Collecting an entire vintage baseball set can be a fun and learning experience. It can also be humbling, frustrating and it can take years. And, perhaps most important, it can cost a fortune. Tobacco companies led the baseball card charge in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They did not issue boxed sets like modern card makers do today. An interesting question was recently posed on a group inside Twitter — is there anything such as a 1,000 card set in baseball cards? Surprisingly, the answer is not “No!”
The largest and hardest vintage baseball card set ever is N172 Old Judge, from 1887 to 1890. It is over 130 years later and nothing has ever rivaled it. The “N172” designation came from Jefferson Burdick for his American Card Catalog, with “N” designating the “nineteenth century” despite “T” cards designating tobacco issuers.
The T206 American Tobacco set of 1909 to 1911, often called “The Monster,” was impressive with 524 different cards (many with three and four variations of the same player player). The true “Monster” status should actually belong to this N172 Old Judge tobacco set by Goodwin & Co. To prove the point, the set is more than 4,500 cards.
Before your next hunt of a lifetime begins for this “Monster,” it is important to understand that the N172 Old Judge set issued by Goodwin & Co. would be physically impossible to complete. “Nothing is impossible” simply cannot hold water here within any logic and reason.
There is no full production list on record. The cards are not sequentially numbered. Some cards have only one example in existence. And despite being over 130 years old, this N172 set is still somehow growing in size.
The Hall Studio in New York took photos of countless baseball players and pasted them on to thick cardboard. Unlike many of the later tobacco issues, these sepia-toned photo cards have blank backs. Old Judge cards are similar in size to many of the later tobacco and candy cards of the day at (roughly) 1-1/2″ by 2-1/2.”
As Collectors Dashboard evaluates high-end collectibles as an alternative asset class, think about the cost of accumulating a 4,500 card set that is 130 years old. Even the common cards of little known players will likely cost hundreds of dollars. It would take decades to accumulate even 1,000 different cards individually. It would also require hundreds of thousands (or more) in dollars to be the winning bidder in auctions for this many cards. It would cost exponentially more than a typical stock and bond purchase by individuals, and it would certainly cost more than a typical American home.
There is an apology that needs to be made here. Honoring the N172 set, as well as the build up and aftermath, could be a book all on its own. That means that many of the minute details have to be skimmed over, generalized or even skipped just to get to the end of it. This “monster” set of baseball cards honestly deserves better.
ISSUE DATES & CARD VARIATIONS
How on earth can one set have so many variations and unknown or debated issues? It’s complicated, and the age being over 130 years old doesn’t help. There are lots of “Do” and “Don’t” when it comes to these pieces of baseball history and tobacciana.
Old Judge cards were inserted into packs of cigarettes sporting the Old Judge cigarette brand (and some Gypsy Queen). The N172 Old Judge examples are more common than Goodwin & Co.’s Gypsy Queen N175 issue, making the Gypsy Queen labels much more valuable in comparison. Unless specified, and despite these two sets being intermingled by some collectors, the variations, price references, populations and other data will pertain only to the N172 Old Judge cards.
The N172 Old Judge cards were issued continuously in the late 1880s up to 1890. Our date references start in 1887 and end in 1890. There were different series and design variations added over time, generally each year. By the time the Hall Studio got the photographs turned into cigarette cards some of the players were already on different teams and in different states.
Some print and online sources refer to the N172 Old Judge set all as 1887, but most sources refer to the set as being issued from 1887 to 1890. Because of other more limited issues, some references refer to the Old Judge cards from 1886 to 1890.
This Old Judge set was also the setup set that led to a much larger format 1888-89 Old Judge Cabinet issue by Goodwin & Co. The sepia-toned photos for the cabinet cards were larger at 3-3/4″ X 5-3/4″ and were affixed to larger cardboard measuring 4-1/4″ x 6-1/2″. The reason for this note about an additional set is that it is also massive and some collectors years ago were tricked into thinking of the cabinets just as “large Old Judge” cards. The cabinet cards were issued by inserted coupons and they are much more valuable.
The N172 Old Judge cards were sold in multiple U.S. geographies covering more than 40 teams and more than 500 players. Many of the minor league teams featured on these cards rapidly faded into history. Some of the Old Judge cards also included players who had been in the prior Union Association, as well as the regional teams and from leagues or associations of the American, National and Western. This is another aspect of the N172 set and the era that could have a book to support it.
The 1886 and 1887 cards had darker boxes or bordering around the “Old Judge” writing for a label. The 1888 and later cards had more continuity with the photo dominating the front of the card without the dark box or border around the brand name.
As was somewhat common in that bygone era, Goodwin & Co. also included boxers and wrestlers of the day. An old extremely rare display poster of the era even included leading actresses. That same advertisement also said “Over 2,000 Different Subjects.” For the purposes of this review, the focus is only on the baseball players (or “base ball” as is referenced on the surviving advertising sheet).
As for those variations, some players have more than 10 variations in their poses, teams or other prints that have been discovered. Some cards have different backgrounds from year to year. Some have dates (years) and abbreviations, and some do not. Much of that depended on the year these were released within that 1887 to 1890 window. And again, some are unique with the sole ‘1 of 1’ population.
The different variations of players is not just in stances and poses. These photos were all snapped in a studio and have different cloth backdrops with a solid color or mixed background. Some photos are mock in-action poses in baseball uniforms. Other poses show players wearing coats and ties of that era. Some of the cards have hand written words, some are typed and some are in different sizes. Some of the Old Judge printing is above the photo and some are below. Spelling errors common, similar to many of the old tobacco cards. Again, much depended on the year the cards were released — and it would be easy enough to debate whether this should have been counted as at least three different sets.
Again, some of the minutia has been skimmed over here. This should be proof that “lots of Do and Don’t” is for real in the N172 set.
CONDITION IS MORE THAN TOUGH
One critical issue needs to be considered here about photos (sepia images) that are 130 years old rather than printed paintings of the players. Many of these cards are very faded. Some have seen a degradation of the photo that even gives them different tones (pink, grey, yellowing), and that toning may also depend in the year the photos were taken.
This is had to imagine but there are still some N172 cards that are in higher grades. The cardboard paper was thick enough that the cards were harder to wrinkle. Those that did get wrinkled may have even seen the photos chip away and flake.
There is more to the N172 set than numeric grades of 1 to 10 by PSA, SGC or BVG. Collectors often pay up for the more clear photos rather than just paying up for a higher numeric grade. Some cards have very low numeric grades because their back was glued or damaged, but a clear photo overcomes damage to an already blank back that is over 130 years old now. And in many cases a card graded “A” (Authentic) with a very clear image may sell for much higher than a grade of 3 or 4 that has a very faded photo image.
Time has not been a friend to the photography stock of the late 1800s. Improper storage for decades by collectors who did not know better is largely to blame. Some families stored these cards believing these were just old photographs from the late 1800s. This combined condition-ignorance has contributed to many of these cards faded to the point the image and typeset are hard to see. Moisture, mildew, mold and large temperature changes have also played a role in the lack of good photo quality surviving this long.
As many of these cards were improperly stored, many of the “A” (Authentic) grades have marks or the backs of the cards have evidence of being glued or taped. Inserting cards into albums and notebooks was very common back in times, and often by any means available to hold them in place. Again, a great photo presentation will overcome much of that.
Many Old Judge cards have damaged photos on the front that is also due to more recent improper storage. Original plastic sheets brutalized many vintage card photos. Some cards which were torn out of or scraped out of albums have suffered from a rebacking effort to keep the cards thicker.
The one positive aspect about the condition of the N172 Old Judge cards is that the thicker cardboard that the images were glued to has helped to preserve the shape. Despite light wrinkles or rounded corners or chipping, the condition would have been even worse had these sepia-toned photos been attached to thin paper. Many more examples of these cards may have flaked or crumbled away. That thicker paper has also allowed for better corners than you might expect more than 130 years later.
STARS, HALL OF FAME PLAYERS & OTHER KEY CARDS
The N172 set is not just chock full of (500+) players. It has many stars of the era and is loaded with players who would ultimately get a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
One task that is possible for N172 Old Judge collectors is to accumulate a “Hall of Fame” set. This would be to own one or more example of each the two-dozen or so Hall of Fame players like Cap Anson, Charles Comisky, Clark Griffith, Jim O’Rourke and others. Just be warned that putting together a “Hall of Fame” set will still require patience and a thick wallet even without care of condition.
This is an unofficial list of stars and Hall of Famers bearing the Old Judge (and Gypsy Queen) brands: Cap Anson, Jake Beckley, Stephen Behel, Dan Brouthers, Pete Browning, John Clarkson, Charles Comiskey, Roger Connor, Ed Delahanty, Hugh Duffy, Buck Ewing, Pud Galvin, Clark Griffith, Billy Hamilton, Dummy Hoy, Tim Keefe, Mike Kelly, Connie Mack, Tommy McCarthy, Bid McPhee, Kid Nichols, Jim O’Rourke, Old Hoss Radbourne, Wilbert Robinson, Amos Rusie, Sam Thompson, John Ward, Mickey Welch and Harry Wright.
There is also the “Browns Champions” group cards from the N172 set. These cards are of the 13 players from the 1886 St. Louis Browns team, with some references even earlier than that. There are also spotted-tie cards of the 1887 New York Mets that are sought after. These sub-sets could have easily been considered other sets had there been more available information that survived.
The so-called “double player” cards show two players. These include two players, some of which are Hall of Famers and some are not. Some cards are horizontal, but the slide poses are generally in wide format.
There are other key cards sought after as well. One card shows a boy standing holding a ball written as the “N.Y. Mascot” in variations as the team mascot. One shows the same young Willie Breslin standing on a chair next to Buck Ewing. And a common player named Art Whitney fetches higher prices as he is squatting down with a small dog perched up with one paw on his knee.
POPULATION & SCARCITY
One issue which makes this set harder to count for a total population is that it is still growing. Each year there are new cards discovered as being “fresh to the hobby.” Some cards are from large “finds” of cards from decades past, and others are individual cards that have been sitting in collections or photo albums.
One issue which may have played a role in date variations noted earlier would have been other Old Judge card issues. There is a small 14-card set of 1886 Old Judge cards of the New York Giants (N167 by Jefferson Burdick) that is very rare and will carry 5-digit sales prices. Goodwin & Co. also had a premium larger “cabinets” set from 1888 to 1890 (N173 by Jefferson Burdick) that were mentioned earlier.
It is impossible to issue a true “population” for the N172 Old Judge set. The PSA Cardfacts site counts more than 4,500 different examples of these cards. Many of those are unique with only one example known to exist for a player. Other players have multiple variations.
It is becoming less common to have large finds of the vintage cards going back into the 1800s, but there are undoubtedly many cards that remain undiscovered and which are waiting to be found again. Many of the newer finds have also been sitting inside of large vintage collections and the status of being “fresh to the hobby” is solely due to the cards never having been graded by PSA, SGC or Beckett.
The PSA population report counted just 5,405 graded examples of N172 cards as of April 2021. That total PSA population reached 5,500 graded examples by September of 2021. To prove that the good condition is rare, PSA has graded less than 100 of the N172 cards at 8 (of 10) or higher. The largest graded population is only a PSA 2 with more than 1,100 examples.
SGC’s graded population under the 1886 to 1890 N172 Old Judge Cigarettes was listed as 10,631 in September 2021. Some 1,899 were graded SGC 1.5, with the next highest counts as 1,587 of SGC 3 and 1,478 of SGC 1.
For a relative comparison of total scarcity, the T206 set had a graded population of more than 256,000 graded examples by PSA alone.
GET READY TO SPEND SERIOUS MONEY
A 592 card collection of N172 cards sold for $211,500 via Robert Edward Auctions even back in 2009. The same auction house sold a lot of 403 N172 Old Judge cards for $111,625.00 in 2007 and a lot of 394 cards for $94,000 in 2010. In that same 2010 auction, a lot of 398 N172 Old Judge cards which were all SGC-graded sold for $82,250.00.
Robert Edward Auctions sold a 1887 N172 Old Judge advertising store display poster (measuring 9-3/4″ x 13-1/2″) for $112,575.00 in a 2013 auction. The company noted that it had sold a similar one privately back in 1991 for $100,000.
One bit of good news about the N172 Old Judge set, despite some rarity sales, is that there are very few cards in the set with price tags that would rival the six-figure sales that have been seen in T206 and other tobacco card sets. Still, the scarcity and unique nature of some cards will mean that some examples may not be available for years or decades ahead. And for collectors or sports card investors to pursue only the highest grades, that is simply not possible with this 130-year old set.
Below are some of the more remarkable sales that have been seen over time:
- Error card of Deacon White (Portrait) identified as McGreachery sold for $130,350.00 in 2014 via Robert Edward Auctions.
- Doyle of San Francisco, California League sold for $129,250 in a 2010 sale through Robert Edward Auctions.
- King Kelly graded PSA 9 sold for $104,400.00 in a Goldin Auctions sale.
- Cap Anson graded PSA 8 in street clothes (suit) sold for $95,600.00 in November of 2016 through Heritage Auctions.
- Judge Ed Delahanty (version 3) graded PSA 8 sold for $45,410.00 in November of 2015 through Heritage Auctions.
- Jake Beckley graded SGC 88 (NM/MT 8) sold for $10,115.00 in a Goldin Auctions sale.
- Harry Wright, (Phila’s, Portrait, Looking Right) graded PSA 8 sold for $35,850.00 via Heritage Auctions in November 2015.
- King Kelly (Boston NL, catching ball barehanded) graded SGC 84 (NM 7) sold for $30,000 through Heritage Auctions in July of 2020.
- Harry Wright (SGC EX+ 70) sold for $30,000 via Robert Edward Auctions in a Spring 2017 auction.
Collectors know quite well that the T206 Honus Wagner and T206 Eddie Plank cards are among the hardest and most expensive cards to ever purchase. The T206 set is considered “complete” even without the rarest and few error cards. Who knows what it would take to have the equivalent of a complete N172 set of baseball cards. And who knows what that would cost.
GOODWIN’s HISTORY & ROLE IN TOBACCO
Baseball cards started to hit their stride in the 1880s. This was the decade where the rise of photography and better printing technology met machines replacing hand rolled cigarette manufacturing. This allowed exponentially higher cigarette production. It was a perfect storm for baseball and tobacco. Prior efforts of advertising tins, signs and magazine ads were now able to be changed to baseball card inserts that could be more widely distributed in packs of rolled cigarettes.
The flip side of this perfect storm is that these baseball cards played a significant role in the rise of smoking in America. Cigarette rolling machines obviously allowed for exponentially more cigarettes to be produced than hand-rolled smokes. These baseball cards and other inserted cards were used as advertising and incentives to buy one brand of cigarettes over other competing brands. This combination played a significant role in the rise of adult and particularly of youth smoking habits.
Goodwin & Company was based in New York City, and dated back to before the Civil War. As with most of the tobacco firms of the 1880s, Goodwin & Co.’s and Old Judge and Gypsy Queen became part of history. Rather than being a failure, the company was merged with Allen & Ginter and others in 1890 into Duke’s American Tobacco Company. This quickly became known as the Tobacco Trust monopoly.
One interesting aspect of the N172 and related sets of cards from that time was that Duke and executives decided they no longer needed the expensive practice of including baseball and other card inserts to help sell cigarettes. Why bother with all that advertising and hassle after merging into a monopoly? The “Trust” was ultimately ordered to dissolve in 1911. Until right before that time, there was nearly a two-decade period with very limited baseball card production.
The monopoly was broken up into multiple companies. This was the same issuer of the famous T206 set and many other tobacco card sets of the early 1900s. For nearly 20 years the Tobacco Trust figured that it did not need to be “so generous” with baseball card insertions after taking over the industry.
AND FOR MORE DIGGING AHEAD…
The Old Judge card sets were vast enough that three authors (Masson, Miller, Gonsowski) issued a book “The Photographic Baseball Cards of Goodwin & Company 1886-1890, Old Judge” as a hardcover issue in 2008. This book was shown to be 460 pages thick and included more than 2,500 photographs of the players and teams of the late 1880s, after including the larger cabinet issue of N173 that was issued after the start of the N172 series.
The Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards also left a mystery here. They don’t just refer to the N172 set as one of the first sets and as the largest set issued. The take there was that the final number of cards that were issued by Goodwin & Co. may never be finally determined.
The Encyclopedia of Baseball Cards (1983) by Lew Lipset also highlighted how the 1887 to 1890 issuances of the N172 set vary widely from year to year, as well as how there may be many variations which exist that are hard to explain. Lipset’s work was 15 pages of basic typed information even back in 1983, and that is without considering the pages that were full of nothing but tables or photos. That was long before we had that Interweb research thing.
Lipset also included how the coupons within the cigarette packages could be used to obtain the larger Old Judge Cabinet and Dogs Head Cabinet cards could be sent in once 20 of those coupons were collected, and that is the buildup into the N173 cabinet cards of the same period.
Mark these words. If you find yourself digging through an auction catalog in 2025 from Heritage, Goldin, Robert Edward, PWCC, Mile High or a host of others, when you read about N172 cards from 1887 to 1890 there are still almost certainly going to be words that describe “new to the hobby” or “newly discovered.”