Baseball Americana: A House of Cards

Welcome to week eight of our blog series for “Baseball Americana,” a major new Library of Congress exhibition opening June 29. This is the eighth of nine posts – we’re publishing one each Thursday leading up to the opening. In this post, Sara Duke, curator of popular and applied graphic art in the Prints and Photographs Division, writes about a remarkable collection of tobacco trading cards that captures baseball players from the game’s early days.

As a bonus, we’re counting down the innings to the exhibit’s launch by asking baseball fans a question each week. Your question for this week is at the bottom of this post. Join the conversation!

King Kelly, baseball’s first big star.

American businessman Benjamin K. Edwards (1880–1943) carefully amassed a collection of more than 10,000 trading cards, most of which were created to help sell packets of cigarettes. Among the many topics represented in this collection, the 2,100 early baseball cards are especially interesting for the breadth of teams and players covered.

Those cards span 1887 to 1914, when baseball began to appear less frequently. Focusing on cigarette cards, Edwards collected only one baseball card set produced by a candy manufacturerhe never turned his attention to the baseball cards packaged with candy and gum after World War I.

In an era when collectors wrote letters and traveled to track down a trove of trading cards, Edwards noted, “To the true collector hobbiest, the difficulty of finding old American cards is most inviting, and along with the sport thereof is the interest of research work and the insight as to the living and thinking of our people a half century ago.”

Ty Cobb, one of the first players to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

These baseball cards came to the Library by a circuitous route with more than 10,000 other cigarette cards on many subjects. In 1948, having learned that Carl Sandburg loved cigarette cards, Edwards’ daughter gave the albums to the noted poet and Lincoln biographer with the instructions, “[W]hen … they are of no further interest or value to you and you wish to give them to some museum or other institution, that you state in your letter of gift that they were the property of Benjamin K. Edwards, formerly of Chicago, Illinois.”

Sandburg, whose daughter Helga Golby worked in the Manuscript Division, donated the trading cards to the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division in 1954.

The Edwards Collection offers insight into the development of modern baseball and the marketing of popular players. More than 1,000 major and minor league players, from teams in 13 identified leagues and 75 cities in the United States and Canada, are represented in the collection. Major leaguers account for more than three-quarters of the images.

The cards, most of which are smaller than 3 inches on the long side, illustrate many of the greatest figures in the game’s early decades: King Kelly, baseball’s first big star; catcher Connie Mack, at the start of what would be a 60-year career as a player and manager; and Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, three of the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame.

In 1998, the Library digitized the collectionalso scanning the backs of cards when printed text existedand made it accessible to scholars around the world.

What is your favorite baseball movie?

Baseball Americana” features items from the Library of Congress collections and those of its lending partners to consider the game then and now – as it relates to players, teams and the communities it creates. The Library is partnering with ESPN, Major League Baseball and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in presenting the exhibition, made possible by the Library of Congress Third Century Fund, the James Madison Council and Democracy Fund.

Like Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson (right) was among the first players inducted into the Hall of Fame.

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