Cards were first issued in the 1880s as part of cigarette packs. The card served as an extra protective for the tobacco, according to ESPN‘s history of the cards. While the idea that these cards might help boost tobacco sales was present, no one could have predicted what would happen. The rise of the cards coincided with the rise in popularity of America’s pastime. The cards provided information about players, serving as a very early example of content marketing. The photos, stats, and facts on the cards were an early piece of snackable, shareable content. Whole industries have developed around the sale and trade of the cards.
The cards moved from tobacco packs to bubblegum packs in the 1930s, but in 1952, with the first full set of Topps cards, the modern era of collectible cards really began. This is the year that introduced the Holy Grail of cards: The 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card, along with the 1909 Honus Wagner, both stand at the top of the most sought-after cards ever made.
Baseball cards became so popular that the question arose: Were fans buying cards because they loved baseball, or were fans watching baseball because they loved the cards? And more so, were there any fans of the cards that didn’t even watch the game? The answer to all three: yes. Undoubtedly, most card-buyers were, first and foremost fans of the game. But not all. Once cards became collectible, there were sure to be those who purchased with the intention of making an investment or just because they wanted to trade cards with their friends.
An interesting phenomenon arose, that cards were still sought-after even when their quality was, shall we say, less than stellar. Quantity over quality often became the standard as more and more baseball card companies entered the field. Because the cards were typically sold in blind packs, meaning that you didn’t know exactly what you were buying until you opened the package, design, quality of composition, and even correct spelling were often overlooked. Josh Levin, executive editor of Slate, describes what he believes is the worst baseball card of all time, including plenty of contenders for runner up.
Despite the questionable quality, these cards were still doing exactly what good content marketing should do: engaging the consumer, building the brand, and providing its own value separate from the brand’s main focus.
By the 1980s, the cards were as popular as ever. Buyers flocked to conventions to buy, sell, trade, and view. Even I finally got into the game, albeit briefly. After spending so much time waiting in the car for my brother, I decided to try collecting cards. It was a disaster. Part of the joy of buying packs of cards was that you never knew what you were going to get. I, however, really just wanted cards of the St. Louis Cardinals players, particularly Ozzie Smith. My brother, however, spent hours pouring over the stats on the back of the cards, even going so far as to become a fan of Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens and sport a Boston cap. The cards’ content marketing power was so strong that they convinced a lifelong Cardinals fan to temporarily root for a pitcher for another team, in a completely different part of the country.
Once any item becomes a known collectible, there is the inevitable conclusion that the bubble will burst. In the 1990s, cards were produced at an unprecedented rate. The quality improved in many cases as new printing techniques were developed. Cards from previous decades, which had been produced at lower volumes and had often been tossed out by parents on cleaning sprees, were selling for thousands of dollars. Eager not to repeat that mistake, modern collectors carefully saved their cards, even going so far as to stash unopened packs in boxes. According to The Economist, “Many collectors understood, were something one held for a time, and so many of the boxes full of newly produced sets headed directly for storage.” With so many cards produced, and so many cards saved, the likelihood that one’s collection was going to become valuable was slim.
Today, rare cards still go for large sums. The 1909 Honus Wagner card recently sold in an auction for $2.8 million. New cards aren’t selling at the rate that previous cards did, but with websites devoted to players and stats, the market for that information may already be sated. New forms of content marketing for sports are emerging, and baseball cards may not be driving fandom as they once did. Although if fewer cards are printed, those that are may become rarer, and the cycle of boom and bust may begin again.
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