The Black Swamp Find: A Remarkable Discovery of E98 Baseball Cards

Jul 23, 2012

Almost two hundred and twenty years ago, Ohio's Fort Defiance stood as the westernmost outpost of the Northwest Indian War, constructed in just over a week in the middle of August 1794 by General "Mad" Anthony Wayne as our young nation continued its inexorable expansion toward the Pacific. Its name was derived from a declaration by General Wayne himself, who spoke glowingly of the fort's defenses: "I defy the English, the Indians and all the devils of hell to take it." Wayne had reason to trust in the fort's impregnability, in part for its sturdy construction but also for the merciless terrain that surrounded it—a dense habitat of low-lying lands that earned the foreboding moniker "The Great Black Swamp."

Public works projects beginning in the 1850s served to drain much of the swampland over the ensuing decades, shrinking the scope of the swamp to a far more manageable size. Today its remnants survive at the outskirts of Defiance, Ohio, where the most extraordinary find of pre-war trading cards to surface in the modern hobby came to light just weeks ago, and now proudly carries its name.

Pedigreed in PSA holders identifying them as derivative of The Black Swamp Find, the stunningly preserved century-old relics are cataloged in the Standard Guide as the 1910 E98 Set of 30. Ranking among the rarest of early candy sets, this thirty-card issue features no fewer than seventeen Hall of Famers, each subject set against a background of four color variations: blue, green, orange and red.

The aesthetics of the issue are charming in their simplicity and marvelously evocative of the dead-ball era, utilizing artistic renderings of period action photography. The coloration is bold and basic, as the player image is rendered in black ink with red enhancement against a solid mat background. Certainly this is not the most sophisticated E card of the period from a production standpoint, but it ranks among the most coveted for its talent-packed roster and its rarity relative to its contemporaries. The set also features one of the more comical "error cards" from the candy card portfolio, as the Cy Young representation actually pictures Chicago White Sox southpaw Irv Young rather than the iconic right-hander. The cards measure one and a half inches wide by two and three-quarter inches tall, and they feature a checklist on verso with no advertiser attribution.

This absence only adds to the mystery of the find. The family had owned a meat market at the time of the cards' issue, and one could theorize that the use of the cards as a premium for the shop's clientele accounts for their presence. It is also worthy of consideration that the Defiance Candy Company operated within the city limits during that period. The cards remained hidden and forgotten for decades in the family's ancestral home since the Taft presidency, each player and color variation neatly tied in century-old twine, almost certainly wrapped at the printer. An ancient doll house rested atop the box where they had been entombed. See the image of the Tinker card for an example of what the few cards left on the outside of the box looked like, covered in a century of soot, helpless victims to the elements. Those secured inside the box remain, thankfully, as fresh as the day they were packed.

It is believed that the issue was sold by traveling salesman to candy manufacturers and other retailers to include with their products. It appears that one salesman did make his way to the family-owned meat market or perhaps to the local Defiance Candy Company; however, the cards never realized their ultimate destiny as customer premiums. The collection yields twenty-one sets of twenty-four players with red backgrounds, and ten duplicates in green or orange, with a scattering of extras. The condition is stunningly pristine throughout, quite literally untouched for a full century of seclusion prior to the discovery. Consider that the previous population was headed by a PSA NM 7 Cobb and an EX 5 Wagner. This collection adds sixteen Mint 9 Cobb representations to the population, and an unheard-of Gem Mint 10 Wagner. Variations in grade are due all but entirely to centering issues, with a remarkable uniformity of flawless condition. Heritage Consignment Director and leading caramel card expert Peter Calderon remains in awe of the find. "As a collector of caramel cards for the last 25 years, I could never have hoped to be part of a more impressive collection. I opened the FedEx box with a small sampling of cards while on the phone with the consignor. I sat in stunned silence when I was told I was only the second human being to ever touch these century old cards. It was beyond my wildest imagination."

Currently, PSA has graded 627 cards from the E98 issue, a tally which will double with the addition of The Black Swamp Find. The first entries from this find, an assembly of the top-graded example of each player and variation, will make their hobby debut in the Heritage Auctions "Platinum Night" auction closing Thursday, August 2, 2012, during the National Sports Collectors Convention in Baltimore. This will represent the number one set in the PSA Population Report and the world at large. The auction will conclude with live bidding at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, in the shadow of the convention hall where the National is held. All offerings are currently available for viewing and bidding at the Heritage website (, and they will be publicly displayed at the Heritage corporate booth on the floor of the National. The balance of the collection will be featured in subsequent Heritage auctions.

"This historic find is right up there with Al Rosen's famous 1952 Topps discovery as one of the hobby's greatest," expresses Chris Ivy, Director of the Sports for Heritage Auctions. Obviously Topps wins the battle for name recognition, but you couldn't say it turned its market on its head quite the way this one does. We are proud to be working with the family to be offering this historic material to collectors for the first time. The E98 set has always been one of the toughest for collectors to complete; and The Black Swamp Find will not only allow collectors to add this notoriously scarce issue to their collections, but it will allow them to do it with examples that are as fresh and minty as they were when they were printed over a century ago. Before this find, nobody could have dreamed of completing a high-grade E98 set. Clearly this changes the game entirely.