While on the surface baseball cards may appear to be a mundane object of child's play, they are precious tools for examining U.S. society. Baseball cards not only hold a wealth of information regarding the players they feature, they also reveal much about the state of society at the time of their production and the individuals who collect them. In this paper we analyze the numbering system that the Topps Chewing Gum (Baseball Card) Company constructed and used between 1956-1980 to identify for all of America who were "the heroes of the game". Under the numbering system, each card in a set is assigned a specific number according to a hierarchical ordering of player prestige, ostensibly based on performance. The question arises, however, whether Topps based its decision on where to locate players in a card set strictly using "on-the-field" performance or whether some other factor, such as race, played a role. Our findings suggest that Topps may have discriminated against black players from 1956-1966. Then between 1967-1980 the reverse occurred: black players received card numbers (location in set) that exceeded those warranted by their performances. These findings suggest that the progression of the Civil Rights Movement affected racial practices in the assignment of baseball card numbers and created a world in which at least one segment of big business became cognizant of the need to recognize the long-ignored athletic accomplishments of black athletes.
Location, Location, Location: Does Placement in Baseball Cards Reflect Racist Ideology?
Baseball card collecting emerged from humble beginnings during the late 19th century when tobacco tycoon James Buchanan "Buck" Duke began inserting small pieces of cardboard into the backs of cigarette packages to stiffen them to prevent damage during shipping. Each cardboard piece had advertising on one side and the picture of a popular actor on the reverse. Two of Duke's competitors, Alien & Ginter and Goodwin & Company, responded to this innovation by putting pictures of baseball players on "cards" they inserted into their cigarette packages (Williams, 1995). These first "baseball cards" quickly became popular among both smokers and nonsmokers alike. In fact, the cards became so popular that more than 20 different "tobacco" sets were produced in the four years between 1886 and 1890 (Lipset, 1983).
Tobacco sales soared in the late 180Os and early 190Os and as sales increased, so too did the public's interest in baseball cards. However, just as the fascination with baseball cards experienced a meteoric rise, interest and collecting of cards declined just as rapidly. A major reason for this decline was a crippling blow dealt to the emerging hobby in 1913 by the RJ. Reynolds Company when it introduced its new Camel brand of cigarettes. As part of its marketing campaign, Reynolds inscribed on the back of each pack of Camels: "Don't look for premiums or coupons (cards), as the cost of the tobacco blend in CAMEL Cigarettes prohibits the use of them". Overnight, the once seemingly unbreakable bond that had been established between tobacco and baseball cards had been shattered. Now, instead of embracing baseball cards, tobacco companies abandoned them, fearing that if they did not consumers would believe their cigarettes were inferior to Camels. With no new cards being produced, interest in the fledgling hobby faded. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that baseball cards would again gain a place in the public eye; this was when the Topps Company was formed.
In 1938, four brothers-Abram, Ira, Philip, and Joseph Shorin- founded the Topps Chewing Gum Company. The name "Topps" was chosen because the brothers planned to produce a gum that would be "tops" in the industry. An extra "p" in the name was added for distinction. Their first product was a single piece of chewing gum priced at one-cent. The gum was a hit with consumers who liked the price and with small business owners who placed the gum on the counter next to the cash register, using it as an instant changemaker. …