Background - The genre of objects known to modern hobbyists as “baseball cards” didn’t just spring fully developed from the mind of a creative businessman. Rather, the concept that yielded trading cards evolved in a somewhat roundabout way. Seen in retrospect, it was all quite logical and wonderfully quaint.
Prior to tobacco companies becoming involved with cards in the late 1880s, the idea of collecting paper items centered around pieces of advertising that were handed out to the public by retailers or otherwise distributed in a person-to-person fashion. By intent, these usually colorful and elaborate “trade cards” were sufficiently attractive that individuals would become enamored with their content and paste them into scrapbooks for safekeeping. Maintenance of scrapbooks was an established, genteel avocation of the day. Many young ladies, in particular, held on to calling cards, decoratively lithographed die-cut novelties, and church or school awards in their own personally constructed volumes. By adding trade cards to this mix, advertisements were preserved – and viewed repeatedly – by a book’s owner.
And so it was that cards produced by corset vendors, haberdashers, stove makers, and even funeral homes earned places of honor in Victorian-era scrapbooks. At some point, soon after this collecting trend took hold, a number of manufacturers – notably those engaged in the thread, sewing machine and coffee industries – produced cards in series. This practice engaged customers’ interest in acquiring a defined array of cards that possessed a certain common theme. It further ensured that a card collector remembered a brand’s name and sought out that specific business to the exclusion of its competitors. This development, in a time when word-of-mouth endorsements and actual visits to storefronts were primary means of facilitating commerce, was simply ingenious.
Makers of tobacco, upon taking notice that a new leisure-time habit was being indulged in by the populace, recognized that they already had – within every pack sold – a means of distribution, as well as actual cards. Insert-piece stiffeners made of thick cardboard were housed inside every package of hand-rolled cigarettes, and Goodwin & Co. of New York was among the first to place advertising upon this previously unadorned surface.
Goodwin, maker of “Old Judge” and “Gypsy Queen” cigarettes, experimented with the addition of its corporate byline to the inserts and, for good measure, to attract its customers’ attention, the company placed black and white photographs on the cardboard slabs as well. The two primary themes for these photos’ subjects were deliberately selected to be consistent with smokers’ keenest interests, namely… what else? …
girls and sports.
And so it became, that as a smoker emptied a pack, he found a picture inside. Many of them featured well-known stage actresses, and many more still, showcased athletes who participated in the 19th Century’s National Pastime.
The “Old Judge” ballplayers – seen on blank-backed cards measuring roughly 17/16” by 2½” and assigned the designation the N172 issue in The American Card Catalog – became immensely popular and ultimately served as the cornerstone manifestation of “baseball cards.” The N172 issue wasn’t the first baseball card series but it constitutes the largest entity of its kind even to this day, and it reveals a marvelously comprehensive view of those who played the game during the period.
Composition - There is no N172 “set,” as such, because the production’s full extent has never been confirmed. The cards are not numbered and the manufacturer provided no formal listing of subjects. (To do so would have been self-defeating – by acknowledging that a collection could be “completed,” it could be inferred that further buying to obtain more cards wasn’t necessary – and it’s also likely that many photographs were added or withdrawn on the spur of the moment during the issue’s four-year period of distribution.) What is known is that more than 500 player entries have been documented and counting variations in pose, team association, photo cropping and caption spelling, the documented total of different cards exceeds 3,000 designs.
Old Judges are now well over a century old, and the cards’ photography has in many cases faded or become less distinct with the passage of time. Most surviving examples exhibit a sepia-hued toning (which in some instances is almost pink in color) and their quality of focus varies widely. Still, the relics are undeniably captivating. The series features distinguished portraits, full-length standing poses and creative studio shots that show a fielder or batter poised to deal with a baseball, which is clearly suspended from a studio ceiling! Old Judge pioneered the multi-player card, wherein two athletes typically shared a carefully contrived “action” scene; managers, umpires, and team mascots (both human and canine) were also addressed by the release.
Most conspicuous among the issue’s content in the eyes of many present-day collectors is the presence in the N172 issue of numerous Hall of Fame players. For the majority of these Cooperstown enshrinees, very few, if any other period collectibles, provide these stalwarts’ career-contemporary, photographic likenesses. The N172 issue was a vastly inclusive effort, and it’s not surprising that virtually all of the 19th Century greats are revealed in at least a few of its portrayals. Cap Anson, Dan Brouthers, Connie Mack and Harry Wright appear in only two or three poses apiece, but many others such as Charles Comiskey, Buck Ewing, Hoss Radbourn, Amos Rusie and John Ward can be found in five to ten varieties per man. Yet another (non-Hall) figure of interest to many, and who has been observed in at least five poses, is center fielder and future evangelist Billy Sunday.
Key Features and Rarities - Some Old Judges are one-of-a-kind pieces, and embody the very definition of rarity. Others have been observed in multiples over the years, yet as demonstrated by the zealously coveted Hall of Famers, enjoy demand scarcity that enhances their value and mystique.
The N172 issue is home to a plethora of often-obscure and very scarce nuances in detail, a fact that creates fertile ground for the specialist collector. And through the ongoing process of cataloging and information gathering, new rarities are discovered on an occasional basis. In terms of already-documented challenges, the “Spotted Ties” subset (containing player portraits of the 1887 Champions, with the cards so nicknamed by their subjects’ distinctive neckwear) and the excruciatingly tough California League entries – which were probably limited to then-sparsely populated West Coast areas in their distribution – are noteworthy prizes for the devoted N172 enthusiast.
Bottom Line - In addition to filling an invaluable role as a visual chronicle of baseball’s fabled 19th Century era, Old Judge’s gallery stands as a primary building block for the collecting hobby. The sight of one or several of The N172 issue’s photographic collectibles (more accurately described as antiques) serves to transport the viewer on an emotional journey into history. The modern cards that owe much of their origin to Old Judge may someday have the same effect upon future generations, but as the most extensive early issue of its size and scope, The N172 issue can be regarded as the sort of phenomenon that only occurs once – and irrevocably nudges and shapes the culture into which it is introduced.