Why the N172 Baseball Set Remains So Elusive Even After 130 Years

What set is the true “Monster Set” for vintage baseball card collectors? The famed T206 baseball card set from 1909 to 1911 is often referred to as “The Monster” for its massive size at that time. Perhaps the real “Monster” set is the (N172) Old Judge from Goodwin & Co. which was produced starting back in 1887. The black and white sepia photo Old Judge tobacco series was actually issued from 1887 to 1890. Its “N172” designation came from Jefferson Burdick for his American Card Catalog, with “N” designating the “nineteenth century” despite “T” cards designating tobacco issuers.

The more famous T206 set is listed at an impressive 524 cards before getting into variations of tobacco brands printed on the back. The N172 set is roughly 500 cards, but there are thousands of unique cards with player variations of stances, poses, in uniform or in street clothes wearing coats and ties. The set is actually still somehow managing to grow. Even after more than 130 years of age there are still somehow newly discovered N172 cards and new variations being discovered each year.

With the Gypsy Queen and the Old Judge brands in the set, each card measures 1 1/2″ X 2 1/2″ in a sepia image that was new technology at the time. These were photographs from the Hall Studio in New York that were pasted onto thick cardboard with blank backs. The Gypsy Queen labels are more scarce and more valuable than the more common Old Judge labels.

If you are one of the “set builders” within old baseball cards there needs to be an upfront realization here. It is simply an impossible task for any collector (or investor) to assemble a complete N172 set in this age. Even if you have endless money and endless time it would be impossible to go out and purchase every one of these cards that are known to exist. There are too many cards which are simply unique. This will still require much patience because not all of these players routinely come up for sale at conventions or auctions. The harsh reality is that it could take a decade or two to accumulate even 1,000 different N172 cards individually.

The PSA population report for the N172 set as of December 2022 was listed as just 5,682 graded examples. That compares to a prior count of 5,405 graded examples back in April of 2021. So even after the grading wave of 2021 less than 300 ungraded examples became PSA graded examples. And here is how scarce the N172 cards are compared to the T206 cards — PSA’s total graded population for cards listed as the 1909-11 T206 White border set is listed as a whopping 262,074 graded examples (Dec-2022). SGC’s population report for Old Judge (and specific to baseball) lists the set as 1886 to 1890 and it counted 11,486 graded examples from the set in December 2022.

The PSA data even in 2021 projected that there were 4,500 or more different cards considering the player variations and poses. There were also boxers and wrestlers included with players from major league baseball teams and over 40 regional or minor league teams that haven’t existed for more than a century and have since faded into history.

This is an unofficial list of more than 25 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.

N172 Hugh Duffy

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.

Subsets may exist within the N172 set as well, like the “Browns Champions” cards. 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.

PSA’s website noted that there are less than 100 of these N172 cards graded 8 or higher. The “sweet spot” of the PSA grading with the highest sample count is the PSA 2 grade (at more than 1,100 examples). SGC’s largest populations are in teh grades of SGC 1 to SGC 3, and only about 55 are graded as SGC 8 or higher. And regardless of the grade, neither PSA nor SGC show any player’s card in any of the same variations as having even 100 cards in their respective population reports.

One way to show how scarce these are is simply comparing live eBay offerings. At the start of December 2022, eBay had just 268 different listings of “N172 Old Judge” at prices of $100.00 or more. The same $100 criteria, which doesn’t even include the lower priced common cards, yielded “8,400+” examples up for auction or Buy It Now.

Despite the multi-million prices for Honus Wagner cards from the T206 set, or prices in the hundreds of thousands for other T206 stars and error cards, individual N172 cards simply have not commanded the highest prices in the hobby. Some auction house prices (see below) will show the highest and unique sales.

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, or not even knowing they had them. Some of these cards have been glued into old notebooks and photo albums, which may have been mixed in with old photos of friends and family members of decades past. This adds up to a lot of N172 cards where the fading makes the image and typeset hard to see.

Due to these cards now being so old, collectors often give cards with better photo quality higher valuations versus cards with faded photos. This can truly be one of those examples of “collect the card by appearance rather than by the grade.”

One unique piece of history for Old Judge was a retail advertising sign that sold at Heritage Auctions on August 27, 2022 for the whopping sum of $210,000.00 after only 12 bids. This was so well preserved in a frame that it looks like it is straight out of a museum or even the Hall of Fame, and Heritage outlined how it was restored. This of course shows painted images and poses rather than photos due to technology limitations of the late 1800s. The image below is from Heritage Auctions.

N172 Old Judge Ad Sign

The most famous player of the 1887 N172 Old Judge set is Cap Anson. Heritage Auctions sold a Street Clothes variation of Anson graded as PSA NM-MT 8, which was listed as “The Highest Graded Example in the Hobby” and with a population of just one example. This was from November 17, 2016 and it fetched $95,600.00 after just 14 bids.

Common cards do not have to break the bank for old tobacco card collectors. Heritage sold a lot of 49 different N172 cards which were graded and ungraded, and listed as “fresh to the hobby” as a first time these had ever been sold. This lot fetched $8,400.00 in September 2022. That’s only $171 per card on average. Image below by Heritage Auctions.

Heritage also sold a 1887-90 N172 Old Judge “Brown’s Champions 1886” Near Set of 12) cards all graded by SGC for in November 2021 for $7,500.00.

And here are just some other remarkable N172 baseball card 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.
  • 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.

There is more technical data from a Collectors Dashboard story in October 2021 that shows more details on issue dates and variations, and it even gets into Goodwin & Company’s role in history and their role in the future of tobacco cards. In fact, this set almost killed baseball card issuance for 20 years after the monopolized Tobacco trust decided that it no longer needed to be so generous spending money on baseball card insertions.

And to complicate the N172 set even further, there were 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. That’s the buildup into the N173 cabinet cards of the same period.

It has become undeniable that collectibles have become an alternative asset class. Collectors and those who are investing in collectibles are now frequently competing for the same assets. These old scarce baseball cards are perhaps the most iconic examples of vintage collectibles that can attract significant premiums over prices paid in the past. Just do not take this as a reference that prices can only go higher. If stocks and bonds can fall in value, old cardboard can fall in value too.

So, enough said?