The very first known baseball card was created by Chas. H. Williamson of Brooklyn in 1865 and pictured members of the Brooklyn Atlantics, who dominated New York baseball in the 1860s.
That same year, 1865, the Atlantics agreed to play the Tri-Mountain Club in Boston Commons, trouncing the New Englanders by an embarrassing 107-16 score.
The specific form of this card was a carte de visite (“visiting card”) which consisted of a thin paper print mounted on a thick paper card. The Atlantics card was handed out as a souvenir to fans who attended a game.
It would be several years before baseball cards began to move toward becoming a mainstream collectible, but as the game itself gained in popularity after the Civil War, the early vestiges of what would eventually turn into our hobby began to develop.
Between 1865 and the mid-1880s, a handful of different cards were produced, usually as standalone issues for special occasions and focusing on a very limited set of subjects or, like the Williamson card, showing just a single team.
Many consider the Peck & Snyder cards, issued by the New York sporting goods store beginning in 1868 and featuring team shots, to be the first “real” baseball cards — one of them featured the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
But perceptions and definitions of “first” and “baseball card” have changed over the years and vary with the source.
In 1939, for example, legendary collector Jefferson Burdick released the first version of his American Card Catalog, an ambitious tome that sought to track all the trading cards released from the middle of the 19th century up through publication (not just baseball cards and not even just sports cards).
In that volume, Burdick introduced a card classification system that persists today. Among the major categories that Burdick laid out were:
- N-Cards – 19th Century Tobacco
- D-Cards – Bakery/Bread
- E-Cards – Caramel (Babe Ruth made several early appearances on E cards.)
- F-Cards – Food -Ice Cream & Dairy
- M-Cards – Publications
- R-Cards – Gum
- T-Cards – 20th Century Tobacco
- W-Cards – Strip Cards / Exhibits
- WG-Cards – Game Cards
- V-cards/C-Cards – Non-United States Cards
Among the cards in Burdick’s research, the earliest he listed were the N167 Old Judge New York Giants, a set of 12 showcasing individual players, with advertising for (surprise!) Old Judge cigarettes on card back. The N167s were issued in 1886.
Given the stature of Burdick in the hobby and the focus on a single player per card, many collectors and hobby historians consider the N167s to be the first “real” (or at least modern) baseball cards. (Note: That same year, 1886, saw the release of another early tobacco set, the three-card N370 Jack Lane issue.)
Between 1886 and 1900, there was at least one baseball card issue most years, though pickings were slim in some years — there were no cards issued solely in 1892, 1894, 1897, or 1899.
With the dawn of the 20th century, though, baseball cards became an annual rite of passage, and collectors wouldn’t come up dry again until the last years of World War I.
By the time Burdick released his opus, the hobby was starting to take hold — nowhere near the levels we see today, of course, or even in the years after World War II, but there Burdick was not the only collector out there. And none of it — none of this — could have happened without that humble early Brooklyn Atlantics card.