The Golden Age of Baseball Cards - How Did It Really Begin?
October 19, 2010
by William Szczepanek
How Did the Golden Age of Baseball Cards Begin? The attraction to baseball cards ─ does it have a beginning or has it always existed since the game itself began? In some respect it has always existed, even when baseball cards were used as the backing in a pack of cigarettes. It is speculated that Honus Wagner did not want kids to get hooked on cigarettes and therefore objected to his image being used on tobacco cards. Consequently, since very few cards were distributed, Wagner created a demand for the most sought after card in history. Fathers gave the tobacco cards to their kids, so, in effect, the kids may have had something to do with the demise of their fathers, but overall collecting baseball cards has been a harmless hobby.
While we have officially declared the beginning of the Golden Age of Baseball Cards as 1952, a large numbers of cards did not first get purchased until the mid 1950s as baby boomer boys latched onto a hobby that they could share with all of their friends. By and large the camaraderie that was generated was the driving force, much like social networks today. It was fun to see which cards your friends had acquired and then bargain, beg or sometimes steal what was of great personal value. It was not often that kids bought or sold cards to other friends. I never heard anyone pose the question, " I wonder what this Mickey Mantle card is worth?" If the query were posed at the time the answer would have probably been, "About a penny." More often than not cards were traded and very often they were gambled away in games like "flip" ─ a game with many rule variations, but generally the winner was the one who could flip their card and have it land with picture-side up, while an opponent's landed on the reverse side. The pot of cards could get quite large.
In other ways the draw was the freedom to spend the money on what they valued. Money or an allowance was earned by doing chores around the house. Does that still happen today? My desire for baseball cards is what caused me to ask my parents for an allowance. They were disturbed by the question. When they asked how much I wanted, my answer was "10 cents a week." That was enough for two packs of cards (10 cards and crummy gum) per week, 40 cards per month, 240 per season. I would spend my allowance on nothing else. Candy never looked as good as a pack of baseball cards. I'm sure my wages were less than what is currently being paid in China.
We can say that kids did not have the number of distractions back then as now. But is that really true? Today, we have video games, social networks and digital phones that have more computer power than the first space shuttle. The fifties were the time when television sets were first being installed in homes around the country. Yes, you needed an installer to plug it in and get the picture to stop rolling or twisting. Soon everyone would understand how to adjust the vertical and horizontal controls. But, television was a big distraction. It was so new that people would sit watching the test pattern before the first program of the day would begin, whether that be in the morning or later after the afternoon break. And baseball cards were not advertised on television. Come to think of it they are not advertised now on TV probably for the same reason. Kids sold the idea to their friends and now social websites and websites devoted to baseball cards, like this one, do the job without a single cent of direct compensation for the effort.
You never heard of adults collecting baseball cards in the fifties. Maybe there were closet collectors. Men would not be caught collecting cards much like moms would not be caught playing with their daughters' Barbie Dolls. I bet some did.
Yes, there were girls who collected baseball cards. Probably just as many as boys who played with Barbies. It just wasn't accepted. Kids were raised with certain future roles in mind. That was both good and bad ─ restrictive in some ways while presenting a clearer sense of identity in others.
So, what was the real draw? Was it peer pressure, like so many other involvements of kids? In some cases maybe, but I think each individual had their own reasons. Some liked to collect cards of their favorite team. Some wanted to learn more about the players. For many it was the yearlong pursuit of getting a card of their favorite player. Remember, after Topps acquired Bowman in 1955 there was only one card of each player produced per year, except for specialty cards.
For me it was to make more enjoyable a game that I had devised and perfected over the years. It was a solitary endeavor that provided me with more pleasure than any toy I ever owned. ( See: It's Back, Back Over the Couch.) I kept statistics and was amazed how my favorite players seemed to do better than others, even though I felt in my own mind that I was playing fairly for both teams. It ultimately taught me a lesson about how bias can go completely unnoticed and fairness is not always determined by how you feel.
If peer pressure didn't persuade a kid to buy baseball cards then peer pressure sure caused kids to stop buying baseball cards. Usually around the first year of high school interests changed and it was not cool to be into baseball cards. The old cards usually sat in shoeboxes and often were thrown away by mothers while cleaning house.
My mother, who was an avid house cleaner, mentioned that we could save some space in the closet if we tossed the baseball cards. My reply was sharp and swift, "If you throw them away I'll never speak to you again." She seemed surprised by my emphatic reply. Fortunately for me she respected my wishes. I'm happy about this not because of the possible worth of the cards today, but because I can still hold them in my hand and dream of people, places and things that were important to me at the time... Priceless!