Baseball Cards, 1887-1914, presents a Library of Congress treasure -- 2,100 early baseball cards from the earliest period of America's favorite pastime. The cards show such legendary figures as Ty Cobb stealing third base for Detroit, Tris Speaker batting for Boston, and pitcher Cy Young posing formally in his Cleveland uniform. Other notable players include Connie Mack, Walter Johnson, King Kelly, and Christy Mathewson.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
Related Collections and Exhibits
- Jackie Robinson and Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s
- Taking the Long View, 1851-1991
- Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920
- Spalding Base Ball Guides, 1889-1939
Recommended additional sources of information.
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
At the turn of the century, America was developing into an industrial nation with growing urban populations, arriving immigrants, and new labor forces. During this time, baseball was growing in popularity. Baseball Cards, 1887-1914, with its 2,100 items, provides a launching point for the study of this era of United States history.
Many people moved to American cities at the turn of the century for economic, social, and political opportunities. Cities were the center of the industrial revolution, providing employment to recent immigrants, as well as those displaced from their rural homes. Professional baseball teams were located in these growing urban centers. Students can browse the list of cities represented by the baseball cards in the collection. Students can discuss why a certain city may or may not have had a baseball team. Are these factors the same ones that influence where baseball teams are located today? What might it have meant to a city and its people to have had a baseball team during this period of urbanization? What roles might baseball have played in these cities and city life? What does it mean today for a city to have its own team?
2) Leisure Activities & Mass Entertainment
At the turn of the century, Americans had increasing amounts of leisure time as the industrial work day became standardized. Weekends and vacation time allowed for popular forms of entertainment. Most popular were those that entertained many people at once. Baseball was a fun recreational activity whether you were playing with your team or watching with other spectators. See the section Game Day in the Majors of "Early Baseball Pictures, 1860s - 1920s" to learn more about baseball as entertainment.
Students can find the answers to these questions:
- How many people could play baseball at once?
- How many people could watch the game?
- Did you need exceptional skills to play baseball?
- Did it matter how wealthy you were or how old you were?
- Did everyone need to be fluent in the same language? Or could players get by without much verbal communication?
- What other forms of entertainment were popular at this time?
By answering these questions, students will determine that baseball was a leisure activity that many people could play at once or watch, well-suited to large urban populations. In addition, whatever one's skill level, age or ability to communicate, one could play baseball.
3) Segregation & The Struggle for Equality
Reflecting American society in general, amateur and professional baseball remained largely segregated in the early 1800s. In July 1887, the International League banned contracts with black players all together.
Students can browse the collection by player for evidence of this institutionalized prejudice. Segregation remained the rule in major league baseball until April, 1947 when Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field. Students can learn more about Robinson and Civil Rights in the special presentation "Baseball, the Color Line, and Jackie Robinson, 1860s-1960s" in Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s.
4) Tobacco Industry
Baseball cards were first created by tobacco companies, which inserted the cards into their products as an advertising gimmick. Therefore, Baseball Cards, 1887-1914 provides students an entry point to studying the history of one of America's oldest industries.
The history of tobacco as a cultivated crop goes back to Native Americans. When Christopher Columbus arrived in North America he found native peoples growing tobacco. Colonists in the South established plantations to grow this agricultural product. The industry developed into a lucrative business with both domestic and foreign sales. Today, federal, state, and local taxes on tobacco are a great source of revenue for governments.
Students can browse the collection by Card Set, and read the tobacco industry's advertisements on the back of the cards. For background to their study of this collection, students can research the history of tobacco in America. They can look at the smoking habits of Americans at the turn of the century. And they can do a search of tobacco in THOMAS for current legislation reflecting the issues that surround the tobacco industry today.
Baseball Cards, 1887-1914 provides students an opportunity to develop their skills in working with historical images to understand the past and its realtion to the present. They can examine and compare baseball cards to make inferences about the past and understand change through time. By examining the use of baseball cards as advertisements, students may explore the depth of a card's meaning, while other examinations can lead to research projects and discussions about baseball as the national pastime.
1) Chronological Thinking
Much remains the same in the baseball we know today from how it was first played in the United States. And, too, there are many changes in the game.
Students can search the collection by position name - pitcher, catcher, etc.- and compare what they see to modern baseball. Because baseball is a sport many students know well, they will have the advantage of approaching an historic topic as "experts" of the field. With their keen eyes to the game's detail, they will find they can identify even slight changes in the game. Through their investigation, students will experience what scholars look for when studying other fields. Have students document the techniques they use to compare the past and present.
2) Historical Comprehension
Browsing the collection by player, team, league, city, or card set, students can determine what life might have been like at the turn of the century. Who were the people playing baseball? How old were they? Where did they live and work? Were they all white men?
In answering these questions students can discuss what inferences they are making from the images and what assumptions they are bringing to their analysis of the images. How do their own experiences of baseball and baseball cards influence their interpretations of the cards and, thereby, of life at the turn of the century?
After acknowledging these assumptions, students can create a list of research questions to confirm or negate their reasoning. They can determine whether these cards represent all the baseball players of the time. Were some players and teams excluded from the card sets? What were the social and cultural factors of this historical time period that resulted in these exclusions? By reading about the collection they can determine if this is a complete collection of all the baseball cards of the period and understand the motivations of the original collector and of baseball card publishers. Does this collection provide a broad enough representation to allow for an accurate comprehension of this period? What other materials would assist in understanding this period?
To further their comprehension, students can read the special presentations "Early Baseball Pictures, 1860s - 1920s" and "Baseball, the Color Line, and Jackie Robinson, 1860s-1960s".
3) Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Early baseball cards were issued by tobacco companies to promote sales. By 1887 cigarettes were sold in "slide and shell" boxes that did not need the reinforcement of the stiff cards. Advertising was, at this point, the primary function of the cards.
Browse the collection by player, team, league, city, or card set, to read the back of the cards and the advertising that appears there. For example, the 1887 Buchner Gold Coin card at right says "Continue to save the Wrappers They are Valuable." What other ideas are expressed in the advertisements? Does the use of a baseball card to convey these advertising messages affect the message itself? If so, in what ways?
Students can analyze the tobacco companies' decision to use this medium for advertising. Why did tobacco companies think baseball images would help sell their products? Were they targeting certain audiences? Did the tobacco companies have anything at stake in the success of baseball?
Students can discuss where advertisements appear today. How do advertisers use sports to promote their products? How have the advertisements changed from the ones seen in this collection? Students can research what laws regulate tobacco advertisements. Search on tobacco in the current legislative information contained in THOMAS to see what issues surround the sale and promotion of tobacco today.
4) Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making
As early as 1866, people referred to baseball as the national pastime. Author Charles A. Peverelly in his 1866 book The Book of American Pastimes, offers this explanation of why people in America took to the game:
"The game of Base Ball has now become beyond question the leading feature of the out-door sports of the United States ... It is a game which is peculiarly suited to the American temperament and disposition; the nine innings are played in the brief space of two and one half hours, or less. From the moment the first striker takes his position, and poises his bat, it has an excitement and vim about it ... in short, the pastime suits the people, and the people suit the pastime."
Do students agree with the author's reasoning? What are the strengths and weaknesses of his argument? Are there other factors that contributed to baseball's prominence? To what extent do these factors continue to affect the popularity of baseball?
Students can broaden the discussion to their own experience of fads and trends. What have they seen rise in popularity in American culture? Which have remained and which disappeared? Can they explain why? Students can debate what modern trends they predict will continue or fade away. Remind students that while this is an entertaining discussion for the classroom, investors stake much money in trend analysis. Have students consider how these investments themselves may affect the trends.
5) Historical Research Capabilities
The baseball cards in this collection reflect the photography and printing capabilities of the time. Students can research how printed materials were created in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A written report can be illustrated with images from the collection. Search the collection by year or browse the chronological list of card sets to see how the techniques advanced. Students can compare the cards here to modern baseball cards, as well.
Baseball Cards, 1887-1914 provides a creative opportunity for students to practice their language arts skills. With inspiration from the images, students can develop plots, characters, and themes based in historic events. With a little research, students can write a biography or news story based on the collection. Finally, they may also use the cards to learn about vernacular, how to determine meaning from context, and practice using vernacular to enhance their writing.
1) News Story
Students can research an event in baseball history, such as the famous double-play alluded to in "Tinker to Evers to Chance!", and write a newspaper article reporting on the event as if they were there. What facts need to be included? For this exercise they can make educated guesses about the aspects they cannot find in their research. Have students read and analyze current newspapers to learn the writing style particular to newspaper reports.
Students can search the collection on names of players or teams involved in the historic event. They can use the images they find to illustrate their articles.
By creating a play about a baseball game, students can practice considering things from multiple perspectives and writing from different points-of-view.How would a 12-year-old boy react to a home run by his favorite player? What would the manager of the opposing team say? What is the hitter thinking about?
Students can search the collection on position name - pitcher, catcher, etc. - or on manager. The baseball players they find on the cards can become the characters in their story. Is the pitcher a young player? Is he trying to prove himself to his team mates? Or is he older and seeing his baseball career come to an end? Students can portray these issues in their plays.
After searching the collection on the names of famous ball players of the era, students can choose a player to research. From their research they can write a biography of the player and illustrate it with images from the collection. Some players may have cards in the collection from more than one team. Students may find that there are early baseball players about whom we know very little.
Each profession has words particular to it. In addition to the unique names for the various positions on the ballfield, baseball has unique ways of describing its players. Browse the collection by player, team, league, city, or card set. By reading the back of the baseball cards, students will see how these terms have changed and remained the same over time. Students will learn to infer the meaning of words from their context. For example, what does it mean for a player to be "tied to the bag" as stated on the card to the right? Students can choose different professions and list words particular to each. Using those words, they can write a story relating to that profession.