Collecting 1902-11 Sporting Life Baseball Cabinets (W600)
Cobb, Christy, and Carl Horner Photos
by Kevin Glew
It offers the first baseball cards of Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Christy Mathewson, and its photos are the basis for a number of cards in the T206 set.
It's no wonder then that high-grade 1902-11 Sporting Life Cabinets (W600) tend to command five-digit prices.
"Rarity has driven these cards to new market levels in recent years," said PSA President Joe Orlando.
The W600 cards were the only baseball cards marketed on a large scale in 1902. Sporting Life was a weekly Philadelphia-based newspaper distributed across the United States that used these cards to promote their publication.
Measuring 5" by 7-1/2" each, the W600 cabinets boast black-and-white photos taken mostly by Carl Horner. Many of the early series photos depict the subjects in street clothes, but starting in 1903, almost all of the photos feature players in their uniforms.
"They're a very substantial, thick card," said Kevin Struss, owner of Baseball Rarities, who has handled a large number of W600 cards over the years. "You can tell when you hold these items that no expense was spared when they were made."
The player's name, position, team, and league are highlighted at the bottom. The unnumbered cards often share the player's formal name such as Edward Collins (Eddie Collins), Christopher Mathewson (Christy Mathewson), or Denton "Cy" Young (Cy Young).
"The W600s are more than mere cards. They are more like framed pieces of art than traditional baseball cards," said Orlando. "They are easily one of the most intriguing issues in the hobby as a result of the design alone."
If you examine the cards closely, you'll notice there are actually four different designs:
Type 1 - These cards exhibit a flower and leaf design at the bottom with a Sporting Life ad printed in small, brown lettering. According to Struss, these were available from August 1902 to October 1902.
Type 2 - On these cards, a new logo with crossed bats and a ball in the middle replaced the flower and leaf design, and the brown lettering is larger and includes the phrase "Compliments of." Struss says these were available from October 1902 through August 1903.
Type 3 - This design is identical to Type 2, except that the "Compliments of " wording has been removed. These were released from August 1903 to mid-1904 notes Struss.
Type 4 - This was the most elaborate design yet, showcasing the crossed bats with larger, white lettering inside an embossed, scroll-like design. According to Struss, this design was used from mid-1904 through the end of the run.
"The last mount that was issued, the Type 4, has this white ornate writing, so it stands out," explained Struss. "But for the other three mounts [types], a lot of people don't even realize they are any different."
Some players are presented on more than one type. Struss says the first type that the player is featured on often commands the most.
"The reason these cards are growing in popularity is because it's now possible to tell what year these were issued depending on what mount [type] they have, and rookie card collectors consider the ones that were issued first to be the players' rookie cards," explained Struss.
With all the variations - including players with multiple cards that depict them with different teams, different photos, and in the varying design types - there are believed to be close to 650 W600 cards that were offered that highlight approximately 460 different players; however, only 330 cards of different players have been confirmed to still physically exist. Even so, many of the cards listed in the Sporting Life ads have not been uncovered, so that makes it difficult to define what comprises a complete set.
"In the different issues of the Sporting Life over the years, they would tell you what players were available," explained Struss. "But there are hundreds of players that are listed for which there is not one card known. Of course, people would order the Christy Mathewson, the Cy Young, and the Honus Wagner because they were big names, but the second-string second baseman might never get ordered unless it was by a die-hard fan of a team."
Struss says there are other cards of which only a small number of examples have surfaced. The fact that these cards were not numbered and were sold individually also makes it tough to define what constitutes a full set.
The backs of these cards are generally blank, but some of those issued in the latter years had information stamped on them that encouraged collectors to purchase more cards.
Most publications list the W600 cards as being available from 1902 to 1911, but veteran hobbyist Scott Brockelman has uncovered information that indicates that these were still being sold in 1913.
"They were still offering these with the renewal of a subscription in 1913," said Brockelman. "You paid $2 to re-subscribe and you would get your choice of 12 cabinets that they had remaining. They were getting rid of the old stock that was still left."
Lists of available cards were printed in ads in the publication. In general, with each new list, player cards were added or subtracted. Struss says the first ad, which appeared in the August 30, 1902, issue, offered five cards. About a month later, 30 different player cards were being advertised, including the original five, noted Struss. And by 1903, over 100 cards were being advertised.
Collectors could acquire a card by filling out and sending in a coupon from the publication along with three, two-cent stamps to cover the postage costs. Each card was then shipped in a separate glassine envelope. Later in the run, Sporting Life began selling these for 10 cents each or 12 for a dollar.
While new cards were being churned out at a rapid pace in the early years, the pace slowed near the end of the production run.
"The interest in these seemed to have waned by the last half of the decade," explained Brockelman. "I think that by then, people had all of the Sporting Life Cabinets they cared to get. They didn't order that many of the newer issues or the back issues. ... And some of those printed later are much tougher to find than the earlier ones."
By 1911, only two new player cards were created.
As Struss alluded to earlier, this is a set where the stars are found in greater quantities because more collectors purchased them.
This explains why the Honus Wagner cards (John "Hans" Wagner on the card) seem to be the most common.
Wagner is highlighted in two different poses, one version pictures him in street clothes while another showcases him in uniform. Struss notes that the street clothes version can be found in Type 1 or Type 2 designs, while the uniform version exists in Type 2, Type 3, and Type 4 designs.
"With patience, you can find Wagner," said Brockelman. "However, the suit [street clothes] pose is more difficult than the uniform pose. Most people that collect cards of any player, genre, or era usually prefer a player in uniform."
Only 15 Wagners in total have been submitted to PSA. Heritage Auctions sold a PSA VG+ 3.5 Type 1 street clothes version for $168,000 in February 2018.
This also marked Cobb's first appearance on a baseball card. Printed in 1907, the "Georgia Peach's" single features him in uniform in a Type 4 design. Brockelman says this is one of the more difficult high-profile Hall of Famer cards to track down because it came out later in the print run.
"Someone like Ty Cobb, we know that he was first offered in this series in 1907," said Struss. "That's considered his rookie card and that's a huge thing for rookie card collectors. If Cobb had been issued in 1909 in this series, it wouldn't be that big of a deal because there are other 1909 issues with Cobb in them."
A PSA VG 3 example garnered $55,580 in a Mile High Card Company auction all the way back in October of 2011.
Mathewson's first baseball card is also part of this issue. It was unveiled in 1903 and shows the legendary hurler in street clothes in a Type 2 design. On this card, his last name is spelled incorrectly with two t's.
Another Mathewson card was later manufactured in a Type 4 design with the pitching great in uniform and with his last name still spelled incorrectly. You can, however, find this card with the last name spelled correctly. Less than 10 Mathewson cards combined have been graded by PSA. A PSA Good 2 of the uniform version (correct spelling of last name) sold for $8,365 in a Heritage Auctions sale in May 2015.
Struss says there are only two known Jesse Burkett cards from this series. Both of these showcase him in a Type 2 design with St. Louis. A second Burkett single was reportedly offered in 1905 that presented the Hall of Famer with Boston, but there has never been one of these uncovered.
"For whatever reason, and he wasn't a rookie at the time, Burkett just wasn't very popular," noted Struss. And the fact that there are only two known examples of Burkett turns what might normally be a $3,000 card into a $30,000 card if it pops up, added Struss.
Struss and Brockelman say the Frank Baker ("Home Run" Baker) single that PSA graded in the summer of 2017 was the first they have ever seen.
"Of all those very, very nice cabinets that PSA graded with all of the big names, the most important was the Home Run Baker," said Brockelman.
This card presents Baker in uniform in a Type 4 design.
"Even though Baker is a Hall of Famer, he wasn't offered until October 1910, and by that time, these cards weren't that popular," said Struss. "That's the only Baker I've ever seen. ... At that time, he was probably just an unknown third baseman for the Philadelphia A's; no one really knew who he was."
There are also two Cooperstowners cards - Branch Rickey and Hugh Duffy - listed in the ads for which there has yet to be examples uncovered.
"Back when these were issued, Branch Rickey was as common as a common could be," said Struss. "And Hugh Duffy was a great player in the 1880s and 1890s, but by the 1900s, he was a playing manager with declining skills and no one really cared that much about him."
On top of the aforementioned misspelling on the Mathewson cards, you will also notice several other errors in this issue. For example, one 1903 version of William J. Bradley's card incorrectly identifies him as Frank Bradley. Also, the photo on the George Mullin single is actually Roscoe Miller.
On top of being tough to uncover in high grade, these cards are just plain difficult to find in any form.
"This material [W600 cards] has just dried up over the last decade for the most part," noted Brockelman. "There aren't a lot more coming out of the woodwork. But it's a pretty desirable issue that's become more popular because the Hall of Famers and the rookie cards have driven it."
But why are these W600 cards so rare today compared to say the 1911 T3 Turkey Red Cabinets?
"The W600s exist in far fewer numbers today compared to T3s, so it's not as if there are hoards of them in circulation, and collectors are choosing not to grade them," noted Orlando. "My guess is that since the T3 issue was connected to tobacco products, it probably reached far more people at the time compared to the type of distribution the W600s received. That fact, most likely, explains the disparity in surviving examples today."
"Furthermore," Orlando adds, "the T3 cards may be oversized like the W600s, but they look more like traditional baseball cards. As a result, they may have been collected and preserved a little more like baseball cards in the early part of the 20th century compared to the W600 issue."
Because the W600 cards are so rare, competition for high-grade examples can be get very heated.
"As time goes on, rarity becomes a greater and greater factor in all collectible fields. The key is marrying rarity with enough appeal to make the collectible desirable. The W600s offer that combination," said Orlando.
"Beyond the desirable qualities we spoke about earlier, the set contains so many of the legends of the time. Cobb, Mathewson, Wagner, Young, and so many other Hall of Famers can be found here. While collecting the entire set is virtually (or some would say literally) impossible, the future for the individual stars and Hall of Famers looks bright."
For more information on the 1902-11 Sporting Life Cabinets (W600) set, please visit https://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/baseball-cards/1902-11-sporting-life-cabinets-w600/112
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thank you to Kevin Struss and Scott Brockelman for sharing their knowledge for this article. And a special thanks to Memory Lane, Inc. for providing cards for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures reported are those as of April 2018.
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