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Small Cards Are Big Fun: Early tobacco cards are exciting to chase

There is a lot to like about tobacco cards, including the fact that they can serve as a 'gateway collectible', as contributor Tom Edwards explains

By Tom Edwards

"Amer." League team card display

New York "Amer." League team card display. (All photos courtesy Tom Edwards)

In the mid 1980s I became interested in tobacco cards. As is the case with a lot of collectors that dive into that facet of the hobby, T-205’s were, and are, my favorite cards. I was born in Brooklyn in the 1940s so I’ll let you guess which team I followed when I was young. After the 1957 season when New York went from three teams to one, my trips to Yankee Stadium became more frequent as I followed the most successful team in the history of Major League Baseball.

Collecting Highlander/Yankees and Superbas/Dodgers tobacco cards has been a lot of fun. If you are a Hal Chase fan, the Yankees T-206 team set is what you are looking for; he has five cards. Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb both had “The Prince” on their Dream Team so that tells you all you need to know about his playing skills. His off-the-field activities would be a discussion for another day. The Chase (black hat) and portrait (blue background) cards are among the six with the most possible front and back combinations.

Chase set the tone for multiple cards of players on the “N.Y. Amer.” League team. Rube Manning, Red Kleinow, Jack Knight and Hall of Famer Wee Willie (“Hit’em where they ain’t”) Keeler have two cards each. It has been my experience that the National Sports Collectors Convention is the best place to find these 100-plus year old classics. I completed both team sets years ago but I bring them to every National my wife Cathy and I attend and I can, on average, upgrade three or four of them.

Going Beyond Tobacco Cards

About 15 years ago, I was in a sports memorabilia store in San Diego and saw a Piedmont folding seat. As a fan of tobacco cards and ballpark seats, I knew it was destined for a spot in my sports room. The seats were manufactured by the Simmons Company and the research I have done states they date from 1915 to 1920.

Before anyone asks: No, I did not buy it when it was new. I have seen two blue porcelain backs with white lettering on these seats. Mine has: For Cigarettes Virginia Tobacco is the Best – Piedmont – The Virginia Cigarette. The other back is: Smoke Piedmont – The Cigarette of Quality.

Of the two tobacco cards, I don’t know which was produced in a smaller number. I use my seat as a display stand for T-206 backs, tins and packs. The backs are Sovereign, American Beauty, Piedmont, Polar Bear (they were in pouches of tobacco so they are all stained), Sweet Caporal and El Principe De Gales. I have two Sweet Caporal tins, an American Beauty tin and Sovereign and Piedmont packs and they display well on the chair. On the two back slats of the outside frame “Piedmont Cigarettes” in black lettering matching the “Piedmont” on the blue porcelain back is still easy to see.

Eyeing the 'Big 4'

The Big 4 in the T-206 set, printed from 1909 to 1911 are Honus Wagner, Joe Doyle New York Nat’l, Eddie Plank and Sherry Magee. Of those, the Doyle, with eight known copies, is the rarest. The Doyle Nat’l error was noticed early in the print run and the Nat’l designation was removed.

Placing Yankees pitcher Joe Doyle in the National League may have come from the other

Piedmont cigarettes folding seat and collectibles

Several items of Edwards' collection displayed on an original Piedmont cigarettes folding seat

Doyle playing in New York; that would be second baseman Larry Doyle of the Giants.

There are 16 different American Tobacco Company products on the back of the cards. Among the speculation concerning the narrow width of all American Beauty cards is that the packs they were in were slightly smaller and the cards were cut to fit. Tobacco cards with Lenox, Drum and Uzit backs were printed only in the first series and are among the rarest. The cards measure 1 7/16 inches by 2 5/8 inches, give or take a 1/16 inch. Dahlen (Brooklyn and Boston), Eberfeld (Yankees and Washington), Demmitt (Yankees and St. Louis) and Kleinow (Yankees and Boston) have the same image on the front but note team changes.

The background on the Yankee cards of John Frill, Russ Ford, Birdie Cree and Chase Holding a Cup all appear to have the same grandstand. The other tobacco cards have either a one or two color background although the Keeler With Bat cards does show clouds.

Favorites Among A Pool of Legends

Among the Brooklyn cards, the Harry Pattee is my favorite. It is the only horizontal T-206 I have and the background appears to be some sort of shrubbery. The Hunter card looks like it shares the same grandstand background as the previously mentioned Yankees cards. The Brooklyn players with two cards each are Bill Bergen, Tim Jordan and Kaiser Wilhelm.

If you like T-206’s, their close cousins, T-205’s, printed in 1911, are also a fun addition to any collection. There are American, National and Minor League cards that have 11 different American Tobacco Company brands on the back. The 17 different backs can be attributed to various factory numbers and assorted ink colors used. They are the same size as T-206 cards. As anyone who has collected them for more than a day will tell you, the gold borders are very fragile and, at more than a century old, chip easily. For condition-conscious collectors, that adds to the enjoyment of the 220-card chase.

There are 27 Hall of Fame players pictured. Between the Yankees and Dodgers team sets (14 cards in each), I prefer the American League cards. They are much more ornate.

HOFers Among the Yankees and Dodgers

Among the New Yorkers, the Edward Sweeney card stands out. Unlike the others, there are four bats used to frame his portrait, all of the other cards have two bats in a V-shape below their portraits. His card is the only one among the Yankees that is green behind his portrait and has a blue background between the bats and the gold border.

The other 13 cards have either a red or green background. All of them have a catcher’s mask and mitt near the player’s name. With Sweeney and Earl Gardner, that equipment is above their names; the other cards feature those items below the name. Gardner has the only card that does not have his name on a banner; his is in a rectangular box. One of the players in the Yankees team set, infielder Jimmy Austin, is in one of baseball’s most famous photographs.

The Charles Martin Conlon photo of Ty Cobb sliding into third base with dirt (and Cobb’s spikes) flying shows Austin applying the tag to the Georgia Peach. Two of the cards, Russ Ford (one ear) and Harry Wolter show the players wearing white hats, the other players wear black.

Aiming for One of a Kind Memorabilia

The notable Brooklyn T-205 in my collection is Hall of Famer Zack Wheat. T-205’s and T-206’s have both passed the century mark since they were issued and continue to be among the most popular cards among collectors. Many consider T-206’s the most iconic cards.

Perez-Steele's Jack Chesbro and Herb Pennock postcards and T-205 Highlander cards

Perez-Steele postcards of Jack Chesbro and Herb Pennock flank this display of ornate T-205 Highlander tobacco NY Yankees cards.

I believe most collectors like to have at least one item in their collection that is rare if not one of a kind. In my case, having a friend that is an artist is helpful. I touched base (hey, a baseball term!) with Christopher Paluso and asked if he could create three-team insignia “T-205’s” for me. Using the Sweeney card as a template, Chris made New York Yankees, New York Giants and Brooklyn cards that I like a lot. The frames I used for my T-205 team sets had room on both sides after I placed the cards so I added a couple of team appropriate Perez-Steele postcards to those displays.

Although most of my collection is memorabilia that in many cases is at least 50 years old, I do like some of the cards that have been issued recently. At the 2008 National I found Allen and Ginter mini’s of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella, so they were added to the collection. I also have Allen and Ginter Yankees mini team sets. Some of the autographed, bat and uniform cards are also fun. The ETopps Yankee Stadium Tribute set found its way into the sports room as did a canvas display (1 of 25) of those cards. Along the tobacco cards line of collectables adding a B-18 blanket and a Polar Bear coupon was enjoyable.

Setting Sights on Silks

With as much fun as I have collecting T-205’s, T-206’s and related memorabilia, I think S-74 silks may be next on my collecting list. Fun, after all, is why we collect, right? As one of our favorite musicians, Leon Russell told Cathy and me after seeing him in concert, “Hey, it’s either this or work.” Having performed with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr at the concert for Bangla Desh, and countless other musical giants during his career, clearly Leon know how to have fun, too.

Tom Edwards is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at

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