Most veteran collectors know the story of Allen & Ginter's tobacco issues of 1887 and 1888 (N28, N29, N43): Back in the era predating the Internet or even television and radio, tobacco cards actually served as a medium for getting the word out about sports stars and other celebrity personalities.
Allen & Ginter, in hopes of hawking more cigarettes, dropped one of these full-color - a first in the sports card world - conversation pieces in every pack. Collectors might find a card profiling a boxer, a bicyclist, a walking champion, oarsmen, wrestlers, or any one of 17 different sports popular at the time. All of them had one thing in common: They were the best in the world at their sport.
In fact, of the 50 athletes featured in the two 1888 Allen and Ginter series, only six baseball players made the cut, competing with guys like pole vaulter Tom Ray or shot putter Charles Queckberner and Capt. Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel.
Another swimmer, Capt. Paul Boyton, not only swam the Strait of Gibraltar, but at the time the Allen and Ginter cards came out, he'd staked his fame to a group of 200 performers he'd put together, including a famous troupe of trained sea lions. His permanent residency at Coney Island became the blueprint for the modern amusement park.
Topps' Modern Tribute
In the same spirit, Topps has created a new Allen & Ginter 2006 Baseball set. Like the originals from the late 1800s, the new Topps set includes - along with baseball cards - some non-baseball sports stars.
Some of them are well known to sports fans, such as Indy car driver Danica Patrick, soccer legend Brandi Chastain, and former UCLA coach John Wooden. Other subjects featured on autograph or relic cards have little or no sports connection, including Wendy Guey, the youngest spelling-bee winner, U.S. President John F. Kennedy and even hot-dog-eating champ Takeru Kobayashi.
"If you go to Japan, Kobayashi is a major name and he's a competitive eater, so you have to list him as an athlete," said Topps spokesman Clay Luraschi jokingly, who quickly added that Topps "wanted to do some quirky subjects, just something different. We've talked about doing stuff like this, but there wasn't really an appropriate place. I'm looking forward to doing this again next year and finding new subjects."
In order to keep the new Allen & Ginter series a mainly baseball set, Topps featured major leaguers on 300 of the 350 cards. The remaining 50 include 25 historical figures from the 1880s, 10 reprints of original Allen & Ginter cards and the 15 modern non-baseball sports icons.
"Turkey Red, T206, Allen & Ginter, and even Old Judge, they're great-looking sets," Luraschi said. "The older those sets get, the more people want a piece of them. They're not only great baseball cards, but they chronicle an era of baseball history. Even if you're a casual collector and you see these cards at a show, you're going to enjoy these cards, the originals and what we're doing."
The Making Of
Recalling the era, the set's artwork employs current photographs run through graphics software simulating the original hand-painted lithograph portraits of the 1888 N29 set. Not only is the artwork on the new cards surprisingly in tune with the antique classics, but the lettering on the cards also is faithful to the originals, a process that took many in-house test iterations, according to Luraschi.
"Topps designers spent a lot of time before they started composing them and retouching them, to make sure it's a look that we want,"Luraschi said. "It involves a lot of testing of different stuff, looking at a lot of colors and designs, just trying to match it up to the original. Once they have that system down, they start formatting the photos. I think when this product releases, collectors will see that it's right on."
Luraschi hopes that Topps Allen & Ginter will tickle the hobby's fancy like the company's recent issues recalling prewar sets, which included Topps 205, Topps 206 and the Turkey Reds.
"All of our retro-style products have kind of led up to this Allen and Ginter release," he said. "We've gotten a great reception from the collectors. As most collectors who are familiar with the vintage products know, Allen & Ginter is one of the beauties."
Topps hopes the set will succeed along the lines of its Turkey Red retro-style set last year, which was very popular with collectors and stoked the interest of new collectors, who drove up values for the pre-WWI originals at both live and online auctions.
In hopes of accomplishing this cross-pollination among hobby veterans and kids, Topps will include original Allen & Ginter N29 cards inserted into packs and the larger N43 cards as box-toppers, giving the old guard something to chase. Since the original cards were smaller than today's 2-by-3-inch sized cards, Topps will put them in card frames before inserting them in packs.
That's not the only cards that will show up in the frames. Parallels of the 350-card set will show up in packs, sized the same as the N29 originals and framed as well. The parallel set includes 51 different autographs; of the signers, 12 are non-baseball athletes such as Patrick, sprinter Carl Lewis, and yes, Kobayashi. Topps will insert printing plates from the smaller parallel set into packs, giving collectors a crack at one-of-one pieces.
Another new wrinkle debuting in the set will be "rip cards," something like a pack within a pack - wrapped cards that the collector chooses to open or not. Dick Perez artwork and other exclusive items can show up in these.
While it might sound like the usual amount of goodies inserted into packs, Luraschi said that Allen & Ginter actually is more stripped down than some of the other past Topps releases. It marks a deliberate move to appeal to the set-building psyche of the veteran collector, and to make a card that stands on its own.
"These retro-style sets are not full of bells and whistles like some of the other products are," Luraschi said. "People love to put vintage sets together because they love the design, they love the thought and artistry that goes into it, and they really appreciate the card for the card. It's why we started collecting cards in the first place."