Since baseball was the first sport to have cards devoted to it, any discussion about the history of sports cards begins with baseball card history. The first cards to feature baseball players in the United States were produced in the second half of the 19th Century, and their original purpose was to promote the manufacturer’s other products. They gradually became associated with tobacco companies, who used them to advertise and to protect cigarettes from being crushed in the pack.
As the years passed, gum companies became the primary printers of baseball cards, and after World War II, Topps outlasted all of its competitors to find itself the last company standing. It enjoyed decades with no real rivals, until a legal decision at the beginning of the 1980s opened the doors for other would-be manufacturers to enter the fray. Names familiar to collectors today like Donruss and Upper Deck only popped up in the last part of the 20th Century, when the baseball card industry began to morph into the shape it’s in today.
Along the way to becoming a big money hobby and an American tradition (though plenty of other countries have produced baseball cards too), numerous companies, sets and people have made their own unique contributions. The following timeline highlights the most important developments in the long and storied history of baseball cards.
Baseball Card Timeline
Pre-World War II Era
- 1868: A New York sporting goods store called Peck and Snyder creates what most historians consider to be the first set of baseball cards. Images of baseball players were featured on the fronts of the cards, while advertisements for the company’s baseball equipment made up the backs.
- 1886: Another New York company - Goodwin and Co. - kicks off the era of tobacco companies by producing a baseball set distributed as pack liners with cigarettes.
- 1903: The E107 Breisch Williams set is produced, marking the first significant release of the 20th Century.
- 1909: The American Tobacco Company - a conglomerate that swallowed up many smaller companies that once printed baseball cards - creates the T206 White Border Set, one of the most famous sets of all time. The short printed Honus Wagner card is the grandfather of all valuable cards.
- 1914: Cracker Jack produces the first of two sets, notable for their inclusion of players from the Federal League.
- 1933: Boston temporarily becomes the center of the baseball card world, with Goudey Gum Co., George C. Miller Co. and Delong all producing sets.
- 1939: Gum Inc. - the precursor of Bowman - prints its first Play Ball sets, which feature Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.
Post-World War II Era
- 1948: With the war over, Bowman Gum and the Leaf Candy Company each create baseball card sets.
- 1952: Topps prints its first baseball set, which includes the Mickey Mantle rookie card, one of the most famous cards of all time.
- 1956: The purchase of Bowman by Topps makes Topps the only national manufacturer of baseball cards.
- 1957: Topps changes the dimensions of its cards to 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches, the same size used by nearly every sports card product today.
- 1963: Fleer attempts to get around Topps’ exclusive rights to produce baseball cards sold with gum by creating a set featuring 66 players and sold with cookies. Legal action by Topps forces Fleer to abandon the product after just one year.
- 1976: The TCMA company produces its 630-card SSPC set, selling it by mail and without full baseball licensing. It too, lasts only one season before Topps files suit to have it stopped.
- 1980: A court ruling states that Topps’ exclusive rights apply only to baseball cards sold with gum, opening the door for competitors to finally get back in the game.
- 1981: Taking advantage of the ruling, Donruss and Fleer both produce their first baseball card sets.
- 1988: Score prints its first baseball card set.
- 1989: The most significant set of the modern era is produced by Upper Deck, complete with tamper-proof packaging and a holographic logo. Bucking the trends of the time, the print run of the set was intentionally kept relatively low to ensure it would be collectible. The Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card is the most famous card of this era.
- 1990: Donruss resurrects a famous name from the past with its first Leaf set in the U.S., a brand name the company still uses in sports cards today.
- 1994: Major League Baseball expands to its largest number of licensed card manufacturers by adding Pacific to the list.
- 1998: The parent company of Score, Pinnacle Brands, closes shop. Donruss acquires the rights to the Score name, which it still uses (on football cards) at present.
- 2001: Pacific drops out of the baseball card business, reducing the number of card companies to four.
- 2005: Fleer stuns the baseball card world by declaring bankruptcy. Its assets are later purchased by Upper Deck, which decides to manufacture and market products under the Fleer brand names.
- 2006: Citing a glut in the marketplace and the desire to regain some control over the baseball card industry, Major League Baseball declines to renew Donruss’ license, leaving Topps and Upper Deck as the only producers.