Perhaps no other sports collectible is as revered as the cigarette baseball cards produced in the late 18th and early 19th century. Still striking in appearance, even today, these vintage cards were landmark at the time of issue and considered the gold standard among today's sports card collectors.
While sets like Allen & Ginter and Old Judge were popular in the 19th century, featuring some of the earliest pioneers of the sports world, the T206 baseball set is the one most gravitate toward. The hobby's most famous card, the T206 Honus Wagner, is a product of this set, bringing widespread publicity each time a higher grade example is sold.
The T206 set was issued in over a dozen different types of cigarettes, with each brand carrying their message on the back. The different advertisements create another collecting possibility for the most ardent enthusiast, but most are happy just to accumulate as many of the 500+ cards that are included in this set. From Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson cards to Southern Leaguers who never saw a big league pitch, it's a broad snapshot of the game in an era long before radio and television brought the players to life.
The Wagner cards number less than 100 – at least according to most estimates. It's unlikely you'll own one because of the six figure price tag attached to even the most low grade example. But that's what makes the set so attractive to collectors. While most can't buy a Wagner, they can easily purchase cards from the same set. So many were issued, the lower grade examples of Cobb, Johnson, Christy Mathewson and other legends, can be had for several hundred dollars.
Cigarette baseball cards also included a gold-bordered "T205" set and several others, but the T206 was issued from 1909-1911, making the cards available for enough of a period of time that many survive to this day. Young children pestered their parents and other men they ran into in hopes the smoker would hand the colorful picture over. Many did. In less health-conscious times, some outlets even sold the cigarettes directly to the kids, who were so enamored with baseball they went crazy over actual color illustrations of the players they read about in their local newspaper or early baseball magazines.
It was quite a phenomenon and it would really be the end of cigarette baseball cards in America.