How the Tobacco Industry Lured Customers with Baseball Cards

With baseball season in full swing, learn about the game’s entwined history with cigarettes

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Baseball cards from left to right: Christy Mathewson, pitcher, New York Giants, White Borders, 1909–11 (T206); John M. Ward, shortstop, New York Giants, Allen & Ginter World’s Champions, 1887 (N28); Nick Williams, catcher, San Francisco Seals, Obak, 1910 (T212). Designed by Studio A; Cards from the Library of Congress

During his early days in the tobacco business, James B. Duke once boasted he was "going to do with tobacco exactly what Rockefeller had done with oil.” The social and economic impact of trusts and monopolies was a central political debate of the era, however, and just as Duke’s control of the tobacco trade reached its apex in the early twentieth century, the tide began to turn. Although previous administrations generally had failed to enforce the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, both President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William H. Taft, sought to break up business combinations through numerous lawsuits.

In 1902, Roosevelt’s Justice Department sued the Northern Securities Company, a railroad trust led by J. P. Morgan. Soon the antitrust surge reached Duke’s American Tobacco Company as frustrated farmers and embittered tobacco wholesalers clamored for a level playing field. On July 11, 1907, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. government, in its quest to “prevent and restrain” monopolies, had filed a suit in the Circuit Court of New York against the American Tobacco Company. Two years later, a report on the tobacco industry filed by the Department of Commerce and Labor (a precursor to the Federal Trade Commission) declared that the history of the tobacco trust “shows plainly that the leading purpose of the men who have controlled it has been to dominate the tobacco industry.”

Game Faces: Early Baseball Cards from the Library of Congress

Game Faces showcases rare and colorful baseball cards from the Library of Congress's Benjamin K. Edwards Collection, bringing to life an era of American history that saw the game explode in popularity.

After almost four years of appeals, Attorney General George W. Wickersham and his special assistant, J. C. McReynolds, successfully argued the case before the Supreme Court, which ordered that the American Tobacco Company be dissolved. Yet the court’s decision hardly restored open markets to the tobacco industry. The complicated structure of the consortium Duke had assembled proved difficult to unravel. As Allan Brandt states in The Cigarette Century (2007), “The major players in the Tobacco Trust escaped with the lion’s share of assets and the potential to dominate key aspects of the tobacco market, especially cigarettes.” He goes on to note that what did occur was a “major intensification of advertising and promotion in the cigarette industry.”

In 1909, when the first legal briefs were being filed, Duke understood that it would take years for the case to wind through the court system and that the final outcome could force the breakup of his empire. To soften the effects of such a result, the American Tobacco Company launched a massive advertising barrage clearly intended to shore up Duke’s share of the market just as independent New York City firms were starting to import Turkish tobacco blends. As part of that barrage, the second wave of cigarette cards began to hit tobacco shops.

After the trust’s dissolution was finalized in 1912, three “new” firms appeared on the scene. Following the lead of the restructured American Tobacco Company, these new firms—Liggett & Myers, R. J. Reynolds, and P. Lorillard—all engaged in aggressive advertising to lure customers, children as well as adults, to buy their products. This new advertising blitz included coupons for premiums and elaborate card sets. Taking advantage of advances in printing techniques and photomechanical reproduction (called halftone), these firms created some of the most memorable and iconic sets of baseball cards ever produced.

Ten Million, outfielder; Victoria Bees, 1911. Probably the most peculiar name that ever appeared on a cigarette card is that of the Victoria Bees' Ten Million. Ten Million was the family's surname and, according to Ten's daughter, his first name was a product of his mother's "penchant for the unusual." Unfortunately, his name was more remarkable than his baseball career; he never broke into the majors.

The American Tobacco Company manufactured Obak cigarettes in one of its California factories. To appeal to local baseball fans, the packs included a set of cards featuring players for the Pacific Coast League, one of the premier regional minor leagues. Three Obak card sets were issued over three years, all of them distinguished by the color and style of their lettering and the text on the back, which, for the 1911 set, featured a brief player biography and a few lines of statistics (but not full player names or positions). The Pacific Coast League was very competitive and served as a breeding ground for many future major-league stars. Because of the league’s stature, the T212s are one of the largest sets ever issued for a minor league.

Miller Huggins, second baseman, Cincinatti Reds. Huggins had a solid career in the majors as a second baseman and made the Hall of Fame. However, he is probably better known as the manager of the great 1920s New York Yankees dynasty, including the 1927 “Murderers’ Row” team that won 110 games and featured six future Hall of Fame players, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

This unique set, produced by the Mentor Tobacco Company of Boston, capitalized on the early-1900s Turkish and Egyptian tobacco fad. The cards found in Ramly cigarette packs were black-and-white photographic portraits surrounded by ornate gold-embossed oval frames and decorative gold borders. The elaborately designed cards were also distinct from other sets because they were almost square in shape. While omitting some stars of the era, such as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Christy Mathewson, the set does include many other Hall of Famers, including Walter Johnson, Willie Keeler, and Charles Albert “Chief” Bender. Due to its unique design and ornate fancy printing, the T204 really stands apart from many other early baseball card sets.

Between the disappearance of baseball cards in the 1890s and the cards’ reappearance in the early twentieth century, there were major developments in the game itself. The National League, as the sole major league, seemed doomed at the turn of the century. Lacking the excitement of a World Series, fans turned away from the national pastime, and the magnates were left with slimmer gate receipts. As with the boom-and-bust cycle of many businesses, however, a new competitor proved favorable for the NL. When Ban Johnson’s American League moved teams into former National League strongholds, there was some initial acrimony between the leagues. These differences were ironed out in a 1903 agreement that granted the American League “major-league” status. Postseason play resumed as the modern World Series between the two leagues formally began. Over the next decade, attendance at games doubled.

While the game on the field during the early 1900s was healthy, the ball was dead. The so-called Dead Ball Era got its name from the fact that baseballs at the time had a rubber center and tended not to fly far. The era was marked by a lack of home runs, low scoring, and playing for runs one at a time. Some historians question how much the materials used in the actual ball contributed to the scarcity of offense; tough pitching and stellar fielding may have contributed as much to the lower scores as the quality of the ball.

Yet the ball did play some part. Not only was it less lively than today’s ball; it was also filthy. Balls seldom were replaced during the course of games, and balls hit into the stands were retrieved and used again. By dusk, dirty balls could be difficult to see, making it particularly difficult to track a spitball (a notorious pitch in which the pitcher spits on the ball to make it curve or drop). At this time, many players used chewing tobacco, and this, too, contributed to the condition of the ball. As Al Bridwell, Boston’s shortstop, relates in Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times (1966), “They had four spitball pitchers on that club, and I had a devil of a time throwing the ball on a straight line from short to first base. The darn thing was always loaded!”

The growth and popularity of baseball during this time owed a debt to increasing coverage in the newspapers. Sportswriter Henry Chadwick, among others, promoted baseball in the press in the nineteenth century, but a new generation of journalists was on the beat by the 1900s. Baseball historian David Voigt notes that these younger writers “departed from Chadwick’s stilted style and created the lively, cliché-ridden pattern of reporting that still characterizes this form of American literature.” Chief among this new set were master stylists such as Ring Lardner and Grantland Rice, and they had plenty to write about.

A string of exciting seasons and a crop of young star players had driven baseball mania to new heights by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. Fans flocked to games during the rollicking 1908 season, which culminated in a thrilling pennant race in the NL between New York and Chicago. An estimated forty thousand fans witnessed a game that not only included future Hall of Famers but also featured a baserunning blunder for the ages committed by the Giant’s Fred Merkle. In a flub later dubbed “Merkle’s Boner,” Merkle failed to touch second base on a crucial play, costing his team the game and the pennant.

The melodrama of the game, and the controversy surrounding it, made headlines across the country and captivated a nation. Immediately following that wild 1908 season, tobacco companies began issuing cigarette cards again, their reappearance dovetailing nicely with baseball’s ascending popularity. In 1909, the American Tobacco Company issued what was to become the defining set of the twentieth century: the delightful and sprawling T206 “White Borders” set. Baseball cards were reborn and became permanently fixed in American popular culture, along with the game itself.

Fred Merkle, first baseman, New York Giants, 1909, White Borders (T206)
Collecting, flipping, and trading baseball cards are rites of passage for many young baseball fans. Yet the seemingly innocent hobby was tarnished by its connection with cigarettes. The streets and alleys of turn-of-the-century American cities were tough places to be a kid. With child labor at its peak around the turn of the century, baseball and collecting colorful baseball cards were instantly appealing diversions for children. Regrettably, so were the cigarettes.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics report stated that between 1890 and 1910, no less than 18 percent of all children ages ten to fifteen worked. At that time, many industrialists and others in American society did not view child labor as problematic. The influential weekly Niles’ Register claimed that factory work was not for able-bodied men but rather “better done by little girls from six to twelve years old.” Invariably, the children who joined the nation’s workforce came from families on the lower end of the income scale who were forced to send their young children to work to make ends meet. Children toiled in mines, on farms, in factories and textile mills, and often on city streets, routinely picking up bad habits. It was in this context that the thorny relationship among kids, cigarettes, and cigarette cards played out.

Just as it was a common sight in the cities to see bleary-eyed children emerging from a long factory shift or hawking papers or shining shoes on street corners, it was equally common to see them smoking. Many juveniles developed serious health problems from smoking. The scourge of tobacco use among children was intensified by an industry that directly advertised and sold cigarettes to minors. Boys loitered outside saloons and tobacco shops hounding men for the cards they cherished. In Mint Condition (2010), Dave Jamieson writes, “Throngs of children reportedly showed up outside cigarette factories on the weekends, voucher in hand, demanding new albums for their cards.” 

Wielding his massive advertising budget, James B. Duke had no qualms about explicitly marketing cigarettes to children. A New York Times article from December 1888 noted that cigarette manufacturers frequently offered “premiums that enticed boys to excessive cigarette smoking.” A tobacco dealer from the era said that “any Saturday afternoon a crowd of children with vouchers” would besiege tobacco shops, “clamoring for the reward of self-inflicted injury.” Duke also used celebrity endorsements from famous ballplayers such as Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb for his various brands of tobacco products. Allan Brandt writes, in The Cigarette Century (2007), that the tobacco industry “understood what would appeal to boys, the principal target of promotions for collecting and trading. Card collecting tapped into a powerful dynamic in the initiation of new smokers.”

Not all child collectors became hooked on cigarettes. The cards were also traded, found discarded in the street, or taken from parents’ cigarette packs. Skillful marble “shooters” would win cards in street games, and there were even reports of young entrepreneurs selling cards to other kids. On November 7, 1895, the Ohio Democrat wrote of one enterprising businessman named Willie Dreyfus: “His business is the buying and selling of cigarette pictures. . . . He goes around to all the centrally located saloons and gets permission from the proprietor to pick up any pictures which he may find. . . . For new pictures he gets twenty-five cents a hundred. Sometimes he has special pictures which bring as much as one cent apiece.”

Protests from alarmed parents and those aligned with temperance leaders and the antitobacco movement led many municipalities to enact laws making it illegal to sell tobacco to minors. Many shops ignored the laws, and the cards remained enticing to kids. “We all know the craze of boys for cigarette pictures which they match and trade with,” one mother wrote to the editor of the Washington Times in 1911. “I am waging a continual war to keep my boys from cigarettes, but they seem to be like the magnet and the Pole.”

Game Faces is available from Smithsonian Books. Visit Smithsonian Books’ website to learn more about its publications and a full list of titles. 

Excerpt from Game Faces: Early Baseball Cards from the Library of Congress © 2018 by Smithsonian Institution and Library of Congress