Friday, January 29, 2016

The First Baseball Cards

Yesterday afternoon, I posted a long rant about how I'd had a card stuck in shipping purgatory for way longer than it should have.  Thankfully, (potentially) due to a helpful nudge from the USPS help desk, the much-anticipated cardboard rectangle showed up in my mailbox, unharmed, in my mailbox by the time that I returned from work.

Now, I know what you're thinking?  What was this card and why was it worth all of this extra trouble?  Well, sit down, pull up a chair and let me word vomit all over you... ok, maybe I should work on my phrasing...

What we have here is a Ars Longa art card of one Herm Doscher, from their Pioneer Portaits series.  For those who don't know, Ars Longa is a group that creates original, handmade baseball cards of players from ancient baseball history, based on classic designs of the time.  Think about it like a crazy super-duper vintage version of Topps Heritage/Archives, with an infinitely deeper player pool.

Hermie here played in a whole three games for the then-Chicago White Stockings in 1879; thus, necessitating his acquisition for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Yes, that's how deep into this thing I am - I'm tracking down guys who had cups of coffee in the Reconstruction Era.

Prior to that, Doscher broke into professional baseball 3 years before the establishment of the NL, in 1872 for the Brooklyn Atlantics of the old National Association, the first "major league," a fact which this card notates.

As beautifully designed and colorized the front of this card is, just as much work goes into the backs as well.  Ars Longa goes a long way to recreate the feel of old school tobacco/lithographic cards by including original, artistic "advertisements," much like the backs of the original pieces did (they were advertising vehicles, after all).

I'd say they do a pretty stellar job replicating the feel of an old-timey baseball card - what say you?

Specifically, the old-timey kind of card they're paying tribute to dates back to the year of 1871 and is bigger than Mr. Herm Doscher.  In fact, the set in question has been the subject of a hotly-contested debate about the value and origin of baseball cards.  My interest is piqued; let's delve right into this, shall we?


Just about a month or so ago, a collection of Boston Red Stockings cards that look like the Ars Longa one above were brought into Antiques Roadshow.  The lady who brought them in really had no idea what she was dealing with, she only knew that they were an old family heirloom.  Come to find out, these cards were designed by a man known as Mort Rogers and were actually trimmed down scorecards that featured embedded photographs of pro baseball players from across the National Association, not just Boston.

Seeing as how they feature the essentially relocated Cincinnati Red Stockings team, the very first openly professional baseball club, the appraiser skyrocketed the value of the set to a million bucks. Adding to the value was the supposed scarcity of a set of cards from just after the Civil War. Add those two factors and you get big money, big money, no whammy.

Renowned baseball historian John Thorn caught wind of this discovery and did some spelunking of his own.  In the process, he discovered that this set of scorecards might very well have been the first set of baseball cards ever produced.  While they might have technically been scorecards, they featured embedded photos of baseballists from across the National Association, were individually numbered and were even marketed as “Baseball Photographic Card(s)” to be collected in a series.

 Here's an up-close look at an original

While individual, lithographic "trade cards" (that is, cards to promote a business or "trade") had been been produced to commemorate specific events, players or teams before, Thorn concluded that this was the first set of cards to be issued in a series and then unleashed on the public.

Of course, this monumental appraisal generated some waves within the baseball and card collecting community.  Was it truly valid?  ESPN's Keith Olbermann, the very same man behind the bios on the back of early TCMA releases, certainly didn't think so when he explored the topic on his segment "World's Worst:"

Whether or not there as many of these cards floating around the market and whether or not he owns as many as Olbermann claims seems to be a bit foggy.  However, the consensus seems to be that, while still inherently valuable and important to the history of the hobby, the cards are not quite worth the bounty that Antiques Roadshow proudly proclaimed.

What Keith didn't directly address was whether or not Mort Rogers should be considered the father of the modern baseball card - a claim which I tend to agree with.

More research by John Thorn indicates that Rogers was an enterprising printer from Boston who saw a fantastic opportunity to capitalize on the engulfing and ever-growing popularity of our nation's pastime.  Inspired by the collectible potential seen in the early lithographic trade cards mentioned earlier, Rogers set to work curating photographs of as many baseballers that he could procure, sometimes taking them himself and sometimes pirating them from other sources.

An original advertisement mentioning Mort's cards
Image courtesy of Hauls of Shame

In the end, Rogers & Fitts, his printing company, stuck them to the ornately designed scorecards, which our Ars Longa beauty apes, and Mort began to hawk them outside of baseball grounds across the country priced from five to ten cents; advertisements from the era place his cards in locations from Boston to Cleveland to Cincinatti to Brooklyn, et al.  Additionally, businesses that had accounts through his printing firm began to sell them in their stores, as well.  I do not believe they came in blaster or rack pack form though.

*If you want to read a more detailed account about this historic birth, I highly recommend that you cruise on over to Hauls of Shame and take a gander at their long-form account of Rogers and his cards.*

Thusly, the first set of baseball cards as we know them today was born; the world would never be the same again.


I'd say the odds of me owning an authentic Rogers & Fitts baseball card are about as long as the river Nile; so, the Ars Longa oddball that inspired all of this research will be a more than welcome addition to my binders.

It both provided me a chance to add another obscure name to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection and a learning opportunity about the earliest days of my favorite sport and hobby.  To think, it was very nearly lost forever in the mail.  What a tragedy that would have been!

I've sung the praises of Ars Longa (here, here and here) many time before and I'll continue to stick by my word.  In a time where Topps has a near-total monopoly on the baseball card market, Ars Longa is a refreshing breath of fresh air and creativity when it comes to the hobby.  Not only do they create wonderful individual cards; but, they also shine the spotlight on long-forgotten people and events from our favorite sport's history, creating new chances to learn and grow as fans, as you can see from this here post.

Other Ars Longa cards, from different sets, that have found their way into my grubby hands

I'd take that over seeing the same Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron photo recycled for the thousandth time on the same, tired sets year after year - no contest.  Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy a lot of the stuff that Topps produces today; that said, variety is the spice of life, is it not?

Though they might be a little bit pricey ($5-$7 for the low end), I'd whole-heartedly encourage everyone who collects to add at least one of this pieces of art to your collection.

At that, I think I've taken up enough of your time.  I hope you enjoyed consuming my word vomit.... there's those phrasing issues again.


  1. Awesome post, gonna have to check these out

  2. I agree, wonderful post and educational to boot!
    Every consider joining your local chapter of SABR? The above certainly read like a SABR piece but with a cardboard slant.
    Thanks for turning me on to Ars Longa!