Starting Five: Most popular vintage baseball card sets of all-time

It’s risky business to float anything called “most popular.” After all, what’s popular with one person might not be quite as cool with the next. After 150 years or so of baseball cards though, it’s pretty clear that some sets have captured the fascination of collectors more than others. 

You may not have the gumption (or the disposable income) to complete them, but you have to respect them. Some came with tobacco, others with bubble gum, and some were issued with candy. They’ve been proven to stand the test of time and, if nothing else, it’s worth owning at least one card from each of them.

So here goes:

1909-1911 T206

The massive size and scope of this set would be impressive today. Not only were there over 500 major and minor league players featured, but they were spread out over a bunch of different brands of cigarettes. Some of the most legendary players had multiple cards (we’re looking at you, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, and friends).  

These cards have artwork and coloring that’s simply spectacular. They still hold up over a century later.

Each pack of smokes held a single card. Were they popular? Oh, were they ever. Kids bugged the heck out of adults and sometimes bought cigarettes themselves just to get the cards. It actually became kind of a controversial topic back in the summer of 1909.  

Of course, the famous Honus Wagner card is what makes this set famous. The Flying Dutchman asked to have his cards pulled from production early and his famous image is really the one that’s long been associated with the hobby.

1915 Cracker Jack

Cracker Jack brought cards to the world of candy on a national scale. Their 1914 cards could only be purchased by buying packs of the nutty popcorn treat, but you could send away for a set in 1915 by mailing in a bunch of coupons or a smaller number of coupons and a quarter. Not that many people did and ’15 CJs are still pretty rare and valuable today.

It’s a simple design that’s part of the charm. At 176 cards, it’s a who’s who of baseball at the time. Cobb, Mathewson, Wagner, Joe Jackson…all here and all quite pricey today. 

1933 Goudey

Youngsters had never seen anything quite like this. Goudey Gum wrapped a piece of gum and a baseball card inside a package and sold it for a penny. Everything about it was colorful. The wrapper and especially the cards, which gave kids a good look at the players they could only read about. There are four Babe Ruth cards in the set, plus multiple cards of guys like Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. At 240 cards, it’s a glimpse into what baseball was like during the Depression era.  

Thanks to the Ruth cards, it’s pretty expensive today but common cards can still be had for a very reasonable price.

1952 Topps

Topps had inched its way into cards in 1951 but jumped in with both feet in ’52 and hasn’t stopped since.  

You knew it was a whole new ballgame just because of the unprecedented size for bubble gum cards. The backs were packed with information. Topps would produce 407 cards before the calendar year was over, but the last series came out so late, the interest just wasn’t there and Topps had produced too many to sell. 

After several years that included failed attempts to sell the leftovers to carnivals (?!?), executive Sy Berger rode on a barge that had been hired to dump the remainder into the Atlantic Ocean: many Mickey Mantles among them. While it’s not his official rookie card, it’s the best-known and most valuable of any of his cards and a symbol of the post-War hobby.

1953 Bowman

Bowman had used artists to create its cards from 1950-52 and while you could make a case for putting ’51 Bowman and its Mantle and Mays rookie cards on this top 5 list, the ’53 set was groundbreaking for its use of “pure” color photos. The warm quality of the images and the lack of clutter on the front makes up for the lack of some stars who aren’t included in the set for a variety of reasons.

At 160 cards, it’s a set that’s somewhat attainable for collectors and a visual treat for those who wonder what the game was like as the golden age of baseball continued to unfold.

12 thoughts on “Starting Five: Most popular vintage baseball card sets of all-time

  1. Let’s not forget the 1933 Goudey Nap Lajoie card, which was only available if mailed away for the following year in 1934. Most folks didn’t bother, but if you didn’t do it, you had a hole in the numerical order of your 1933 set, as the Goudey folks inadvertently and inexplicably forgot to print card #106. The fact that the Goudey people chose Nap Lajoie as the filler card becomes more mysterious since Lajoie was not a contemporary of his 1933 set mates. His career predated the 1933 players by 20 – 30 years! Today that Lavoie with the innocent number 106 sells at auction for between 6 and 7 figures. The 1933 set is therefore considered complete by most collectors with 239 cards and the 106 missing.

  2. My Dad grew up in the Bronx in the 1920s. He told me about taking a trolly to Yankee stadium, paying 10 cents for bleacher seats & watching Baseball greats such as The Babe,The Iron Horse,
    Ty Cobb, & a host of other iconic players.
    He met both George & Lou & had them sign a sandlot baseball he had brought to the game in hopes that Babe would sign it! When WW2 broke out he joined the USN, while he was in Bootcamp his Mother did some “Spring Cleanning” she got rid of his “sandlot” glove,Bat, & that baseball. I sometimes imagine what it would be like to own that ball, not just for the monetary value, but the memory of that day my Dad met two of the Greatest
    Baseball players of all time! My Dad pass away in 2013, but I can still remember all the stories he told me about going to Yankees stadium with his Father & his friends, great memories.

  3. I wish I would have had the opportunity to hear some of those stories.I’ve been into baseball since 1972,have some good cards,but I would have love to have some of those great cards.

  4. I have a 52 mantle in poor condition but it still worth slot and probably over 10000 more baseball cards from the 1950 to present. I love collecting not in it for the money just love doing it.

  5. I wish I had a good lot of those cards! I had the 1952 Mantle card which I traded for the Michael Jordan rookie card. Shortly after I did that my friend I traded with died in a car accident so I in turn put those cards in his casket. They are buried away with no return! I thought I had to do it and again I did just that. They and he meant a lot to me!

  6. God as a kid in the 70’s I ripped open so many packs just to wat the bubble gum. My dad beat my ass for it.have no idea what cards he had but I know of two rose rookies

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