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Baseball Hall of Fame honors history of baseball cards with special exhibit

Baseball cards have been part of the history of baseball since the beginning, and that connection is being celebrated in the Shoebox Treasures exhibit.

By Bert Lehman

The history of baseball cards spans more than 100 years, and now baseball fans and card collectors can learn more about that history in a new and permanent exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The exhibit, which is 700 square feet, is appropriately named – Shoebox Treasures.

 The National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Shoebox Treasures exhibit dedicated to the history of baseball cards, opened in 2019. (Photos by Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

The National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Shoebox Treasures exhibit dedicated to the history of baseball cards, opened in 2019. (Photos by Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“It’s a celebration of baseball cards and the passion that people have for them,” said Jon Shestakofsky, vice president of communications and education for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “The history involved in baseball cards and production, and really fans’ interactions with baseball itself have been shaped and continue to be shaped by their interactions with baseball cards.”

Having baseball cards displayed at the Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t new, as cards have been displayed in different areas of the museum as a compliment to other exhibits.

“This is really the first time we have a full exhibit dedicated to the topic (of baseball cards), so this is definitely something new,” Shestakofsky said. “It’s not just a display, its an in depth look at the industry, at the hobby, and at the way different people collect and relate to it.”

Shestakofsky said over the last 10 years or so the number one request from visitors to the Baseball Hall of Fame has been to add an exhibit devoted to baseball cards.

“This is something we’ve been wanting to do for awhile and it really started with a fundraising campaign that would sustain the design, building, and maintenance of this exhibit,” Shestakofsky said. “We had a few generous donations from folks in the baseball community like Ken Kendrick, Glenn Doshay and Bill Janetschek. But really the topic also resonated with our membership base and fans because we received an outpouring of grassroots fundraising support as well from hundreds of museum members and others who wanted to get involved and make sure this came to fruition.”

 To see baseball cards from different years, attendees can pull out draws which contain cards from specific years.

To see baseball cards from different years, attendees can pull out draws which contain cards from specific years.

The Shoebox Treasures exhibit opened Memorial Day weekend. The exhibit features more than 2,000 baseball cards ranging from the 1800s to the very modern.

“There is room for things to be changed and added so we can continue to include the newest cards as part of the exhibit,” he said.

Most of the baseball cards in the exhibit are from the Baseball Hall of Fame’s baseball card collection. Some may not realize this, but the Baseball Hall of Fame has a collection of baseball cards that approaches 200,000 cards, Shestakofsky said.

He said he doesn’t know when the museum began amassing its collection, but it continues to grow.

“Baseball cards are an important part of the game’s history, so for many years, they’ve been a part of our collection, making sure we can represent and tell those stories from the game based on baseball cards,” Shestakofsky said.

Those who visit the Shoebox Treasures exhibit will also have the opportunity to view 10 baseball cards that are considered “Holy Grail” cards in the hobby. These cards consist of some of the most well-known and publicized cards to ever be produced. The 10 Holy Grail cards include: 

• Casey Stengel card from 1923 produced by the Maple Crispette Company.

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• Peck & Snyder Sporting Goods Co. card of the 1870 Mutual Base Ball Club of New York issued in 1871.

• 1949 Leaf Jackie Robinson card.

• 1909 T206 Eddie Plank card.

• Special Nap Lajoie Goudey card sent out in 1934. The one on display is signed.

• 1954 Bowman Ted Williams card.

• 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card.

• 1914 Cracker Jack Christy Mathewson card.

• 1916 Sporting News Babe Ruth card.

• 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card.

The cards chosen as Holy Grail cards were chosen by curators at the Baseball Hall of Fame, Shestakofsky said.

“Obviously there are probably more than 10 Holy Grail-type of collector cards out there, but which 10 cards made the most sense to be part of this display,” he said.

Most of the Holy Grail cards are from the Baseball Hall of Fame’s collection. One is from PWCC, and a couple of cards are loaned to the exhibit from Kendrick.

“We think it is a good representation of the Holy Grail cards out there,” Shestakofsky said.

He added, “Having 10 Holy Grail cards is a permanent part of this exhibit, but there is leeway for cards to change. We could change one or two out at any point, but again, I would expect those currently in place (to be there) for a good chunk of time.”

Shestakofsky said the goal for the Shoebox Treasures exhibit is to have people learn about baseball and baseball cards.

“What’s fun is, the two industries have been so tied together,” he said. “Baseball cards have been around for almost as long as the game and there’s really a special connection that people have with the cards that they collected.”

The Shoebox Treasures exhibit is separated into four pieces. It starts with exploring the history of baseball cards from the beginning.

“We look at the history and then we talk about the evolution of card production and design,” Shestakofsky said. “Then we also talk about how different people and fans of different ages collect and interact with baseball cards and how the hobby became a little more of a collectors industry. The final portion is cards that are considered Holy Grail.”

 The Shoebox Treasures exhibit features a bicycle with baseball cards in its spokes. The will can be spun by attendees so they can hear what that sounds like.

The Shoebox Treasures exhibit features a bicycle with baseball cards in its spokes. The will can be spun by attendees so they can hear what that sounds like.

Many of the cards in the exhibit are viewable in pullout drawers.

“Fans can pull out the drawer for the years that they want to see and check out the cards that have been curated for those specific years,” he said.

He added, “In addition, fans of a certain age will remember putting baseball cards in their bicycle spokes, as much as some of us and some of them wish they didn’t do it at the time, we do have a bicycle on display and folks can turn the pedal and hear what that sounds like.”

The hope is that those who view the exhibit will relive the memories of their own baseball card collecting past.

“Part of our mission statement is to preserve history, honor excellence and connect generations. All three of those items can be said for baseball cards,” Shestakofsky said.

He added, “One of the most fun things to see in the museum is fathers and sons or daughters, or grandparents and grandchildren connecting and talking about an artifact,” Shestakofsky said. “The grandparents will explain why it means so much. What it meant to them, who that player was, and allow the family to connect about the game and about life through the lens of baseball. I think we’re really going to see a lot of that through this collection and through this exhibit, where different generations are going to be able to share their experiences.”

Bert Lehman is the editor of Sports Collectors Digest.