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Beginner’s Guide To Pre-War Cards

Beginner’s Guide To Pre-War Cards

Ryan Nolan

With the creation of the American Tobacco Company in 1890, sports cards largely ceased production. ATC was birthed from a merger between Allen and Ginter and Goodwin & Company, who both produced significant sets in the 1880s.

There were occasional baseball card releases from brands like Mayo’s Cut Plug, but nothing to the scale of past sets. This was due to the fact that ATC had a monopoly on the tobacco industry. There was no longer a need to advertise in tobacco packets. 

In this article, we’re going to cover the cards from the merger (after 1900) until the end of baseball’s dead-ball era (1919). In this period of time, we see the breakup of ATC, World War I, the Black Sox scandal as well as the arrival of iconic sets/players with interesting back variations. It’s an exciting time for the sport and card sets. 

1903-04: E107 Breisch-Williams

The E107 cards from confectionery company Breisch-Williams were the first major set created in the 20th century. Many people falsely believe it to be the T206 release, but this 1903 release predates it by six years. 

E107 is also the first baseball set to have different versions of the backs of cards. There are three different ones of varying scarcity here. The rarest of the trio features the company name.

Between SGC and PSA, there are fewer than 1,200 cards graded between all three backs. SGC’s pop sits at 982 while PSA’s rests at 207.

One of our personal favorites in the set is the Honus Wagner, which has been graded just seven times. For comparison’s sake, the famous T206 Wagner has about 60. The E107 is an older card that is scarcer and has a much more reasonable asking price.

1909-1911: T206

Flash forward to 1909 and we started seeing an explosion of card sets. While ATC was going through litigation in the courts, other sets were finally being produced once again. So, technically, we can thank the Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlawed monopolistic business practices, for helping to save baseball cards.

One of these new sets was T206, considered one of the hobby’s most important collections by many hobbyists. It features 524 cards of players in the MLB, MiLB and Southern League. Four cards make this set difficult to complete:

  • Honus Wagner – The card was pulled from production early over licensing compensation or issues the famed shortstop had with the tobacco industry. Still a bit of a mystery. 
  • Eddie Plank – The printing plate broke early with this one, making fewer copies available than other players.
  • Sherry Magee – There’s a spelling error (“Magie” on the card), which was corrected.
  • Joe Doyle – The wrong league was printed on the card, but it was fixed.

Besides these tough-to-locate cards, there are 16 different brand backs that vary in infrequency. Each player has a different set of backs. Additionally, these 16 brand backs vary based on which factory they were printed in. 

The rarest you can find are Ty Cobb’s cards with Uzit and Lenox cigarette backs. The backs are often more desirable than the players on the front. The most common backs are for the Piedmont and Sweet Caporal cigarettes. 

There is also a Coupon Cigarettes-backed set of the same cards (T213), which people debate should be added to the T206 set or be considered its own standalone set.

1909: T204 Ramly

We would argue that Ramly Cigarettes’ cards are some of the most unique ever produced. These vintage treasures feature a gold-leaf border, an embossed surface and a black-and-white player portrait.

The set is plagued with spelling errors and features four non-players (three team managers and the Minor League president). It also comes with two backs: Ramly & TTT Turkish cigarettes brands. The TTT back fetches a premium due to its scarcity.

The biggest name in this group is Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson. A PSA 8 of this card recently fetched over a quarter million in auction. Even common players in this set are expensive because of rareness and condition sensitivity. 

1909-11: E90-1 American Caramel

Between baseball, boxing and actors sets, American Caramel made some great cards in the early 1900s. Unlike the T206 cards, these were distributed in candy from 1909 to 1911. 

In this set, you can find many great players of the era. But the one card that stands out is the Shoeless Joe Jackson rookie. Many consider the E90-1 and T210 to be the Hall of Fame outfielder’s main rookie cards. Of course, both fetch a great amount of money. Even a PSA 1 of the Caramel commands over $20,000. A PSA 8 sold in 2019 for almost $700,000.

1911: T205

The T205 cards were the follow-up set to T206. This collection features gold-gilded cards with different designs, all dependent on if the player participated in the American, National or Minor Leagues.

One of the most famous cards in the set is a tribute for Addie Joss, a great pitcher who had a phenomenal 1.89 career ERA and a 0.968 WHIP. In 1911, the Cleveland hurler passed away due to tuberculous meningitis. 

In 1977, the National Baseball Hall of Fame waived its 10 year minimum requirement for Joss. He was elected the following year through the Veterans Committee. To this day, Joss is the only Cooperstown resident who didn’t play 10 seasons.

1914-1915: Cracker Jack

The year that World War I began, another classic set was released. Cracker Jack was produced over a two-year span from 1914 to 1915. The cards are nearly identical in many ways, but they do have some subtle differences:

Normal backsUpside-down backs
Only found in Cracker JackOption to purchase the full set
144 total cards176 total cards
Christy Mathewson and Del Pratt have action shotsChristy Mathewson and Del Pratt have portrait shots

The biggest drawback of this set is the absence of a Babe Ruth rookie card, making it one of the biggest what-ifs in the hobby. The National card show did have a promotion in 2013 where the Bambino’s card in the set was recreated.

1916: M101-4 and M101-5

The Babe Ruth rookie puts this set on the radar for a lot of collectors, but there’s so much more to it than just that. 

Besides the New York Yankees great, you can also find Jim Thorpe’s only MLB card –Thorpe technically has a Fatima Team Card, but it’s not a solo picture – and one of Joe Jackson’s last cards before the Black Sox scandal. 

The set features 18 different advertising backs (with additional variations) as well. Different businesses used the cards as a way to promote their company, just like how tobacco companies promoted their brands earlier on T206 cards. The most difficult backs to find are those with Mall Theatre and Burgess-Nash logos. The most common are The Sporting News and Famous & Barr Co.

Ryan Nolan writes about vintage cards and other topics for Sports Card Investor. He also runs Breakout Cards and is the co-host of Moneyball Cards. Follow him on Twitter and YouTube for more content.

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