How Gum and Baseball Cards Became Intertwined
And what it has to do with cigarettes.
Nearly three decades later, the bubblegum in a pack of 1989 Topps baseball cards is, unsurprisingly, inedible. Now an off-pink color, it was probably a mistake to pop the stick of it in my mouth. But it could have been worse. It was, essentially, like chewing chalk - crunchy, dry, with a cardboard taste. But if my memory is accurate, there wasn't much difference between now and what the gum tasted like in 1989 anyway. While I had to overcome a slight gag reflex and a need to mouthwash, the 28-year-old gum left me with no ill effects and a warm, fuzzy nostalgic feeling. Here's how that gum ended up inside my pack.
The first baseball card was produced in the late 1860s by the New York-based sports company Peck & Snyder. Featuring the ten members of the "Red Stocking" baseball club of Cincinnati, the card was intended as a marketing gimmick for the equipment company. As Dave Jamieson describes in his book Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, "Save the knee-high socks, (the team) looked like a group of convicts."
In the 1880s, baseball cards made their first appearance in packs of cigarettes. Beyond marketing purposes, the cardboard cards pulled double duty, they also stiffened the flimsy cigarette packs. The cards often featured players with serious expressions, looking manly and in very awkward poses. But baseball players weren't the only ones on these cards—vaudeville actors and actresses, war heroes and Native American tribe leaders in headdresses also graced these cardboard squares. In 1909, the American Tobacco Trust, a conglomerate of 16 different tobacco companies, put out the legendary T206 set, a collection of over 520 cards that were hidden in cigarette packs across the country. Included in this set was a card of Honus Wagner, now known as the most valuable baseball card history and often called the "Holy Grail of baseball cards." In October 2016, it sold for a record $3.12 million.
Even by the 1880s, state laws were being enacted that prohibited the sale of tobacco products to children. By the end of World War I, most states had these regulations on the books (some even had a minimum age of 21, before tobacco companies lobbied to decrease the age to 18 or, even, 16). It soon became increasingly clear that these trading cards in cigarette packs weren't of any particular appeal to adults, but were to the underage minors who were supposedly barred from buying the actual product. Several players at the time spoke out that they didn't think it was appropriate that cards featuring their likeness, which were more often collected by kids, were sold along with a product that was actually illegal for them to purchase. Along with this pushback, paper rationing during the war also contributed to the end of tobacco baseball cards. But with baseball cards now popular, several companies began including them in more kid-friendly, food products.
In the early 1930s, the Fleer Company (the creator of Dubble Bubble) and Goudey Gum Company competed with one another by selling baseball cards along with their gum. While the Fleer brand would actually survive into the 2000s as a baseball card company, their cards at the time were considered cheap, flimsy and ugly. Goudey Gum's cards, on the other hand, were carefully and artfully done—so much so, that a Lou Gehrig card is in the MET's collections. Besides T206 set, the cards of the Goudey collection are considered the most valuable ever produced. This might have something to do with their rarity. In the winter of 1962, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and could barely keep their factory warm. According to Jamieson's book, the company's president ordered that their backlog of 1930s-era baseball cards to be thrown into the furnace as a cheap source of heat. The company officially went out of business only weeks later.
Famed Topps baseball cards were introduced in 1951 and were first accompanied by taffy, rather than gum. This was a bad idea. The taffy picked up the flavor of the card's varnish. Said Sy Berger, the co-designer of the cards and legendary baseball card figure, "You wouldn't dare put that taffy near your mouth... that '51 series was really a disaster." The next year, Topps switched over to gum. For the next four decades, Topps—along with most other baseball card companies—included gum in their baseball card packs. But in 1991, they took the gum out because serious collectors complained the gum stained the cards and made them worthless. Over the years, there've been several attempts to reintroduce gum back into packs of baseball cards, but it has never stuck. At least for now, we will just have to satisfy our craving by eating stale gum from 1989.