Baseball cards at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A friend of mine was a bit surprised when I texted him from the Metropolitan Museum of Art the other day, telling him about an exhibition of baseball cards that I was seeing there. I think a lot of people might be surprised to learn that the Met has a significant collection of baseball cards, and that they display a small selection of them on a regular basis (although in a very obscure, not so easy to find, back corner of the museum). Below left is a selection of 1887 “Gold Coin Tobacco Issue” baseball cards currently on display, and below right is a view of how the Met is displaying the cards in small groupings, matted and framed. Scroll down for more …

baseball cards from the Burdick Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met’s holdings of baseball cards total approximately 30,000, and they come from a collection of over 300,000 objects of “printed ephemera” donated to the museum in the 1950s by Syracuse electrician and collector Jefferson R. Burdick (1900–1963). If you’re wondering what we mean by ephemera, it describes items of collectible printed memorabilia, and in the case of Burdick’s collection, includes advertising inserts, postcards, and posters, in addition to the baseball cards.

This was actually the 2nd time I’ve seen the baseball cards on display at the Met, and it was a completely different group of cards from what I saw the first time. The area where they display them is small – maybe 50 feet of wall space – so there might only be 150 or so cards on display from the collection of 30,000 at any time. The big question my friend had was: “do they have the Honus Wagner card?” It was not on display either time I visited this collection at the museum, but they do have it. If you’re wondering what the Honus Wagner card is, it’s like the Mona Lisa of baseball cards. I don’t mean that in an artistic sense, because the imagery of the card is not anything different or unique from the other cards which were issued by the American Tobacco Company between 1909 and 1911. I call it the “Mona Lisa of baseball cards” because it’s probably the most-recognized and best-known card due to its rarity and value. It’s a good story – the American Tobacco Company made a series of baseball cards to promote sixteen different brands of cigarettes and loose tobacco, and once Wagner found out his likeness was being used in this way, he insisted that they cease production of the card, as he apparently did not want tobacco products to be sold to children. The exact number of Honus Wagner cards in existence is unknown, but the estimated number is anywhere between 50 to 200 cards, which kind of adds to the mysterious legend of the card, since that’s a pretty wide range of estimates. The full set that the American Tobacco Company put out consisted of 524 different cards, and the total production is estimated to be tens of thousands of cards for any given player, so you can see how the Wagner card becomes extemely rare by comparison.

Below left is the famous Honus Wagner T206 card, alongside a selection of examples of other cards from the same series.

Honus Wagner baseball card and other T206 cards

I mentioned the value of this card earlier … and you may be wondering, how much is it worth? A Wagner T206 card sold in 2016 for a record price of $3.12 million! Granted, the value of any one Wagner card depends on its condition, so it’s not like all of them are worth that much. You can read more about this famous baseball card here.

As far as viewing this card at the Met, here’s a quote from Freyda Spira, the assistant curator of the museum’s Department of Drawings and Prints: “… we have to limit the amount of exposure it gets in order to maintain its quality. It’s only up every three years or so, because it can’t really be up more than that.” My guess is that they want to limit the exposure to light, so that it doesn’t fade, but considering the obscure location of these cards in the back of the museum, I’d also guess they don’t want to have to set a permanent security guard back there either. Hopefully I’ll find a time when it is on display, and I’ll enjoy checking in on the rotating collection on future visits.

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