T206 Cards: From Marketing Gimmick to Collecting Legend
T206 cards were born out of the marketing instincts of one of the early 20th century’s most shrewd businessmen.
Barely five years after utilizing the new cigarette rolling machine he coveted, James “Buck” Duke would create the American Tobacco Company and control nearly half of the booming market for cigarettes. Duke simply swallowed up his competitors, like Allen & Ginter, Goodwin & Company, Liggett & Myers, Lorillard, Lucky Strikes, Pall Mall and others. Just four years into the new century, nine out of ten cigarettes sold were ATC products.
Duke loved sports and saw an opportunity to increase the sales of his products even more by creating an incredible collection of baseball player photographs to serve as in-pack premiums for 16 of his tobacco brands.
The 524 card set, launched in 1909 and continuing through 1911, included both both major and minor league players and quickly gained a huge following among adults—but mostly kids who begged smokers to give them the card or found retailers willing to sell them a pack or two.
Duke demanded full color lithography for the cards and with no real color pictures of America’s new sports heroes found anywhere else, they were considered revolutionary. Duke’s baseball card set, now known by its catalog designation as T206, still looks good today.
Collecting was a popular pastime here and abroad and even 100+ years ago, they were considered to be worthy of keeping, not just tossed out with the empty pack, although many surely met that fate. Each of the 1 7/16” x 2 5/8” cards based on photos from the most highly regarded photographers of the day, including Carl Horner and Charles Conlon.
They were small enough to hide in a desk drawer, big enough to display and too good looking to ignore. More than 100 years after they first appeared, many T206 baseball cards have survived in comparison to other black and white issues printed much later. Why? The product was good. The size was right and the printing stock was thick enough and good enough not to fade or dissolve over time. T206 sets the bar for nearly all pre-World War II baseball card sets, even if many of the players have been forgotten over time.
There are 524 cards in the set and the Hall of Fame players who appear in the set is impressive. Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, John McGraw, Tinker, Evers and Chance, Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Eddie Plank, Three Finger Brown, Wee Willie Keeler, Big Ed Walsh, Home Run Baker, Wahoo Sam Crawford and of course, the famous T206 Honus Wagner card.
Advanced collectors have discovered the great stories behind some of the players and there’s even a new book out, chronicling their lives and careers. The T206 set is a great visual record of baseball during the first part of the 20th century.
It was a time when players were just glad to be paid for playing baseball and although some complained about the pay and working conditions, they had few options other than working in coal mines, factories or farms—clearly less exciting work!
The faces on the T206 cards had largely been unseen by the rapidly growing fan base across the country and the cards brought newspaper headlines to life as much as anything could in that era. There was no TV…no radio…just written accounts in daily papers, early sports publications or a small number of baseball books. Ordinary fans could now touch the game and the T206 cards were irresistible. They still are today.
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