There are many directions that one could go with this topic, two of which have already been well covered by SABR Baseball Cards authors and two of which would be very welcome here.
- Cards of players who “made the jump” from the Negro Leagues to the National or American League
- How Topps, Bowman, and Leaf reported the Negro Leagues experience of such players
- Early sets from Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela featuring Black baseball players
- Ultra-rare, early US issues such as the 1952 Indianapolis Clowns or 1931 Harrison Studios postcards
This article, however, will look at the first widely available baseball cards produced in the United States to showcase Negro Leaguers as Negro Leaguers. In other words, a card of Satchel Paige as a Cleveland Indian (1949 Bowman, 1949 Leaf) or St. Louis Brown (1953 Topps) would not qualify while a card of Satchel Paige as a Kansas City Monarch most definitely would. Should a working definition of “widely available” prove helpful, take it to mean there is nearly always at least one card from the set available on eBay.
Hall of Fame postcards (1971 to present)
I’ll leave it to readers individually to decide whether to count postcards as baseball cards. If you are in the “no” camp, feel free to skip this first entry. If you are in the “yes” camp then we’ll kick things off with the postcards issued and updated annually by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
While one could quibble that more than half the text on the Paige card, first issued in July 1971, relates to his post-Negro Leagues career, I’ve chosen to count this postcard because A) Paige was selected by a special committee on the Negro Leagues, and B) he is not shown in an Indians, Browns, or Athletics uniform. The Gibson postcard, which carries no such ambiguity, was first issued in July 1972, as was a similar postcard of teammate Buck Leonard.
1974 Laughlin Old-Time Black Stars
Bob Laughlin, also known for several collaborations with Fleer, independently produced this 36-card set in 1974. At time of issue, Satchel Paige (1971), Josh Gibson (1972), and Buck Leonard (1972) were the only Hall of Famers in the set. (Cool Papa Bell was inducted in 1974 but after the set was released.) Now an impressive 22 of the 36 cards in the set depict Hall of Famers, with all 14 of the remaining presenting compelling cases for enshrinement.
1975-76 Great Plains Greats
Thanks to Ted Chastain in the reader comments for identifying this 42-card set. Per the Standard Catalog the cards were produced by the Great Plains Sports Collectors Association. Cards 1-24, which includes Cool Papa Bell, were produced in 1975 and sponsored by Sheraton Inns. Cards 25-42 were produced the following year and sponsored by Nu-Sash Corp.
1976 D&S Enterprises Cool Papa Bell
In 1976 John Douglas of D&S Enterprises issued a 13-card set in conjunction with and James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was the subject of the set.
Interestingly, one of the cards in the set is a “card of a card” featuring Bell’s 1974 Laughlin card, updated with facsimile autograph.
1976 Laughlin Indianapolis Clowns
A second Laughlin set of note is his 42-card 1976 Indianapolis Clowns issue, mostly coveted by collectors today for its card of a young Henry Aaron.
Other notables in the set include Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, and basketball legend Goose Tatum.
1976 Shakey’s Pizza
In 1975 pizza chain Shakey’s issued a small 18-card set of Hall of Famers, followed up in 1976 by a much larger set featuring all 157 members of the Hall (and a second Robin Roberts card) in order of their induction. The latter set therefore included several Negro League stars: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin (New York Giants photo), Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and Oscar Charleston.
Not counting the Hall of Fame’s own postcards, which may or may not be regarded as baseball cards by some collectors, I believe this Shakey’s set is the very first to feature both “traditional” (i.e., white) major leaguers and Negro Leaguers on its checklist.
1978 Laughlin Long-Ago Black Stars
Four years after his initial Negro Leagues set, Laughlin produced a sequel, employing a similar design. Aside from a brand new checklist of 36 cards, the most evident updates were the replacement of “Old-Time” with “Long-Ago” and a greenish rather than brownish tint.
1978 Grand Slam
This 200-card set may have been produced with autographs in mind as (I believe) all 200 of the early baseball stars it featured were still living at the time the set was planned. While nearly one-fourth of the set featured current or future Hall of Famers, there was no shortage of lesser stars such as Bibb Falk and Ed Lopat. The set even included an outfielder with a lifetime OPS of .182.
More to the point, the set included cards of Negro Leaguers Buck Leonard, Judy Johnson, and Cool Papa Bell.
1980-87 SSPC Baseball Immortals
When initially issued in 1980, this SSPC set included all 173 Hall of Famers, i.e., the Shakey’s Pizza roster plus the 16 players inducted between 1977 and 1980. As such, it included the same Negro Leaguers as the Shakey’s set but also added Martin Dihigo (1977) and Pop Lloyd (1977).
Following the initial release, SSPC updated the checklist multiple times through 1987 to include the Hall’s more recent inductees. As such, cards of Negro Leaguers Rube Foster (1981) and Ray Dandridge (1987) were subsequently added to the set.
P.S. No, I don’t really know what’s happening on that Foster card, and don’t even get me started on the Josh Gibson!
1982 “TCMA” Baseball Superstars
Two different “Baseball Superstars” sets were produced in 1980 and 1982 that may or may not have been produced by TCMA. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The second of these sets included a lone Satchel Paige card on its 45-card multi-sport checklist.
1983 Sporting News 1933 All-Star Game 50th Anniversary
This 60-card set was released by Marketcom to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first All-Star Game, and it’s first 48 cards featured the 32 players from the American and National League All-Star rosters plus various other players of the era such as Johnny Hodapp and Chick Fullis. Likely in recognition of the first East-West Game, also in 1933, the final dozen cards in the set consisted of Negro League greats selected by the Sporting News.
These same twelve Negro Leaguers would be reappear in their own 1933 All-Star tribute set in 1988.
1983 ASA Bob Feller
ASA was a big name in the early 1980s when it came to single player tribute sets, with Bob Feller the subject of one of its 1983 offerings. Card 5 in the twelve-card set includes a cameo by future teammate Satchel Paige in his Kansas City Monarchs uniform.
Note that a “red parallel” of the card (and entire set) exists as well.
1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes
In 1983, Donruss augmented its slate of Hobby offerings to include a 44-card “Hall of Fame Heroes” set. While the majority of the set featured National and American League stars, it was notable at the time for being the first “mainstream” card set to include Negro League legends.
Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson are the two unambiguous Negro Leaguers in the set, and I would further count Satchel Paige in spite of his St. Louis Browns uniform.
Collectors hoping to get even more of artist Dick Perez’s talents applied to the Negro Leagues would be in luck the following year.
1980-2001 Perez-Steele Postcards (sorted in this article as 1984)
Beginning in 1980, the Perez-Steele Galleries issued a set of 245 postcards over the course of 22 years. The first of the releases to include Negro Leaguers was Series Five in 1984, which included Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, and Judy Johnson. (The same series also included Satchel Paige as a Cleveland Indian and Monte Irvin as a New York Giant.)
1984 Decathlon Negro League Baseball Stars
Apart from the copyright line, this set is identical to its far more plentiful reproduction in 1986 by Larry Fritsch.
Consisting of 119 cards, it would take nearly four decades for a set to provide more Negro Leagues firepower than this one.
1985 Decathlon Ultimate Baseball Card Set
Decathlon returned the following year with a 15-card set of baseball legends, highlighted by Josh Gibson.
In addition thirteen white players, the set also included a “second year” card of Moses Fleetwood Walker.
If the artwork looks familiar, it was done by Gerry Dvorak of 1953 Topps fame.
1986 Larry Fritsch Negro Leagues Baseball Stars
Here is the aforementioned reissue of Decathlon’s 1984 offering, still available from Larry Fritsch Cards. I believe you can also pick up a set in person at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum gift shop.
1987 Dixon’s Negro Baseball Greats
Salute to historian, author, and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum co-founder Phil Dixon, whose 45-card set was the first ever set of baseball cards produced by an African American.
Phil also worked with the Ted Williams Card Company on its Negro Leagues subsets in 1993 and 1994.
In addition to Charles Conlon photographs of five white major leaguers, this six-card set also included a card of Cool Papa Bell.
Though the small print on the Bell’s card suggests a Conlon photograph, it should be noted that Charles Conlon passed away in 1945 while Bell did not become the manager of the Monarchs until 1948.
1988 Pittsburgh Negro League Stars
This 20-card set, highlighted on the SABR Baseball Cards blog in 2020, was given to fans by the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 10, 1988. Biographical information on the card backs comes from historian Rob Ruck.
Befitting a Pittsburgh-themed set, nearly all subjects are Crawfords or Grays, though there are some exceptions such as Monte Irvin.
1988 World Wide Sports 1933 Negro League All Stars
This 12-card set features the same twelve Negro Leaguers as the 1983 Marketcom set and also shares a common theme, that of the inaugural All-Star Game (or East-West Game). Additionally, many of the cards use identifcal source images apart from differences in cropping. However, this set is a standalone Negro Leagues set whereas the 1983 set included 48 players from the white major leagues.
1989 Historic Limited Edition Negro Leagues Postcards
This set of 12 postcards features the artwork of Susan Rini. Total production was 5000 sets.
The 225-card set from Sportflics did not include any Negro Leaguers, focusing instead on contemporary players and prospects.
However, each pack included one of 153 small inserts known as “The Unforgetables” and featuring a Hall of Famer.
Among the players included in this insert set were Josh Gibson, Pop Lloyd, Buck Leonard, Rube Foster, Martin Dihigo, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, and Monte Irvin.
1990 Eclipse Stars of the Negro Leagues
I’ll finish the article with this attractive 36-card mini-box set from Eclipse, whose other offerings included the Iran-Contra Scandal, the Drug Wars, and the Savings and Loan Scandal.
The Negro Leagues set itself wasn’t scandal-free as it managed to confuse its two best players!
Counting the Hall of Fame postcards that began this article, we’ve now looked 20 years of Negro League baseball cards. Though the numbers of cards and sets may have been more than you imagined for this period from 1971-90, it’s fair to say that nearly all such sets might warrant the “oddball” label. Notably, we saw nothing at all from the biggest name in all of baseball cards, Topps.
The omission of Negro Leaguers by Topps could certainly be seen as a sign that Topps deemed these players unworthy of their precious cardboard. To an extent I buy the argument, but I’ll also counter with the fact that Topps operated “by the book” when it came to licensing, permissions, etc. I suspect many of the sets profiled in this article provided no financial compensation to the players or estates involved, meaning their honoring of the Negro Leagues may have been part celebration but also part exploitation. If so, perhaps Topps deserves kudos for not following suit.
Though I may have overlooked a card or set somewhere, I believe the first Topps Negro League cards appeared in 2001, most prominently as part of a “What Could Have Been” series.
Though unintentional, the set led off with a “what could have been” to top them all: Josh on the Kansas City Monarchs. Such would surely end all greatest team ever debates right here and now!
16 thoughts on “Baseball cards of the Negro Leagues”
That’s a great list . . . I think you caught just about all of the earliest recognition of Negro League stars. I’ve always particularly liked the 1990 Eclipse boxed set; the artwork is both beautiful and a little haunting.
The one missing instance that comes to mind are the short-lived Ted Williams Card Company sets, issued in 1993 and ’94. The first had a subset of 18 Negro League stars, the second had an additional 17 Negro Leaguers. The Ted Williams sets were fun and attractive, but the company was apparently a casualty of the bottom falling out of the market in the mid-’90s.
In terms of more recent sets, the title of biggest and perhaps most attractive Negro Leagues set may now go to the Negro League Legends boxed set of 184 cards, all featuring the artwork of Graig Kreindler and tied to the 100th anniversary in 2020 of the founding of the Negro National League. I think it was originally sold at the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame and it was limited to 5,000 boxes, but it can still be found on eBay.
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Thank you! Because the numbers eventually got pretty big, I stopped at 1990 aside from the mention of the first Topps instance. But yes, I agree the Ted Williams cards and the Kreindler cards are terrific.
Great post. If you try to complete a set of Hall of Famers’ “cards,” you really have to rely a bit on the HOF postcards for the N
egro Leagues’ executives : Effy Manly, Cum Posey and several others who as far I can tell have no standard cards in any set.
It’s also worth thinking about the Perez-Steele postcards for the rarer Negro Leaguers, under the same logic as the HOF postcards.
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A really nice post. Just outside of your cut-off window of 1990 are the Capital Cards Production post cards which feature images of Ron Lewis oil paintings of players. I believe that these were issued in 1991.
There is a blog post on this topic. 😁
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Great post, Jason! Love the postcards too. So much history here…love that you are helping spread the word.
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Outstanding post, Jason! I just got the Eclipse boxed set in the mail today! One possible addendum: there was a Cool Papa Bell card included in the 1976 Great Plains Greats set.
Thanks, Ted! An oversight on my part. Just added it.
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Just thought of another: 1987 Donruss Highlights Ray Dandridge
Also, the 1989 Perez-Steele Celebration postcard set included Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin (shown as NY Giant), Judy Johnson, Cool Papa Bell and Ray Dandridge
Where in the Negro Leaguers baseball cards you locate the Negro Leaguers featured in 1948-49, 1949-50, 1950-51 Toleteros and 1951-52 Sportings (Denia) printed to be pasted in albums during such seasons in Puerto Rico Baseball Winter League?
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That’s the third bullet in my introduction. I would love to see some articles written in that area.
Okay, so this comment got long …
I’ll add some thoughts about why Topps may not have produced cards of Negro League players in their Negro League uniforms (certainly they produced cards of Negro League players when they played in the American and National Leagues), mostly just speculation. For Topps, signing a player to an individual license should not have been a problem – that was their model even into the 1990s (Topps didn’t produce Alex Rodriguez cards until 1998 because he didn’t sign with them). So signing Cool Papa Bell to an individual contract should have been straightforward.
However, I would guess that Topps would have been unlikely to go the Panini route and produce “teamless” cards. Someone with a better knowledge of Topps’ oddball products may be able to confirm or refute what is speculation on my part, but I don’t think Topps produced cards without the MLB (and by MLB here I mean American and National League, which is what MLB meant then) logos/team names. It seems unlikely that they would want to produce a card of Cool Papa without being able to also include the team name/logo. And that may have been the more difficult task at the time – where would they get the permission to use the St. Louis Stars or Homestead Grays name on the card? It doesn’t seem like that permission would fall under their MLB agreement in, say, the 1960s. So it’s not just the player licenses but also the team licenses. The 1987 Donruss Highlights Dandridge mentioned by Ted gives some indication that, at least at that time, there was a way to obtain licensing for the Negro Leagues, though I can’t tell from the pictures online if it is player licensing or team licensing.
Now, Topps was no stranger to the airbrush as we can tell from any number of their regular sets, so even without the rights to use the Negro League team names/logos they could have signed the player and produced an airbrushed card or perhaps gone the 1991 Stadium Club route with the player in a tuxedo. But I think the airbrushing of cards in their regular sets gets to a bigger issue – as strange as it seems today, Topps in the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1980s was not in the business of producing cards of retired players, unless those retired players were shown on Topps cards (cards of cards). Hell, they weren’t even in the business of producing cards of players who played the previous year if they were retiring. You want a 1967 Topps Sandy Koufax card? It’s a good thing he led the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA because he’s only on those three league leader cards. In 1966 he won the pitching triple crown, Cy Young, finished second in MVP voting, pitched in the World Series, and he doesn’t have a base card. He’d have 72 cards (with variations, SPs, SSPs, SSSSSSSSSSSSSSPs, etc.) in the base set product if he did that today, but at the time Topps was very focused on current players and their current team affiliation, as evidenced by their airbrushing. There’s a 1967 Topps Venezuelan Koufax, but even that’s a Retirado. It’s not just Koufax – Willie Mays shows up in the 1974 Topps set on a World Series card, but there is no regular issue Mays. If Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays can’t get a career capper, what chance does Oscar Charleston have?
I am guessing that Topps’ focus on current players was because, at the time, cards of retired players (or perhaps sets of retired players) did not sell well. I am guessing that the 1960 and 1961 Fleer sets were not very profitable, otherwise Fleer would have continued to do produce sets like that and Topps would have gotten into that business at the time if it were profitable. But if Topps produced a card of a retired player it was generally a card of a card, like the 1975 Topps MVP subset, the Turn Back the Clock cards from the 1980s, or the 1982 K-Mart set (which mostly had cards of cards). Every now and then they would have career leaders (so they had to show Ruth, Cobb, etc.) and in 1977 they had a turn back the clock subset that didn’t show cards of cards (possibly because they didn’t have a card of Kiner in 1952), but by and large they focused on current players and managers. In action cards, boyhood photos, etc. – they would try many things to get multiple cards of a current player into the set, but I think the idea of putting a Henry Aaron into a 1980 Topps product that was sold in packs didn’t seem to be on their radar unless it was tied to an all time leader/great subset.
Take the biggest of biggest stars – Babe Ruth. He shows up on 1951 Topps Connie Mack All-Stars, has a subset in 1962 Topps (likely due to the HR record chase), a 1967 Topps Who Am I (which is not a baseball set), has a 1972 Topps card of the Babe Ruth Award, some 1973 Topps career leader cards, a 1976 Topps All-Time Great, a 1983 Topps Sticker, a 1985 Topps Woolworth’s, a 1989 Topps Baseball Talk, a 1995 Topps card celebrating his 100th birthday, and what seems to be some cards related to the John Goodman movie (and maybe a few test issues). It’s not until 2001 that the Topps starts to include him regularly, so they basically ignored him for 50 years. Maybe they didn’t have licensing rights, but it seems like if you wanted to produce cards of retired players one might focus on getting permission to produce cards of Ruth.
Even when Topps did reach back into history, it tended to be reproductions of their past sets. In 1983 they reproduced their 1952 Topps set; in 1991 their 1953 set; in 1994 their 1954 set. I know there is a 2001 Topps Archives set that focuses on retired players (though still tends to be reproductions of earlier cards); I’m not sure if there is any product available in packs produced earlier by Topps that has a large number of retired players that is not a complete reprint of an earlier set (Upper Deck in 1994 had an All-Time Heroes product; I’m not sure how well that sold, though the strike may have had some affect on those sales) as I think even the one-off brands like 1995 Topps DIII and 1996 Topps Laser, and the more regularly produced brands like Stadium Club, Gold Label, Gallery, etc. focused on current players. It’s not that retired players didn’t show up at all – I know there is a subset in some of the late 90s Topps Stars sets and autographed cards (though again of reprinted Topps/Bowman cards, or half cards in the case of players who had multi-player cards) from that product, but Topps really seems to be testing out the waters with the retired players.
While we might ask why Topps didn’t produce cards of the Negro League players and come up with any number of reasons, I’d guess at the end of the day it was a business decision: at the time, the inclusion of retired players, regardless of the league in which they played, was almost certainly viewed as unlikely to help move product, or at least the cost may have been viewed as too high. That is certainly different today and probably has been for at least 20 years. In my own collecting experience, the first time I remember seeing the Negro Leagues as a focus in a pack-released product was in the 2001 Fleer Tradition Stitches in Time insert set (I missed out on the Ted Williams sets when they came out – I was finishing up high school and heading off to college so cards were a lower priority), which I think are some nice cards.
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Practically its own post! 😀 Regarding Negro League team names and logos, all are public domain with the exception of the Monarchs and Clowns, which are owned by NLBM.
One should also consider the Retort Series of Postcards from I believe 1991 (series 1) and 1993 (series 2) . Each set was made up of 100 postcards of which at least 50% were of individuals and the remainder of teams. I am not sure the source of the photographs from this set. The Retort set was accompanied by a book which provided more examples of images of the players portrayed in the set.
The 1984 Decathlon set is identical to the 1986 Larry Frisch set with one exception. The Decathlon cards are 2-5/8″ x 3-5/8″, just wide enough to not fit in 9-pocket pages, while the Frisch cards are standard size.