Sports card collecting began rather accidentally. During the late nineteenth century the
tobacco tycoon James Buchanan “Buck” Duke (founder of Duke University) started putting
small slips of cardboard into packs of cigarettes to stiffen them to help prevent damage
during shipping. Each piece of cardboard had advertising on one side and the picture of a
popular actor on the other. Duke’s competitors soon saw the advertising potential in this
practice and followed suit with their own cards, which included pictures of other popular
celebrities. It was, however, the cards featuring sports heroes (particularly baseball stars)
that became the most coveted among young seekers of this new collectible.
The production of sports cards, and thus the public’s interest in them, declined sharply in the
early 1900s due largely to the introduction of Camel brand cigarettes, and the surrounding
marketing campaign, by R.J. Reynolds Company. Written on the back of each pack of Camels
was: “Don’t look for premiums or coupons, as the cost of the tobacco blended in CAMEL
Cigarettes prohibits the use of them.” Almost immediately tobacco companies stopped the
production of sports cards out of the fear that their tobacco would be seen as “inferior” by
Sports cards and sports card collecting seemed destined for some obscure footnote in the
history of American popular culture: just another passing fancy, fad, or curiosity. The hobby,
however, had a revival in the middle of the twentieth century, this time as part of the chewing
gum industry. Sports cards became part of the battle between rival companies in their quest
for customers with the Topps Chewing Gum Company (Topps) and the Bowman Gum Company
(Bowman) signing the biggest players in baseball and football.
Topps emerged as the winner of this battle in 1956 when they purchased Bowman. For the
next 25 years (1956–1980) Topps was in complete control of the baseball card industry and
had a near monopoly over football cards from 1956 to 1988. Topps’ baseball card monopoly
ended in 1981 after losing an antitrust suit filed by the Fleer Corporation; the ruling was
extended to Topps’ football card monopoly in 1988. Because of Topps’ monopoly, these two
time periods 1956–1980 (baseball) and 1956–1988 (football) are known as the “Topps Era” in
the card collecting hobby.
Our Childhood Memories: Kellogg's Sports Cards
Many of us remember tearing open the top of a newly purchased cereal box to see the sport
card treasure inside. The Kellogg Cereal Company knew that youngsters hungered for
something special, besides the cereal. As he or she plunged a hand deep into the crispy
universe excitement was high.
Is he searching for a fistful of flavorful flakes? No! Lurking within this vitamin enriched
environment is another prize. Excitement escalates as the boy's index finger feels something
near the box's bottom. His thumb quickly comes to help in the quest and confirms that, YES!
The treasure has been found -- a 3-D sports card.
In terms of widespread distribution, 3-D cards of active pro baseball and football players
debuted in 1970 via the Kellogg's Company, and from the beginning many used the multi-finger
"search-and-rescue" method to obtain the cards the cereal maker inserted into boxes of Corn
Flakes, Frosted Flakes and Raisin Bran. Nearly 40 years later, many collectors still have a
strong taste for the vintage three-dimensional Kellogg's sports premiums.
The relative rareness of the 1971 Kellogg's baseball and football issues stems from being the
only 3-D cards from the Battle Creek, Michigan company that were distributed solely one-per
cereal box. In other years, the complete card sets of current players were available through a
mail-in offer, making those issues easier to find today than the 1971 sets. Additionally, 3-D
cards from 1971 have an above average tendency to crack and curl, some say due to inferior
plastic, and that fragility increases demand even more for top-shape examples of the cards.
TWO SCOOPS OF FUN
The distinctive three-dimensional aspect of the collectibles, which adds an element of depth.
Many of us must have eaten 100 boxes of cereal in the 1970's and 1980's looking for cards.
Now many of us collect them because of all the childhood memories with them and the rarity
of the cards makes them even more special.
Professional Sports Authenticator, PSA, and Sportscard Guaranty, SGC, are widely respected
companies that assign a grade to a collectible and then encapsulate it in a plastic holder. Like
Cornett, many of Ratz 3-D cards are graded in near-mint or better condition, and Kellogg's
cards from 1971 with PSAs highest possible grade of 10 (Gem Mint) can bring huge prices.
For instance, in 2008, Kellogg's PSA 10's of quarterback Gary Cuozzo, a non-star player, and
football great Dick Butkus, 1971, sold for about $640 and $1,200, respectively. In PSA 8
(Near-Mint) condition, they list for $8 and $30, in comparison.
In 2005 a 1971 Kellogg's PSA 10 of Roberto Clemente sold for nearly $1,500. In PSA 8, that
card of the baseball legend lists at $75.
But with their layers of plastic, how do these 3-D cards fare in encapsulated form? It's
extremely rare when a Kellogg's card cracks in a professionally graded holder, about 1-in-1000.
If it doesn't show any flaws after 40 years, it is extremely valuable. And unless it's put under
extreme conditions, the chances of it cracking further are remote. This means it is a great
At one time the sports card industry, especially baseball cards was also sold in mom-and-pop
stores. Its current strength stems mainly from America's renewed love affair with baseball
this decade. But card makers aren't being dazzled by recession or boom times.
However, they are, in general, positioning themselves -- through product-line extension,
savvier distribution, and niche marketing -- for the 1990s. Much has been made of the thriving
market in old baseball cards, a secondary market that racked up an estimated $500 million in
sales last year, but it's children age 7 to 12, buying at the general retail level, who determine
whether baseball card makers whack a homer or strike out. In the past card makers
estimated that 75% to 90% of their sales come from children. Now, older "kids" are
collecting sports cards at a high rate, especially as a hedge against inflation.
|The History of Collecting Sports Cards