Sports Cards and Stuff | A (Very) Brief History of Sports Cards
Some of the oldest producers of the original baseball cards are still making cards! Brands like Goodwin and Gypsy Queen are still in production under other parent companies, Upper Deck and Topps, respectively. These vintage-inspired cards are a callback to their gum and tobacco pack origins. The aesthetic of the cards is unique in the modern card market.
Sports cards gained significant popularity in the 1930s when sports cards were added to more children-friendly formats like gum and Cracker Jack. As sports, mainly baseball, gained popularity and the players became akin to celebrities, children began trading them to get their favorite players or have a complete set. After the Great Depression, companies began sponsoring radio broadcasts to big-name players like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Jimmie Foxx.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that cards began sporting the biography and statistics they still report today! This was also the decade that we were introduced to the concept of the modern sports card that we know today. During this era, brands like Topps also gained prominence and began laying the groundwork for the hobby’s future. During the second half of the decade, Topps became synonymous with baseball, particularly after they purchased Bowman, and became the sole licensed proprietor of baseball cards.
This changed only recently, as Topps will lose the exclusivity rights to Major League Baseball in 2025. This means that the brand’s future is unclear, but they will continue to make baseball cards until then and continue to provide people with the quality cards they have grown accustomed to over the last 75 years.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, baseball cards experienced a renaissance and it was the golden age of the modern sports card. Sport card companies began to market to children and by selling gum with a pack of six cards for only about a nickel. Along with the gum, the national pass time sport gained popularity in post-war America, so did the packs of cards and gum. Cards with Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron are some of the most well-known and valued from this golden era of cards. Sadly, paper is paper, so it deteriorates; few cards are in excellent condition. Another reason is that it became a fad to clip the cards to bicycle wheels and have the card hit the spokes to make that iconic flapping noise.
Like the fall of an empire, the hobby’s golden age receded in the 1980s and through the 1990s. Collectors know this period as the Junk-Card Era. There were a couple of reasons that contributed to this era. First, there was an overproduction of cards, which led to a saturation of the card market. Secondly, card prices rose out of the affordable bracket they had occupied in previous decades.
After this decade of over-saturation, the sports card market realized that they had to be unique. So, in 1992, Donruss released their “Elite Series.” According to reports, these inserts were not rare, but they were new and different, thus exciting!.
Since then, cards have grown in popularity and, thanks to COVID-19, have soared back into popular culture. As a result, sports cards are now a common and luxury good.
I’ve included my sources for this article if anyone wants to read more since this is a relatively brief history.
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