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An inconvenient set: M114 Baseball Magazine ...

There’s a set out there. It’s waiting to be discovered. It features large-sized, high-quality images of hundreds of players, spanning the Dead Ball Era to the late 1950s. Everyone is in there, from Honus Wagner to Mickey Mantle, with Cobb, Ruth, Williams and everyone imaginable in between. This set features obscure players, too, including many World War II-era players who can’t be found in any other major issue.

There’s a set out there. It’s waiting to be discovered. It features large-sized, high-quality images of hundreds of players, spanning the Dead Ball Era to the late 1950s. Everyone is in there, from Honus Wagner to Mickey Mantle, with Cobb, Ruth, Williams and everyone imaginable in between. This set features obscure players, too, including many World War II-era players who can’t be found in any other major issue.

There’s more. While collecting the full set can be challenging (and it’s possible that nobody has ever accomplished this feat), the individual pieces are reasonably priced. Seventy-year-old issues that are slightly off-condition can be had for well under $10. And if you can figure out how to display this set, it would be amazing. Although an effective display may never have been accomplished by anyone, either.

So why hasn’t the M114 Baseball Magazine Premium set become a hobby favorite? What’s the problem? What’s holding it back?

Well, I have a few theories. It may be that no complete checklist was available until recently (and the one in use is not entirely reliable). It may be that out of 700-plus pieces to the set, only about a third of them can be termed “common.” Or it may be that the set I’ve been describing consists of 9-1/2-by-12 photos on thin paper that don’t fit into any readily available storage medium.

Baseball Magazine
I’ll take my medication, calm down and tell you about this set. First, a few words about Baseball Magazine. This oversized monthly, which featured distinctive red-bordered covers for most of its run, was the dominant source of news, commentary and analysis regarding baseball for decades. It was published from 1908-57 (with a brief 1964-65 revival), and its consistently high circulation is evidenced by the availability and affordability of back issues on eBay and on dealer tables at any card show.
In 1910, at the height of the golden age of tobacco card issues, Baseball Magazine got into the act by offering its readers four different “Art Posters.” These posters measured 9-½-by-20 and featured Ty Cobb, Johnny Evers, Hugh Jennings and Honus Wagner. You sure can’t fault the editors for their choices.

Each poster was printed on slightly glossy, sturdy stock paper, with the sepia-toned photo making up 7-½-by-14 inches of the space. If there’s one element that defined the Baseball Magazine Premiums for their entire existence, it’s the fact that there was a lot of white space around the photos.

Apparently, the posters moved very well, because the editors of Baseball Magazine felt compelled to add to the list. Nothing was done in 1911, but in 1912, no fewer than eight posters – depicting Babe Adams, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Howie Camnitz, Frank Chance, Claude Hendrix and Marty O’Toole, as well as team posters of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants – were offered. While some of these names may not be familiar to modern-day baseball fans and collectors, they were all players who had enjoyed at least one or two outstanding seasons.

The floodgates really opened up the next season, when 25 new posters were added to the list. They continued to follow the format of the earlier posters, with the 9-½-by-20 size firmly in place, and the sepia-toned photo, often taken by the legendary Charles Conlon, making up the centerpiece. Additions for 1913 include (among others) Shoeless Joe Jackson, Walter Johnson, Nap Lajoie, Connie Mack and Christy Mathewson, as well as Vic Saier, who isn’t listed in any available checklist, but who resides comfortably in my own collection. No new team photos were offered that year.

Baseball Magazine continued to add to the list of available posters, with new issues varying in number from year to year. The old posters were kept in print for some time, indicating a substantial print run. This offer was in it for the long haul. Fifteen posters (including team photos of the A’s and the Braves) were offered as new in 1914, and five new players in 1915. However, Baseball Magazine really went to town that year when it came to team photos, offering 14 of them, showcasing the Philadelphia A’s, Boston Braves, St. Louis Browns, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Senators, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Whales (of the Federal League), Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. The only teams left out of this torrent were the New York Giants (presumably still current with their 1912 poster), as well as the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gee, I wonder what they did to tick off the editors?

The ads
A few words about the means by which the posters were offered. Typically, late in the year, a full-page ad would appear in the back pages of the magazine, announcing with some enthusiasm the availability of several new pieces. An ad from April 1932 is typical, announcing “6 New Art Posters,” listing “group” posters of various teams and “individual” posters of the players. The ad enticed readers by stating that “these handsome art posters are in Sepia Brown on finest coated paper stock. Size 10 x 12 inches (some are larger). The price does not tell the story – you would pay $0.50 each in an art store and think you had a bargain. We have sold 2½ million in the last four years – that is why we can make the price so low.”

The price, by the way, was six free posters with any one year subscription, or 25 cents each, six for 50 cents, 12 for $1 or 25 for $2. I have to admit, that’s some bargain. The posters were sent in a plain brown envelope. These envelopes are sometimes found in the hobby, and it’s amusing to see how little the cost of postage was way back when. I have an envelope from the late 1940s that once held a dozen posters. The cost of third-class postage was a whopping 5 cents. Yikes.

I also note that as late as 1932, the original Cobb and Jennings posters from 1910 were still available. That must have been some initial print run.

From the beginning, the posters offer collectors a chance to obtain high-quality reproductions of photos taken by such legends as Charles Conlon. Conlon was the alpha photographer for the sport of baseball, beginning a little after the turn of the century, through his retirement shortly before World War II. A substantial percentage of the posters issued during that span featured his images. Most of the other photos are credited to “International News Service.”

A change in size
In 1916, a huge change came over the series, big enough to have Jefferson Burdick assign a new catalog number to the posters issued thereafter. The 70-odd posters issued between 1910-15, measuring 9-½-by-20 inches, bear the designation of M113. From 1916 onward, the posters measured 9-½-by-12 inches, give or take a 1/4-inch or so, and are known to serious collectors as M114.

The slightly smaller size makes the posters much easier to deal with, and the image size is reduced only slightly from the earlier posters. From 1916 going forward, the Baseball Magazine Premiums featured a sepia-toned photo with an image size of about 7-½-by-9-¼, with the top and bottom borders obviously reduced considerably. This change made a big difference in terms of the posters’ long-term survival, because hard-core collectors will tell you that it’s very, very difficult to find the large M113 posters without significant trimming. Most of the ones in my own collection have been trimmed to the picture borders, and even the ones that still look relatively good have a bit taken off the top and bottom.

At 9-½-by-12, the M114 posters are sometimes found trimmed, but are generally found relatively intact. I guess adult and young collectors found the smaller size easier to handle.

With the changeover in size, this series moved into high gear. New players and/or teams were added on an annual basis, often as many as two dozen a year, although 1918 and 1919 were lean years, with one new player each (although 1919 also saw new team pictures for the pennant winners, the Reds and the White Sox), and no new players came along in 1922 and 1923 (although there was a new Yankees photo in 1923).

The magazine certainly didn’t believe in wasting any opportunity to use the photos. By the 1920s, Baseball Magazine had initiated the custom of showcasing a photo on the inside front cover of each issue, and usually on the inside back cover, as well. These were sometimes group portraits of two or three players (which would not become part of the poster series), but more often consisted of the same photos that would turn up in that year’s class of art posters.

These inside cover photos must have been popular with readers, because they can often be found in the hobby in substantial quantities. One sometimes sees them referred to as “Baseball Magazine Premiums,” but don’t be fooled. If they have a cover on the back, if they have a red border or if they have a text caption rather than just the player’s name, a photo credit and a copyright notice, they’re not from the M114 series.

Changing photos
Baseball Magazine was not obsessive about keeping up with player movement; there were lots of posters that were kept in stock even after a player had been traded to a new team. This might have been due in part to matters of inventory. Baseball Magazine may simply not have wanted to trash thousands of posters already printed and in stock merely because the player was with a new team. Of course, one must recall that in the earlier years of this century, uniforms were not as distinctive or as logo-festooned as they are today. Black-and-white photography, particularly full-body poses of the type used by the magazine, wouldn’t show a small letter on a player’s cap very well, and so a picture could be used for years after the player had moved on.
Once the stockpile of posters had been used up, and if the player was still popular, a new poster could be issued. This happened to such players as Joe Cronin (shown first in 1931 with Washington, and again in 1937 with the Red Sox), Dizzy Dean (with the Cardinals in 1933 and the Cubs in 1938) and Jimmie Foxx (with the Philadelphia A’s in 1928 and the Red Sox in 1939).
Of more interest are the instances when new posters were issued of players who hadn’t changed teams. This could very likely have been due to the exhaustion of existing posters and the desire to show the player in a modified uniform (teams did change their styles every few years in the 1930s and 1940s, like today), or it could just have been a case of trying to make readers and fans buy the same thing more than once.

Certainly, Babe Ruth holds the record for the largest number of M114 posters issued. The first one came in 1915, in the M113 series, showing him as a pitcher for the Red Sox. Needless to say, that one will set a collector back a few cents, in the event it can even be tracked down. All told, there are seven different Ruth posters supposedly issued between 1915-57 – although I’m only aware of four non-pitching poses. There’s a chance that a “new” poster might occasionally have been announced by the magazine, when in fact it was just a reprint of an earlier pose. The most common Ruth poster is the very tight closeup of his face, which may date from 1943, but could have been reprinted several times.

The aging of the ballplayer itself may have been a factor. Bob Feller had two posters issued over the course of his career, which spanned 1936-56, all spent with the Cleveland Indians. The first one was issued in 1937, showing the Hall of Fame pitcher, not yet out of his teens, in a pinstriped Indians uniform that looked like a pair of pajamas. The second poster showed up in 1949, showing a much more mature Feller in a much more modern-looking Cleveland uniform. The two pictures are very distinct in terms of the eras they represent. (Actually, there was a third Feller poster issued in 1957; more about those late-issue pieces later).

Other players never changed their pose, but they show signs of having been run through the printing press multiple times. I’ve seen posters for Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell, both of whom had long careers exclusively with the New York Giants, showing broad variations in color (ranging from deep brown to almost black and white) and picture quality (some versions show a lot of grain to the photo). Joe DiMaggio was another player who had only one poster issued, but which was kept in print for decades.

The quality of the paper on which the posters were printed also varied quite a bit over the years. Some posters are on very heavy paper stock, while others are on much lighter-weight paper – downright flimsy, in fact.

Photography evolved over the course of time, so it’s no surprise that a poster from the 1920s looks somewhat different from one issued in the 1950s. The posters from the 1910s through the end of the 1930s, for example, use a one-color, dark background to highlight the player. After about 1939, there was a sudden shift to natural backgrounds, so the player can be seen in the batting cage or on the mound, usually in a photo obviously taken during spring training (lots of palm trees and spectators on the field). The changeover may have coincided with Conlon’s retirement right around that time.

Generally, the magazine favored full-length posed shots – there are very, very few closeups and not even many poses from the waist up. Posters from the 1920s sometimes showed the player sedately resting his bat upright against his shoulder, but these gave way in the 1930s to carefully posed “action” shots. It’s interesting to note one other change – in the 1920s and 1930s, batters were almost always shown in a follow-through pose. The “bat on shoulder” pose anticipating a pitch didn’t really come along until the 1940s.

Still in stock
The question of which posters are relatively common and which ones are scarce is, to put it mildly, a complicated matter. As is the case with any issue where the collector could choose the player (as opposed to a random collation, which is the case with most baseball cards), Hall of Famers don’t have quite the premium over regular players that they would have otherwise, since a lot more people requested Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams and so forth, over, say, Al Javery, a Boston Braves pitcher who had a poster issued in 1943. On the other hand, those obscure, one-year wonders remained in stock for a long time, continuing to be listed in the monthly ads year in and year out.

Therefore, it’s not surprising to find that when you get together a good-sized collection of these posters, the same names crop up over and over. For some reason, Pittsburgh pitchers Vic Aldridge (issued in 1925) and Carmen Hill (1927) remained in stock for decades. They were actually still available from the magazine in its final issues in 1957. Obviously, Aldridge didn’t have the fan base that Ruth did. This led to his poster becoming more commonplace in the hobby today.

Team photos are another matter. Some of them stayed in print for awhile, as well. That’s not surprising, because in the world of baseball fandom before the modern hobby, most readers would have had little interest in a team picture that was more than a few years old. Why would a Yankees fan in 1952 be interested in a picture of the 1941 team? Some of those photos stuck around for years.

The photos for the pennant-winning teams were issued almost every year until the late 1940s, with the last one issued in 1954. Because of current demand, however, you can expect to pay a pretty good premium for these pieces. Obviously, any Yankees poster from the 1920s through the mid-1930s would depict Ruth. Brooklyn Dodgers posters from 1947, 1949 and 1952 show the Boys of Summer in all their glory. And the early team photos from the M113 series, largely from the massive 1915 issue, are spectacular.

Missing in action
The set is interesting to see for its mysteries and anomalies. For example, late in the series’ run, Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm was honored with a poster. Trouble is, they misspelled his name. I know that “Hoyt” is an unusual name, but they somehow got it as “Hayt.” And that poster is the only one I’ve ever seen that has no credit lines whatsoever – no photo credit and no copyright for the magazine. It must have been a bad day for the proofreader.

Some of the editorial decisions regarding who got into the set were also interesting. In 1941, the magazine decided to include several old-timers in that year’s series. New posters were made up for Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Wagner. Collectors getting hold of these relatively common posters sometimes think they’ve gotten the earlier versions from the 1910s. No such luck. These are different photos and can easily be distinguished from the originals by their size.

The magazine did much the same thing 10 years later. In 1951, posters were issued for Grover Cleveland Alexander, Rogers Hornsby, Tony Lazzeri, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson and Cy Young. Young had just missed out on being included in the original series, so his 1951 poster was his first.

More interesting are those occasional posters that turn up that haven’t been cataloged or accounted for at all. The checklist currently in use is based on a listing prepared many years ago for Krause Publications’ long-departed sister magazine, Baseball Card News. Sometime around 1990, the editors went through every available issue of Baseball Magazine, tallying up the posters as they were announced. Logically, this should have added up to a complete checklist. I believe that the checklist contained in the SCD Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards is the same.

I know of at least three posters that do not exist on this checklist, and common sense tells me that there are probably others. I’ve already mentioned the M113 of Vic Saier. Saier was a first baseman with the Cubs from 1911-17, and then the Pirates in 1919. Saier had pretty decent seasons in 1912 and 1913, so I’ve guessed that 1913 would have been the logical year for his appearance in this set. I can only assume that he was a last-minute addition to that year’s group, because he doesn’t seem to have been announced in the annual “new poster” ad.

Then there’s the case of Dizzy Dean. Dean appeared in the 1933 series, during his heyday with the Cardinals. But I have seen a different poster showing him with the Cubs, probably dating from 1938. It was auctioned on eBay early last year.

Even more puzzling is the case of Rudy York. York was a lumbering first baseman with considerable power who played for the Tigers and the Red Sox from the late 1930s to the late 1940s. He began as a catcher, however, and it’s in full catching gear that he’s shown in a 1938 poster. What’s interesting is that he’s wearing the catcher’s mask in this photo, so his face is completely obscured. Traditionally, catchers in posed photos are shown with their mask off, so you can see who they are.

A second York poster dates from 1946, when he was with the Red Sox. This shows him posed in the dugout behind the bat rack. These two posters are listed in the checklists available for this set. But then what are we do make of the third York poster, the one that identifies him as “Rudolph York?” It shows him wearing a Tigers cap and swinging a bat against a natural background. I’ve assigned it a likely date of 1941, but that’s just a guess. Is it possible that someone at Baseball Magazine decided that the catching pose was no good, as it obscured York’s face?

The beginning of the end
Baseball Magazine had its greatest days in the 1930s and 1940s, so it’s not surprising that the majority of posters available in the hobby date from that era. By 1950, however, changes were in the air. Television was coming along, and this undercut the entire magazine publishing industry. For example, old-fashioned pulp magazines disappeared almost overnight.
Additionally, new technologies were raising the bar on what it would take to keep the public entertained. SPORT magazine was notable for including beautiful, full-color portraits of players in each issue. Baseball Magazine remained steadfastly black-and-white, published on low-grade paper.

In retrospect, we can see that the end was near when Baseball Magazine began to tinker with its format. With the September 1951 issue, the magazine shrank to a standard 8-¼-by-11-inch size. Soon, different logos, border colors, layouts and other elements were introduced, enough so that Baseball Magazine must have been difficult to pick out at the newsstand from the many, many other baseball magazines published during that time.

I don’t have circulation figures at my disposal, but it’s not hard to imagine that sales plummeted during this time. With a decline in circulation, demand for the posters (which continued to be issued) must have declined as well. This suspicion is borne out by a single, undeniable fact: M114 Baseball Magazine Premiums become increasingly difficult to find once you get into the 1950s.

The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back came in 1954, when the magazine was sold to a new publisher (who I believe was the third new publisher in as many years), and the editorial offices were moved from the magazine’s longtime home in New York, to Washington, D.C. Posters issued thereafter would note that magazine’s location as such.

It’s here that things got a bit hazy. Baseball Magazine assumed an increasingly erratic publication schedule, something, in retrospect, that was a sure sign of its decline and eventual demise). New posters were being offered at an impressive rate – 24 in 1954, only three in 1955, but 15 in 1956 and an astounding 44 in 1957, a year in which Baseball Magazine published its final two issues, dated May and September.

As if that were not enough, that final year of 1957 saw the publication of a series (11) of “Giant” posters, measuring 17-½-by-20 inches. That last year also saw a number of old-timers, such as Ruth, Cobb and Feller, mixed in with the current players.

The more common Baseball Magazine premiums can be found relatively cheaply. Forget about book value – with a little dickering or with the presence of minor imperfections (pinholes in the corners are very common; these were meant to be posters, after all), you can get common players from the 1930s and 1940s for well under $10 each. Sometimes you can get them for only a few dollars each if you buy them in lots. Minor Hall of Famers aren’t much more than that. Obviously, Ruth, DiMaggio, Williams and so on will cost you more, but should still come in at under $100 each. Not bad for items well in excess of 50 years old.

M113s are more difficult to generalize about because of the condition issue. If you’re willing to accept trimming, you can sometimes find the big posters for under $20 each. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $50 each if they’re intact.

That brings us to the value of the later issues, the ones from the 1950s. Given what I’ve outlined about Baseball Magazine’s declining circulation, I can state without a doubt that any M114 from after 1950 is relatively tough, and any M114 from 1954 onward (showing the Washington, D.C. address for the magazine) must be viewed as very, very scarce. How scarce? Put it this way. I’ve been collecting these things for more than 20 years. I troll eBay on a regular basis and examine every single one that’s offered at auction. In all of that time, I have seen fewer than two dozen post-1953 posters offered. I’ve managed to obtain most of them. I have never seen any of the “Giant” posters.

Your guess is as good as mine for the value of the later posters. These show Mantle, Mays, Aaron and other stars of the 1950s. Be prepared to shell out big bucks for those. Keep in mind that if a poster was issued in 1956 or 1957, how many could have been sold before the magazine folded?

After Baseball Magazine went under in 1957, several similar issues came along. The short-lived Baseball Monthly issued a series of 88 mini-posters in 1962 that certainly looked a lot like the M114 set, except they were 8-½-by-11 inches in size. Manny’s Baseball Land, a very popular storefront and mail-order business located just outside Yankee Stadium, issued a set of several hundred 8-½-by-11-inch black-and-white photos on paper in 1961, and these turn up in the hobby from time to time.
Even Baseball Magazine enjoyed a brief revival in late 1964 to early 1965 – although no new posters were issued.

So, what is it about these photos? Is there too little known about the set? Is it just too big, too sprawling or too exotic? Or is it that extra inch on each side, making it almost impossible to store or display the darned things? All I can say is that I’ll be keeping my eyes open for those 1950s issues. They must be out there, somewhere.

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