher, you had to list three selections in order of your preference, and that the baseball players would be ready to ship on April 1, 1910. In addition, the "athlete" (boxers) series would be ready one month later on May 1, 1910. It would have been interesting if they planned other similar subjects that were featured in the T218 Champions set such as bowlers, skaters, billiard players, track stars, golfers and aviators. The 4th checklist back has no ordering instructions or address and is considered the scarcest of the five backs.
Unlike the many tobacco cards of baseball players, athletes, politicians, birds, flags etc. that were inserted into packs at random, the Turkey Red cabinet cards had to be redeemed. Due to their large size, many were displayed by hanging them on a wall with a pin, tack or nail and some collectors glued them inside scrap books, a popular past time of the day. Due to this and their large size, few have survived in top grades. As of this writing, PSA has graded roughly 350 T3 & T9's with only two being graded as NM PSA-7's (T3 Ed Konetchy & T9 Joe Jeannette) and just one card has reached the NM/MT PSA-8 level, a Ty Cobb - the finest example known in the hobby.
Even in low grades, these cards look impressive and are indeed collectible. The baseball subjects are inset within a grey border and the boxers have a rich brown frame. Many of the lower grades exhibit holes or extensive wear on the corners and edges. It still doesn't detract from the subject inside the painted frame and that is what most collectors are focused on.
The cabinet cards with their full color lithography possess a deep, rich color that makes this issue so captivating from an eye-appeal standpoint. Eight of the baseball players have "action shots" like #43 "Out at Third", showing a player being tagged out or #47 "Frank Chance At Bat" showing Chance taking his cut with a catcher in the shot. Card #48 shows Jack Murray at the plate and #50 (Chief Myers) is very similar in terms of the setting.
The other 92 subjects have a great deal of uniformity as the players are depicted in full view, so their entire uniform is present from their baseball caps down to their spikes. It gives a wonderful color account of the uniforms of the day. There are no bust shots or close ups. The same applies to the 26 boxers as they all have a boxing pose and show no opponent.
Out of the 100 baseball players, 25% are in the Hall of Fame including such heavyweights as Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie, Eddie Collins, Home Run Baker, and so on.
Speaking of heavyweights, the 26 T9 subjects consist of 14 boxing Hall Of Famers including Jack Johnson (the first black heavyweight champion), James Jeffries (The "Great White Hope") who came out of retirement to beat Johnson and lost by a KO, Abe Attell (a main character involved in the 1919 fix of the World Series) and Stanley Ketchel (who was considered the greatest middleweight ever, amassing a 52-4 lifetime mark with 49 KO's). While training for a 1910 bout, Ketchel was murdered. He was shot at close range and died at the age of 24. These T9 cards provide a nice tribute to Ketchel who was killed during its distribution.
Star players absent from this set include Shoeless Joe Jackson and Smokey Joe Wood, as well as Hall Of Fame players Honus Wagner, Eddie Plank, Rube Marquard and Zack Wheat.
This is a truly fascinating set with a rich history. They are highly sought-after today with PSA graded examples garnering huge premiums. The PSA holders display these works of art beautifully and that is part of why I have found them so fun to collect.