The First Baseball Card?

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged Uncategorized

                the-old-man.jpg    leslies.jpg

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Really Important Addendum To This Post (added April 3, 2008):

The original text of this post can be found below. There is, however, one problem. The description of the card, though we had a lot of fun writing it, is wrong. Sorry about that. It’s just incorrect. It is not a card of Bernie Hannegan. We got the era right; we got the team right (Unions of Morisannia); and we got the great significance of the card right. But we got the player wrong. It is a card of Dave Birdsall, one of the major stars of the era, the captain of the Unions team in 1867 and 1868, and one of the elite players chosen by Harry Wright to be a member of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team. For more information, please visit:  Thank you!

“The Old Man,” Bernie Hannegan, of the Unions of Morisannia, throws his hat into the ring for consideration.

At Robert Edward Auctions we know that any claims about what is or is not the first baseball card are taken very seriously by collectors. In fact, even defining “what is a card” can be very dangerous waters!  Not everyone agrees on the definition of a card, so whenever we look at the earliest cards, we try to qualify the definition. We have recently had the great privilege of evaluating what we think is a particularly remarkable early card. Is this the earliest baseball card? The answer to that question really depends on how one defines a card. It does have some very important and unique qualities that in our opinion at least make the card worthy of consideration for the title. If it’s not the earliest baseball card, it is certainly one of the earliest baseball cards. Rather than have us make the case for this card, we have decided to let the card itself, of Bernie Hennegan, present his case directly to the collecting world.

Here goes:

Hi Guys! Bernie Hannegan here. Well, his card, actually. I know what you’re thinking, I’m used to it. Bernie who? Well, the thing is, I was a very big star back in the 1860s with the Unions of Morisannia. I actually started with the Unions in the late 1850s, and my last year with the club was 1866. This was all before there was professional baseball. That wasn’t until later. Sure, some of the players pocketed a few dollars here and there on the sly, some even from gamblers, but we were not professionals, and this was long before the National Association League in 1871, or even the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869. But this was the big time for baseball, as big as it got, when I played. Not too many people are familiar with the Unions of Morisannia today, and very few players from my era are well known today. Everyone knows Jim Creighton, of course, because he was one of the great pitchers of all time and really was the first superstar in the sport. He changed the game. He was the premier pitcher of his day and the best hitter as well. I had the privilege of pitching for the Unions against the great Jim Creighton when he was with the Excelsiors of Brooklyn. In July 1862, I won a particularly exciting match against him 12-4. Creighton died tragically in October 1862, very young (he was only 21 years old), due to injuries sustained at bat during a game against my team, the Unions. I played in this game also but only pitched one inning. Creighton’s legend shined great for many years, and for serious baseball historians his legend will shine greatly forever. More than three years after his death, on November 4, 1865, the highly respected Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper issued a two-page foldout woodcut intended for home display that was a tribute to his memory. Surrounding Creighton’s larger portrait were identified woodcut images of seventeen of the leading players of the day. I’m pictured second from the left at the bottom. I was always very proud to have been chosen to be among these elite baseball players representing the highest level of organized play at this early time in the history of the game. 

So, back to my card. One of the interesting things about this card is that I am on it at all. Not that I wasn’t good enough to have a card. I was. In fact, if you go look up newspaper accounts, you’ll see that for years I was the most celebrated star on the club. It’s just that there really weren’t any other cards produced at this time - at least not exactly like this one, featuring a specific current player who is identified on the card. That’s pretty much the format - the defining characteristics - for baseball cards dating from the 1880s all the way up to modern cards. I am not identified on the card by name, by the way, but am identified simply as “The Old Man,” which was a nickname and term of respect I earned for being the oldest veteran on the team. In 1865 not many players were still around that played as far back as I did. This would be like having a card of Babe Ruth that identified him as “The Bambino” or “The Babe.” Even though neither of those titles was his real name, everyone would know they referred to Babe Ruth. Same with me. I was “The Old Man.” I don’t know exactly how this card was issued, but it was clearly mass-produced, and I’m pretty sure it was in 1865. Everything about the style of the card points to this card being from 1865, and my woodcut engraving on the November 4, 1865 Leslie’s Jim Creighton memorial print is a transposed (mirror) image of the CDV pose.  Both the woodcut and the CDV are actually artworks, each produced from the very same original photograph (though it is possible that the woodcut was produced utilizing the CDV image). The woodcut was published in November 1865, so the photograph that was used to create it had to exist before that date. Both the woodcut and the CDV image are clearly created from the very same photographic image and pose. The woodcut is pure artwork while the CDV photograph is an artist-enhanced photographic image (enhanced in the photo as made, not on the surface of the CDV) which used the same original photograph (probably a salt print) to create it. Details of my uniform have had accents added and “Unions” has been enhanced on my uniform bib on the CDV to make it clear what team I’m on. This kind of photo enhancing was very common among photographers when mass producing CDVs for collectors in the early and mid-1860s. It’s too bad that there apparently is no set of baseball cards like this - I appear to be the only one - but if there was a set issued in 1865, featuring identified individual players from the great teams of the era such as the Unions of Morisannia, the Excelsiors of Brooklyn, and the Resolutes of Brooklyn, this is what they’d look like.

So what makes me the first baseball card? Well, it depends. What I am, I think, is the first baseball card of a current player that is identified as part of the design of the card. I sure do look like a card, don’t I? Now, some will say, “Hey, what about the famous 1863 Jordan Marsh CDV photograph of Harry Wright, that was part of a set and was also a ticket to games at the St. George’s Cricket Ground in Hoboken, New Jersey?” Good point. Great card and certainly can’t be ignored. But that card does not identify Harry Wright as part of the design of the card. What about the famous Jim Creighton memorial Peck & Snyder trade card? Hey, this is an incredible card. I’ve never seen the back but have been told that in addition to an ad for Peck & Snyder sporting goods, it also has a short biography of Creighton on the reverse. The Creighton card is not dated but identifies him as having already passed away. We already know that Creighton’s memory was much celebrated for many years after his passing. All of the other Peck & Snyder trade cards date from the 1868 to 1872 era. Does this mean that the Creighton card dates from 1868 to 1872 also? No. It could definitely be earlier, and probably is, but whenever it is from, it was issued after his passing. So I think there is a pretty significant distinction to my card. I was alive. I was a current active player. I was identified on the card. If that isn’t a baseball card, what is? I believe that I am the first baseball card with identification as part of the design of the card of a current individual player. I may be biased, but to me that makes me the first baseball card! I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, and I know that even attempting to declare what is the first baseball card can be as controversial as discussing politics or religion, but there is something to what I’m saying.

So the next time there is discussion or a debate about “What is the first baseball card?” I believe I belong in the mix. I think I’ve got a very powerful case. I know I’m not as famous as Jim Creighton, or the legendary Harry Wright, who is often referred to as “The Father of Baseball,” but I think I have made a compelling argument that my card, identifying me as “The Old Man” - the 1865 Bernie Hannegan - is worthy of consideration for the title of “The Earliest Baseball Card.”

The opinions expressed above are those of Mr. Bernie Hannegan, or more precisely, Mr. Hannegan’s 1865 baseball card, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Robert Edward Auctions LLC.

Editor’s note: OK, all kidding around aside, Hannegan makes some good points. Whether this card dates from 1864, 1865 (as we believe), or even 1866 (the latest we believe it could be dated, based on the style of the card, and the fact that Hannegan’s final season was 1866), the next oldest baseball card(s) with a traditional design, featuring the identified image of an individual player, were issued by Old Judge tobacco and date from 1886. 

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