Question: Who, over the years, have been some of the major baseball card companies?--M.T.
Answer: As usually occurs this time of the year, when much of the nation is gearing up for the national pastime's opening week, we receive a wave of baseball-related questions, many of them focused on a popular collectible--baseball cards. Several readers in recent months have asked for names of firms that have produced these popular cards, so although we have touched on the subject in the past, it's a good time to pick up on it again.
First, a little history is in order.
Collectors tell us that the first cards began to circulate in the 1880s and were distributed by tobacco companies, not chewing gum firms. But actually it wasn't until some 50 years later that the cards began appearing on a regular basis. Even at this point, however, only top-rated players had their pictures circulated as opposed to complete team pictures, which were to appear later.
Collectors say the so-called Modern Era of baseball cards emerged during the Great Depression when bubble gum firms began including them with their increasingly popular product. Undeniably, the biggest firm among them to emerge was Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Topps, which over the years has produced more baseball cards than any other company. For more than three decades, since 1951, the Topps firm has circulated complete sets of major league ballplayers, allowing a collector, for example, to follow the career of a player from his rookie year to his emergence as a full-fledged star.
Perhaps the most valuable Topps package was run off in 1952, a 400-plus card set of the players on the then-16 major league teams. Some of the cards in this set have changed hands for several hundreds of dollars each and more.
Other chewing gum firms that have entered the field include Fleer, Bazooka, Bowman and Donruss. Food companies also have become involved, recognizing the popularity of baseball cards as a customer premium. They include Burger King, Hostess, Jell-O and the Post and Kellogg cereal producers.
Some of these ventures were fairly short-lived, such as those produced by Jell-O and Post. But that doesn't mean that the cards they produced haven't acquired a real value among collectors. For example, Post's oversize Mickey Mantle card, which came out in a 1960 limited set of sports stars, is hard to find and has seen its price tag spiral over the years.
A number of baseball-card dealers have sprung up, and several of these dealers have vast inventories of cards and can usually trade with other dealers to locate hard-to-find cards for your collection. Keep in mind, however, that this popular collectible has seen big price increases for certain cards and that you will have to pay double and triple figures for cards of the rarer variety.
Visit Swap Meets
Besides dealers, a good way to supplement your education before laying out dollars is to frequent the many baseball-card swap meets and conventions that are held each year. You'll meet other collectors and get a good idea of who are some of the better dealers. What's more, you will begin acquiring a "price sense" of what to pay for certain categories of cards. (This technique also applies to other collectible fields as well.)
You'll learn, for example, that condition counts a great deal in determining the price of a card and that one in mint condition can have a significantly higher price than one in just average or frayed condition.
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On a somewhat related note--that is, responding to reader inquiries about companies that once produced a particular collectible--W.M. asked about the names of firms that once manufactured shaving mugs. Included are the Koken Barber Supply Co. of St. Louis, whose name appeared on hundreds, if not thousands, of mugs; Smith Bros. of Boston; Hecker Bros. of Kansas City; Theo A. Kochs Co. of Chicago; and the Lewis Stenger Co. of Portland, Ore.
Ronald L. Soble cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about collectibles. Do not telephone. Write to Your Collectibles, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.