McMurray: Would baseball have become America’s pastime without baseball cards?

From SABR member John McMurray at Smithsonian Magazine on September 28, 2018:

Today, collectors are most likely to think of baseball cards in the context of the 1950s, when collecting was at its peak. The cards complemented a thriving game, a signature American sport that was gaining a lasting foothold on television. To envision Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays on cards of that era is to think of broad grins and carefree afternoons.

That was the heyday of cards, and the gum that came with them, wrapped together in the crinkly package. The universal rite of every boyhood passage has to be the moment when Mom cleaned out the closets and trashed the much-revered baseball card collection.

But cards of the late-1800s and early 1900s played a different role. In a time when few could make it to the ballpark in person, these cards provided what might be the only tangible connection between a fan (usually a young boy) and a ballplayer. It may seem odd that the first cards were such a draw, since the first prominent cards, called Old Judge and first issued in 1887, were austere and hardly emblematic of rambunctious boyhood. Posed in a studio, the players are stiff and distant, the background sketches frequently identical. Perusing Peter Devereaux’s rich new history, Game Faces: Early Baseball Cards From the Library of Congress, out in October from Smithsonian Books, it becomes clear to this reader that if cards had continued in such a drab fashion, the collecting hobby may never have taken off.

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Originally published: September 28, 2018. Last Updated: September 28, 2018.