Ask many baseball collectors of pre-World War I items what picture comes to mind when given the names of Hall of Famers Baker, Marquard and Mathewson teamed with the words eye-catching, tobacco and the year 1911, and the answer will be T205 Gold Border cards. But another issue you barely ever hear about meets that description as well: Helmar Stamps.
"This is a set that has been totally overlooked by most collectors," said Robert Lifson of Robert Edward Auctions. "They are very rare, very colorful and very unusual."
"Helmar stamps," noted New Jersey-based dealer Alan "Mr. Mint" Rosen, "are very popular with some advanced collectors."
With a graphic and color rich "frame" surrounding a black-and-white player portrait, these straight-edge stamps, especially in decent-or-better condition, stand out quicker than a Walter Johnson fastball. "You have to see a whole bunch of these lined up to really appreciate them," said Lifson, "and when you do, get the sunglasses out."
And this oddball offering, from one of the main tobacco companies of the era, contains about 50 different "frames." Lifson noted, however, there could be additional designs. "I don't believe everything is known about them - there are several variations," said the sports collectibles expert rooted in the Garden State.
Distributed in glassine (wax paper-like) envelopes in packs of Helmar Turkish Cigarettes, each of the 180 different pieces in this issue, with the American Card Catalog designation of T332, measure about 11/8 by 13/8 inches.
Mark Macrae, an experienced vintage sports dealer, said glassine Helmar envelopes in excellent condition sell for about $20-$25. He added that it is unclear just how many stamps usually came in the cigarette packs.
"Baseball players, actresses and used postage stamps came in the envelopes," said Macrae. "There was probably more than one stamp in an envelope but it could have been a mix (as in not a baseball stamp in every pack)," said the San Francisco-area dealer.
"Postage stamp collecting was very big in the early 1900s, comparable to collecting baseball cards in the 1980s, so it was not unusual to see postage stamps sold with products," he said.
Under One Condition
"Helmar stamps are naturally hard to find in nice condition," said Lifson.
"They are very thin and frail and they are not conducive for encapsulation," he emphasized. "You see these a lot with corner bites, miscuts, it's crazy. It makes grading them difficult." Add to this list other common potential problems: glue residue and paper loss due to having the stamps removed from a book or album.
A recent look at the PSA Population Report showed only eight T332s graded thus far by the company. Of those, one common stamp received a PSA 7, another a PSA 5 and all others were lower grade.
SGC, meanwhile, has graded 12 Helmars, the highest an SGC 80 "Home Run" Baker.
Some recent eBay auctions had single "raw" stamp lots of 1911 Helmars and most of them had a partially missing or noticeably damaged corner and remnants of glue on the back. On average these stamps, all commons, sold for $15-$20 each.
"We maybe have some of the stamps in one auction a year," said Peter Calderon of Mastro Auctions. "The Helmars are really hard to come by in nice condition," he said. "They are generally found oddly cut and in low grade as the backs are used or show damage since people used the stamps as intended and stuck them to something," said Calderon, the writer/researcher of vintage cards for the auction giant.
In April 2006, Mastro auctioned a lot of 116 different Helmar baseball stamps, which included Baker and Mathewson, that went for $2,415 (including the buyer's premium). "We researched the set and it appears that no known "extra" scarcities are in it," added Calderon.
The 2007 Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards prices for the 1911 Helmar stamps set range from $2,400 in very good condition to $8,000 for a near-mint sample.
Commons in top shape list for $50 apiece. About two-dozen Hall of Famers can be found among the 180 stamps, with many like Baker, Marquard, Sam Crawford, John McGraw and, individually, the famous double-play combo of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, at $100 each.
Walter "The Big Train" Johnson pulls into the price guide depot at around $300, as does Mathewson. Cy Young, who pitched his last game in 1911, books at $400.
The Price is Right
The king of the set, however, is Ty Cobb at $750. The Tigers outfielder, who registered his best single-season batting average in the majors in 1911 at .420, had to work extra hard that year to win the batting crown since essentially a rookie, donning a Cleveland uniform, "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, turned in the best year he would ever have with a .408 average.
Unfortunately, Jackson is not part of this Helmar stamp issue, nor is another superstar of the time, Honus Wagner.
Dealer Kevin Savage has infrequently encountered T332s in his many years in the hobby and he said the prices on the Helmar stamps were surprising. "Compared to their scarcity, the stamps seem awfully cheap," said Savage from his Maumee, Ohio, office.
"Helmar stamps are rarer than Colgan's Chips, P2 pins and many other comparable issues of the era," said Lifson.
Some might say rarer than a home run from the dead-ball days.
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to SCD. Contact him at email@example.com