SABR Century Project – Baseball Cards of 1921

Author’s note: The newly formed SABR Century Research Committee has invited SABR’s other committees to share in the celebration of all things baseball a century ago. In our case, that means the baseball cards of 1921.

As I begin typing up this post I must confess to owning no baseball cards from the year 1921. Like a lot of collectors–even vintage collectors–my collection has a 20+ year gap between the tobacco and caramel cards of the early 1910s…

…and the gum cards of the early 1930s.

Of course if past habits prove true, I may find myself trying to bridge that gap by the time I reach the end of this post. (No joke! Every card pictured above came from my stint here at the SABR Baseball Cards blog.)

I will therefore approach this article not as any authority on the subject but through the eyes of a collector window shopping the offerings of the year 1921 as if I were trying to pick out a card, which of course I just might do, though I may need to add a side hustle to find the cash.

1921 American Caramel

The first set that comes to mind when I think of 1921 is the American Caramel set known as E121. American Caramel had been making cards on and off since 1908. In fact, the leftmost card in my first image above is from their 1909-11 set known as E90-1. However, in the years leading up to 1921, American Caramel had been mostly off, with their 1915 E106 issue being their lone set produced between 1912 and 1920. Much of the absence might be attributed to World War I and the flu pandemic since almost nobody was producing baseball cards between 1917 and 1919.

Their 1921 set then perhaps came as a welcome surprise to collectors and chewers, and for those who’d saved or remembered their earlier caramel cards the new cardboard would have looked quite different.

Gone were the color paints and here for the remainder of the American Caramel decade were black and white photos. And though none would have realized it at the time, the 1921 issue was also a next step in the decidedly haphazard evolution toward standard baseball card size. A side-effect was that some collectors trimmed the sides off their 1921 cards, likely to fit with their earlier cards better.

Player selection for the set of 80 included spanned 15 of the 16 Major League franchises. Perhaps surprisingly based on their Pennsylvania headquarters the one team not represented was the Philadelphia Athletics.

Positioned at the close of the Deadball Era the checklist was a mix of small ball and long ball. (And yes, the Bambino is still sporting his Red Sox jersey!)

Other “top shelf” Hall of Famers included Grover Cleveland Alexander, Rogers Hornsby, and Walter Johnson. Absent from the set are all “Eight Men Out” despite most having played full seasons in 1920. This was consistent with most card sets of the era and even into the present, as most sets aimed to produce cards for the current season rather than the prior one.

1921-23 National Caramel

Not to be confused with American Caramel, another Pennsylvania-based caramel company put out a set. The cards had the same basic look as the American Caramel cards, and many even used the same photographs. The set is known as the E220 National Caramel set and included 120 cards over a three year period.

A comparison of the card backs between the two sets suggests a common designer or at least printer was used by both companies.

I’d wondered for a bit if they were in fact the same company, perhaps thru merger, but my brief research seems to indicate their was no business relationship beyond competitor. (Related: A group of executives from American Caramel did leave in 1925 to establish York Caramel, which put out a set of cards in 1927.)

I wish I could say no one was hurt in the making and packing of these baseball cards, but this September 2, 1921, article from the Lancaster News Journal may suggest otherwise.

Now I know you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t that the same kid who got injured in a different explosion six years earlier?”

And don’t even get me started on the murder plot! (Of course I’m serious, even dead serious you might say.)

1921 Exhibit Supply company

The year 1921 also saw the debut of a family of baseball card sets that would extend all the way to the early 1960s. Exhibit Supply Company out of Chicago began producing postcard-sized photo cards with blank backs known to collectors simply as “Exhibits.” The initial offering featured 64 players, an even four per team, and again black and white photography carried the day.

Over the years and decades the look of these Exhibits cards changed relatively little, as these examples from 1939-46 and 1962 show, though in 1962 the innovation of adding statistics to an otherwise blank back occurred.

As for star power, the top-shelf Hall of Famers in the 1921 Exhibits exactly matched that of the American Caramel set, including the key cards of Ruth and Cobb.

Strip cards

No need to avert your gaze if you’re a non-collector simply reading this as part of your Century Committee scholarship. These is not some “adults only” release or deck of cards to be used in strip poker. Rather, these cards get their name for being issued in long strips that candy sellers would cut for their young baseball-crazy customers.

Various issues released in 1921 went by the (later) classifications W516, W521, W551 (shown above), and W9316 and were joined by some earlier releases that remained in circulation. The most popular of the earlier releases is the 1919-21 W514 set. Among its 120 cards are a dozen White Sox, and it remains the most affordable (but not very) way to collect contemporary cards of seven of the Eight Men Out. (Can you spot who’s missing?)

Despite their relative affordability (okay, explaining their relative affordability), many collectors find strip cards to be too cartoony and unattractive for their collections. To illustrate that this sort of artwork is harder than it looks I asked my son to draw three baseball players of the era, and I think you’ll agree he was no match for the pros. Wait, check that. These are actual cards from the 1921 W9316 issue!

Though many collectors would just as soon forget strip cards ever existed, they do feature importantly in the history of the Hobby. In 1923 a new set of strip cards would emerge. The front of the cards would look just like another strip card set known as W515. However, this new set featured advertising on the back from a gum maker who would 36 years later make a bigger splash in the Hobby and 58 years later make an even bigger one.

Zeenut Pacific Coast League

While most baseball card production ground to a halt during the war and pandemic years, one set managed to renew itself annually from 1911 until 1930. The 1921 issue featured 169 blank backed cards, 1-3/4″ x 3-11/16″ in size, significantly narrower and incrementally taller than today’s baseball cards.

While the checklist includes only one Hall of Famer, Sam Crawford of the Los Angeles Angels, there is no shortage of ex-MLBers, future MLBers, and other notables.

Pictures of these cards are hard to find, so I’ll illustrate by means of a quiz some of the top players on the checklist. Their 1921 Zeenut team is in parentheses.

  • Holds the fourth highest career batting average among qualifying players. (San Francisco Seals)
  • One of eight players with over 4,000 professional hits across MLB, MiLB, and NPB. (Los Angeles Angels)
  • Has the same name as the player with the most professional hits across MLB, MiLB, and NPB. (Salt Lake City Bees and Sacramento Senators)
  • Six-time National League home run champion (Salt Lake City Bees)
  • Pitcher-turned-baseball card illustrator (Seattle Rainiers)
  • Had the best relief outing of all time (San Francisco Seals)

Okay, ready for the answers? Lefty O’Doul, Jigger Statz, Peter Rose, Gavvy Cravath, Al Demaree, and Ernie Shore. Pretty fun names for a minor league set!

Bread cards

Though the releases described so far define 1921 to most pre-war collectors, I’ll offer that really 1921 was the “Year of the Bread Card.” Bread cards had been around for at least a decade, as evidenced by the 1910 Tip Top Bread “World’s Champions” set honoring the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Bread cards also continued well past 1921, as evidenced by Tip Top’s popular 1947 set and two from Bond Bread, one dedicated entirely to a history-making Dodgers rookie.

The years from 1980-2000 saw numerous bread issues as well, but of course those same years saw multiple cards sets from hardware stores, macaroni brands, fast food joints, toilet plungers, firearms, pacemakers, and bobby pins. (Okay, just kidding about some of those.)

What distinguished 1920 then wasn’t simply that there were bread cards, but that there were so many different ones.

  • 1920-21 Mother’s Bread
  • 1921 Clark’s Bread
  • 1921 Koester Bread New York Giants/Yankees
  • 1921 Mrs. Sherlock’s Bread Pins (shown below, and yes, I’m stretching the definition of baseball card a bit here)
  • 1921 Standard Biscuit
  • 1921 White’s Bakery Baltimore Orioles
  • 1921 Wool’s American-Maid [sic] Bread

I don’t knead to tell you that’s a lot of bread! What the focaccia was going on back then? Challah if you feel my pain. Can’t stop now, I’m on a roll.

The Bambino

From among the many other–mostly very obscure–sets issued in 1921, I’ll close with one most collectors have never heard of that nonetheless occupies and important slot in the evolution of the Hobby and in my opinion features the best design of any set of the era. (And yes, you have seen that last Babe Ruth pose already in this article.)

As the packaging notes, kids needed only to eat 250 boxes (wait, seriously?!) of this candy to win a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. What’s more, according to my research, this seven-card set (or six plus a variation, I would argue) was the largest set to date featuring a single player.

As was the case often with Babe Ruth in 1921 the record he beat was his own since the only (!) single-player baseball card sets I could find prior to 1921 were three (slightly) different Babe Ruth “Heading Home” movie card sets of 2-3 cards each from 1920.

Conclusion

Though 1921 was not the turning point in Hobby history it was situated within a brief 2-3 year period that saw many notable Hobby trends: the rise of Ruth, a return to photography, the debut of Exhibits, the peak of bread/bakery cards, the resurgence of caramel cards, and the demise of the Black Sox. The once ubiquitous tobacco cards that ruled the Hobby a decade earlier had largely disappeared from the landscape and would not return (in a major release) for 30 more years with the Red Man sets of the early 1950s.

Something else we know about the cards from 1921, however much or little we think about it, is that these cards tell us the story of a segregated game. Invisible from the sets of the day were many of the era’s top players:

  • Oscar Charleston of the St. Louis Giants
  • Cristobal Torriente, Dave Malarcher, and Bingo DeMoss of the Chicago American Giants
  • John Donaldson, Jose Mendez, and Bullet Rogan of the Kansas City Monarchs
  • Louis Santop of the Philadelphia Hilldales
  • Cannonball Redding and Dick Lundy of the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants
  • Pop Lloyd of the Columbus Buckeyes
  • John Beckwith of the Chicago Giants
  • Andy Cooper and Pete Hill of the Detroit Stars
  • Biz Mackey of the Indianapolis ABCs
  • Smokey Joe Williams of the New York Lincoln Giants

The omission of these players is not surprising, but it certainly diminishes the card sets of the era, at least in this collector’s eyes.

Less significantly, mustaches were absent from 1921 baseball cards and a good 50 years away from making their comeback.

As you and I ponder this Dick Allen card, which some of you may have even obtained in a pack (!) and I will at least recognize as coming from the same decade I entered the Hobby, I’ll close with a sobering thought. This Dick Allen card is as old today as the cards from 1921 were when the Dick Allen card came out. Putting it another way, that Dick Allen represents the midpoint between these two baseball cards:

At first glance, you might be drawn to the differences between these cards. How much has changed in a hundred years! But look again, and you will also see—quite remarkably—just how much has stayed the same. Therein resides the beauty of the Hobby, if not the Game.

Author: jasoncards

I mainly enjoy writing about baseball and baseball cards, but I've also dabbled in the sparsely populated Isaac Newton trading card humor genre. As of January 2019 I'm excited to be part of the SABR Baseball Cards blogging team, and as of May 2019 Co-Chair of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee.

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