PSA Set Registry
Collecting the 1888 Allen & Ginter World's Champions (N28) Card Set
A "Beautiful" Vintage Issue of Athletes from Around the Sports World
By Kevin Glew
It's a set anchored by baseball players, boxers, and Buffalo Bill.
And one of the most common adjectives used to describe cards in the 1888 Allen & Ginter World's Champions (N28) set is "beautiful."
"Regarding the images on the front, it's almost like the athletes were sitting for a portrait; the cards are beautiful," said Mike Wasserman, whose No. 1, N28 set on the PSA Set Registry boasts a remarkable 8.34 GPA. "And when you get the top condition cards, you can really see the color and the detail. I could certainly argue that it's one of the most beautiful sets that exist."
Daniel Mims, who has assembled the Registry's No. 7 Current Finest N28 set, offered a similar assessment.
"They really are magnificent cards," he said. "They're certainly some of the most beautiful cards from that time period."
It's not surprising then that this vintage tobacco series, which also shines the spotlight on ace billiards and pool players, wrestlers, rifle shooters, and oarsmen, is one of Allen & Ginter's most popular issues.
Measuring 1-1/2" by 2-3/4" each, these cards present color lithographed artwork on their fronts. The images are brilliantly detailed and appropriate to the subjects. For example, three of the baseball players - Adrian C. Anson (Cap Anson), Capt. Jack Glasscock, and John M. Ward - are highlighted in batting poses. While the oarsmen cards exhibit not only a head-and-shoulder image, but a secondary action shot below it.
Most of the boxers and wrestlers, meanwhile, are presented shirtless, looking buff with bulging biceps. Wrestler Theo. Bauer's card offers one of the most intimidating images. The card depicts him glaring right out at the collector, muscular arms folded across his chest, as though challenging you to a match. There are also two wrestlers - J.H. McLaughlin and John McMahon - that are showcased in white shirts with red suspenders.
Billiards players, in contrast, are generally presented with a formal head-and-shoulder picture above billiards cues or game balls, while the pool player cards flaunt two of the set's most colorful images. Pool champ Albert Frey has several red pool balls sprinkled in the white background surrounding his picture, while J.L. Malone's card has red pool balls in a triangle on the lower right.
The card fronts also highlight the subject's name at the bottom, as well as the product name (Allen & Ginter's Cigarettes) and company location (Richmond, Virginia).
The vertical backs exhibit the set name ("The World's Champions") at the top, followed by a notation explaining that one of these cards is "packed in each box of ten cigarettes." A checklist of the subjects ensues in two columns. The left column lists the baseball players, oarsmen, and wrestlers, while the right column spotlights pugilists (boxers), rifle shooters, billiards players, and pool players. Highlighting them in this manner seemed to encourage hobbyists to collect these as subsets, which has become a common practice today.
"I think that's part of the appeal of this set - that someone can say, 'Well I just want to collect the baseball players.' Or, 'I just want to collect the prize fighters or the boxers,'" explained Mims. "They don't necessarily have to collect the whole set. They can focus on whatever their interest is and put a collection of those together."
As noted earlier, one of the N28 cards was included in each 10-cigarette pack, and based on the relatively vast supply, it appears these cards were widely distributed. There aren't any rarities or short prints, but the 10 baseball cards are the most coveted.
Of the 10 baseball champs featured, eight are from the National League and two are from the American Association (Charles Comiskey, R.L. Caruthers). Six of them - Cap Anson, John Clarkson, Charles Comiskey, Timothy Keefe, Mike Kelly, and John Montgomery Ward - have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Widely ranked as the best player/manager of the 19th century, Anson is one of the series' most sought-after singles. His card pictures him in uniform in a right-handed batting stance with a full, flowing mustache.
"Cap Anson seems to be the most popular and expensive card; I suppose it is because of his longevity and career statistics," said Otis Johnson, who owns the No. 11 Current Finest N28 set on the PSA Set Registry.
Of the 207 Anson cards submitted, there have been two PSA MINT 9s, one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5, and 10 PSA NM-MT 8s. One PSA 8 fetched $14,400 in a Robert Edwards Auction in October 2018, while a PSA 8.5 sold for $24,000 in a Heritage Auctions sale in February 2017.
The N28 card of Comiskey, who was an active player at the time this set was released but is better known as a trailblazing builder and owner of the Chicago White Sox, is also popular. His single presents a headshot of him in a red-striped cap and has proven to be the toughest of the Hall of Famer cards to obtain in PSA 8 or better (see accompanying chart). There have been just four PSA 8s (with no cards grading higher). One PSA 8 commanded $16,800 in a Heritage Auctions sale in February 2018.
The Mike "King" Kelly card is also desirable. This card displays a head-and-shoulder image of him in his Boston uniform. There's one PSA 9, one PSA 8.5, and eight PSA 8s. One PSA 8 realized $10,800 in a Robert Edward Auctions sale in October 2017, while the sole PSA 8.5 realized $13,145 in a Heritage Auctions sale in May 2015.
The four other baseball players (non-Hall of Famers) in this set are Chas. W. Bennett, R.L. Caruthers, Capt. Jack Glasscock, and Joseph Mulvey.
This set also contains 10 pugilists (boxers), seven wrestlers, 10 oarsmen, seven billiards players, two pool champs, and four rifle shooters.
Johnson and Mims have stated that the boxers are generally the second-most sought-after subset. The John L. Sullivan is the most in demand of the pugilists. The first heavyweight champ is featured shirtless with his arms folded across his chest. The four PSA 8s represent the highest-graded examples. One of those sold for $2,868 in a Heritage Auctions sale in May 2016.
There's also significant interest in two cards in the rifle shooters subset. The Miss Annie Oakley single is highly coveted. She was a master sharpshooter who became a national celebrity as part of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show." She is pictured in a hat with long, brown hair above two rifles and a pistol. Mims notes that this is a tough card to find in high grade. Of the 96 submitted, there has been just one PSA 8 and four PSA NM 7s. A PSA 7 commanded $953 on eBay in October 2017.
The Buffalo Bill card (identified as Hon. W.F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) on his card) is also a favorite amongst collectors. Although he's included in the rifle shooters subseries, he is most renowned as a showman and founder of his popular late-19th century "Wild West" road show. He's highlighted in a hat with long black hair, a handlebar mustache, and a goatee. The six PSA 8s represent the highest-graded examples. One PSA NM+ 7.5 fetched $956 in a Heritage Auctions sale in May 2015.
These cards were made of thick stock, so they have held up reasonably well, but they're still difficult to find in pristine condition. Of the 4,563 submissions, there has yet to be a PSA GEM-MT 10 and there are 12 PSA 9s, 11 PSA 8.5s, and 210 PSA 8s.
"Due to the Internet and the Shop feature [PSA Shop Button] on the PSA site, putting the 50-card set together is not difficult if you have the money," explained Wasserman. "What's difficult is getting some of the cards in a condition above a [PSA EX] 5."
Aside from the regular wear-and-tear and toning that you'd expect on cards that are 131 years old, these singles are also regularly uncovered with damaged backs, which is likely a result of them being glued into albums. Collectors who accumulated 50 coupons from Allen & Ginter cigarette packs could send away for an album in which to glue their cards.
"You may find a card where the front of the card looks pristine," noted Mims. "Then you flip it over to the back and there's paper loss."
Competition for blemish-free, high-grade examples has increased in recent years.
"I think most [collectors] have been focusing on just the baseball players," said Mims, "but there have been more people coming in and collecting the whole 50-card set, which is increasing the demand for them."
Wasserman, who said it has taken "20 years of fanaticism" to get his No. 1 set to the GPA it's at today, has witnessed the same trend. "For the past few years now, the competition has picked up and it's mostly for the baseball cards," he said.
The success of this set spawned a 50-card "World's Champions" sequel (N29). Though not as widely collected as its predecessor, this set also boasts a wide selection of stars from multiple sports but only six baseball players - just one (Buck Ewing) of which is a Hall of Famer.
Largely on the strength of six Cooperstown members, hobbyists believe the N28 set will prove to be a solid investment in the future.
"It definitely ranks high among 19th century attainable sets. I'd put N28 - and N29 - alongside Kimballs [N184] and Goodwins [N162]," said Johnson. "Any 19th century sports card is a good investment, perhaps a great investment, if you hold it long enough."
Mims is also optimistic about this set's future.
"I think this set is going to continue to gain popularity. I wouldn't be surprised if you see PSA 8 cards of the baseball players sell for $25,000 to $30,000 if they continue the way they're going," he said. "Even with the high prices at this point, I still think they're undervalued compared to the rest of the market."
For more information on the 1888 Allen & Ginter World's Champions (N28) card set, please visit PSAcard.com/CardFacts.