Purity of Essence (Or, How I Learned to Start Analyzing What Is and Isn’t a Baseball Card)

I’ve been working on completing a 1936 Goudey Wide Pen set, Type 1 of course, and, I’m pleased to say, I’m in the homestretch.  I’ve got 106 of the 120 AND the two keys – Joes DiMaggio/McCarthy rookie (which I basically traded, even up, for a 1976 Walter Payton rookie card) and Hank Greenberg.  I had a pretty good jumpstart on this set; I bought 80 or so back in the early ‘90’s for, what I can only assume, was a steal.

I was showing my friend Jimmy the album with my Wide Pens and he said, “They’re not really cards, are they?”  “Sure they are,” I said, not even understanding the question, but since that day I’ve been mulling over the existential point he was trying to make – “What is a baseball card?”

The Type 1 Wide Pens were in-store premiums (not sure what the method was to acquire them – were they free? Did you have to buy a certain amount of Goudey gum products?), 3 ¼” X 5 ½” black and white portraits or posed action shots with thick facsimile autographs. Overall they’re pretty fascinating, a mix of Conlon-type close ups and various pitchers in windups, swinging hitters and, on rare occasion, a real game photo. The backs are blank. (The player selection is odd and worth a post of its own).


So how could this not be immediately perceived as a card? Is it only a photograph? In the corner each Type 1 says “LITHO IN U.S.A.,” so maybe they see themselves as photos.  The 1964 Topps Giants measure 3 1/8” X 5 ¼”, slightly smaller than the Goudeys, but no one would claim they aren’t cards. Is it because they’re Topps? Because they were sold in stores? Have backs?

The 1981 Topps Giant Photo Cards are huge, 4 7/8” X 6 7/8” and were sold in stores. They have something on the back, but not very much. Is this a card? Topps’ own schizophrenia on the issue – “Photo” “Cards” – makes it unclear.

This is a card?

I don’t know the answer to the question but, since Jimmy raised the point, it’s been on my mind. What is and isn’t a card? It can’t be the maker that gives it identity, because the card world has had innumerable manufacturers. Is it distribution? Can’t be. Cards have been delivered in a lot of different ways. In store premiums are not much different than box toppers or mail away offers. Is the back having content or not a dividing line? Plenty of issues have minimal to zero text on the reverse.

Give it some thought, for me.

Author: Jeff Katz

Jeff Katz is the former Mayor of Cooperstown, the “Birthplace of Baseball” and home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. His latest book, Split Season:1981 - Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball, (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015), received national attention, with coverage appearing in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Sporting News and NPR’s Only a Game, among others. Katz appeared on ESPN’s Olbermann and The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap and MLB Network’s MLB Now, with Brian Kenny. Split Season: 1981 was a finalist for the 2016 Casey Award for Best Baseball Book of the Year.

17 thoughts on “Purity of Essence (Or, How I Learned to Start Analyzing What Is and Isn’t a Baseball Card)”

  1. I’ve pondered this question frequently. My “Talking Card” posts really raised this issue with me. Do we start with the item having to be on card stock? However, the Standard Guide to Vintage Baseball Cards and Trading Card Database includes numerous items that are not printed on card stock. I’m in favor of a broad interpretation.
    By the way, Jo Jo White had a memorable PCL career in Seattle. He came over in the deal that sent Fred Hutchinson to the Tigers in 1939. He went on to be a player, player-manager and then manager of the Rainiers. He is included in many of the ’40s PCL card sets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, your talking cards post are part of the discussion. Another part I was thinking of was Topps inserts. I know we think of them as pinups, scratch-offs, tattoos, etc., but that’s always come under the umbrella of cards, right?

      Glad I posted Jo Jo. I didn’t know about his PCL background.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I touched in one of the discussions on Lifers how I tend to be more open-minded about what a “card” is in the pre-war years and, once we establish the form in the 1950s, my definition gets a bit more strict.

    Even then though there’s a lot of grey area with oversize cards, blank (or essentially blank) backs, etc. all confusing things and we all have our own Potter Stewart gut reaction to what counts and what doesn’t.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I count the wide Pens as cards. I also count the Dell stamps and the Talking cards Tim refers to as cards. But I can also see the other side of the argument

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I recall a post from Bob Lemke on Net54 about how stuff was included or not included in the Standard Catalog. (Linked here: http://www.net54baseball.com/showthread.php?t=120904). It was discussing how the Dayton Daily News “baseball cards” — which are nothing more than newspaper clippings that call themselves baseball cards — got included in the Standard Catalog. Basically, they had “the notion of building up a data base for non-card baseball player memorabilia for future [standard] catalogs” and included those types of things.

    Long-time hobbyist Rich Klein also commented about how business-driven decisions would have cut out a lot of the items that are more loosely considered baseball cards.

    It’s worth a read.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m not sure the question is even critical . . . by asking “What is a card?” there seems to be an implication that a collectible that falls outside a certain definition of “card” in some way loses status. Most would agree that all “cards” are “collectibles,” but not all “collectibles” are “cards.” But does it really matter?

    Your Goudey Wide Pens certainly seem to tic all of the right boxes: a quantified set released during a certain time frame, each element representing a baseball “star,” and in one way or another released to the public at large. But in the larger sense, that’s more a description of a “collectible” than a “card.” And when all’s said and done, what difference does it make, as long as you get a kick out of collecting it? I would have to agree with njwv putting it in the realm of Potter Stewart, that heavy hitter from the Judicial Nine.

    What I find interesting is how baseball cards (or rather, the way we store and display baseball cards) have begun to define other collectibles, specifically the ACEO (Art Cards Editions and Originals) phenomenon. Plug “ACEO” into your eBay search engine, and you’ll see page after page of collectible artwork, all of which share one thing: the 2 1/2 x 3/12 inch shape of your standard baseball card, that fits nicely into nine-pocket plastic sheets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All good points. I don;t think it’s a critical question; I collect what I collect. I was more surprised by the very notion that the Wide Pens weren’t cards. They seem like nothing but cards to me.


  6. My initial reaction was that this is a “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” argument, but the more I thought about it, the more interesting of a discussion it becomes. When I was younger, baseball cards came in a pack. Period. I didn’t consider Hostess cards to be baseball cards because (I thought at the time) any schmuck can print pictures on a snack cake box. I’ve long since seen the error of my ways.

    My knee jerk reaction was to make paper or card stock a basic requirement… but what about Kellogg’s? Perma-Grapics? Acetate cards like Topps Tek? Printing plates?

    I love oversized cards like the 1964 Topps Giants and the Topps 5″x7″ sets of the early 1980’s, so at first I wasn’t going to put a size restriction on it… but what about, fr’instance, Sports Illustrated posters? …Or how about a life-sized standup of Cal Ripken? It’s printed on cardboard, does that make it a 6′ tall card?

    So my two quick definitions are:
    A) A baseball card is a collectible which is issued as part of a set, lays more-or-less flat and is 8.5″ x 11″ or smaller in size.
    B) “Baseball card” is shorthand for any collectible which clearly doesn’t fit under some other type of object’s definition (i.e photos, yearbooks, posters or vinyl albums) and which falls into the category of “whatever I damn well fell like collecting”.

    Liked by 1 person

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