If I’m being completely honest, most pre-War baseball cards leave me colder than Municipal Stadium on Opening Day.
I think I know why, too — the players have no life in my memory.
Most of the guys who appeared on cards after World War II were at least alive at some point since I was born, and I’ve seen a good hunk of them play either in person or on television. At the very least, I’ve probably read an interview with them or heard a second-hand story about them.
But, man, those players who hung up their spikes before 1941 might as well be Plato or Ben Franklin. I know some of them were awesome and others were true characters, but I don’t have any personal evidence of that.
Don’t get me wrong — I’d love to own a T206 Honus Wagner or a box full of Goudey beauties, but none of those make my blood thrill like a glimpsed corner of a 1976 Topps Mike Schmidt or a 1963 Maury Wills.
Those guys are part of my sports story.
In the Mood for History
That said, I do find that I can warm up to the “old” vintage cards given the proper mood lighting and setting. In particular, when I read a great old book like The Glory of Their Times, or when I’ve been hitting the antique shop circuit, the dusty cardboard from 70-120 years ago starts to pull at me.
Because, even though I don’t know that much about all the players, I do know plenty about the big names in the game. And it’s getting easier all the time to find information on the Internet about most players who have ever trod a Major League field.
So, yeah, there is a certain mystique to holding a 1909 tobacco card in your greasy little fingers, even if it’s slathered in Lucite and does not depict the honorable Honus.
And the gum cards that checked in before World War II are some of the most colorful in the history of the hobby. Who wouldn’t want to add some nice Goudeys and Play Balls to his collection?
One century-old set that always calls to me whenever it’s near is the 1911 T3 Turkey Red cabinet series.
A Big Turkey
Another tobacco issue, the Turkey Reds were larger than their T206 cousins, checking in at a huge 5-3/4” x 8” and printed on heavy cardboard stock. Each card showcases a hand-painted print of the player in question, surrounded by a thick gray-brown border. The player’s name is included on a gold “plaque” along the bottom border.
These are some of the most gorgeous cards ever produced, and many of the images are downright iconic. That shot of Ty Cobb standing with his bat just off his shoulder and staring at you with a misty Bennett Park (?) looming in the background is one of the best baseball images of all time.
But the Turkey Red set wasn’t just about individual baseball players, as it also featured a handful of more generic action shots.
Among my favorite baseball cards of all time is card #46, “Safe at Third.”
This landscape masterpiece shows a New York Giants player sliding into the shins of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ third baseman, both enveloped by a cloud of dust which appears to be carrying the ball along with it.
Who Are They? What Did They Do?
I don’t know who these players are, thought the Pittsburgh third basemen during that era was Bobby Byrne, so there’s a good chance he’s manning the hot corner on this card.
What really intrigues me is the background.
Not far behind the two players is a light brown band that may be a fence of some sort, but honestly looks more like an open field or a dirt road. Beyond that is dark and gritty skyline, replete with smokestacks, blurry city dwellings, and even the hint of a crucifix emerging from the shadows.
My first impression is that we’re looking at the hard-life neighborhoods near Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, and there are some photos from the time that might fit that idea. The uniforms of the players, however, suggest that the game is in New York. Maybe what we’re seeing, then, is Manhattan around one of the old Polo Grounds.
Whichever park it is, there are tens of thousands of personal stories lurking just behind the men playing baseball in the colorful foreground of card #46.
What did they do for a living? Where did they come from? Did any of the boys in those obscured homes go on to craft their own Major League careers?
That uncertainty and sense of wonder makes this card irresistible — once you warm up to its charms.