Postcards from the Diamond

Believe it or not, there was a time when people couldn’t watch baseball games on a computer, take pictures with a cell phone, send text messages or have a video-conference meeting. Just try to imagine life without any of those perks, or (horrors!) the Internet. 

In the late 19th century, news and correspondence traveled via telegraph, the U.S. Postal Service, radios, newspapers and early telephones, which were quite crude by today’s standards. And, of course, they sent postcards – millions of them. By the early 20th century, the typical American had a steady stream of incoming and outgoing postcards.

The topics pictured on postcards were wildly varied – landmarks and important buildings, people, animals, scenery, political commentary . . . and baseball. Around the turn of the 19th century, baseball photos, cartoons, parks and stadiums began appearing on postcards. They became ideal collecting pieces because as the game itself exploded in popularity in the early 20th century, the quantity of baseball-related postcards grew along with it.

As the decades went by, especially in the latter half of the 20th century, all kinds of baseball memorabilia got hot and shot up in demand, from cards and autographs to game-worn jerseys and game-used bats. In a way, these items pushed postcards into the hobby’s shadows.

But make no mistake, postcards are still here, and they still provide a fascinating pursuit for legions of sports fans for a number of reasons.
One of the reasons involves simple economics. We can build (or add to) an impressive collection without mortgaging the home. Yes, there are pricey postcards that can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, but by and large, this is a budget-friendly category.

A second reason (one that’s tied to first) is the supply is healthy and fluid. People always seem to be discovering stashes of old postcards crammed in shoeboxes on the top shelf of the closet – and then pushing them into the marketplace. I’d bet you’ve got a stash of postcards in a drawer or a box, even if you don’t consider yourself a postcard collector.

A third plus in this marketplace is the wealth of information out there. You can pick up all kinds of books, illustrated price guides and publications, along with tons of information on the Internet. And don’t overlook the many postcard collecting clubs across America; a website called PostcardCity.com has links and lists.

Further, the postcard hobby has a vast network of sellers and sources. Simply put, postcards are everywhere. Walk into antiques shops and antiques malls anywhere in the nation and you’re likely to see at least one or two (if not several) shoeboxes jammed with postcards. You usually have to dig deep for sports-related issues, but that’s part of the fun, right?

Shows and conventions also provide more sources for postcards, along with the chance to snoop around and discover new things. Visit www.postcard-directory.com/SHOWS for a running calendar of shows.

And don’t stop there; postcards routinely turn up at all kinds of other shows you might have a chance to attend, including those billed as paper collectible, vintage photo and stamp and coin shows.

You don’t even have to go to any of these lengths or do any of that legwork to enjoy deltiology (the term for postcard collecting). This is one hobby where you can sit at your computer and surf any number of sites in search of whatever baseball subjects interest you, whether it’s individual players, teams, ballparks or advertising cards.

Every once in a while, I’ll give myself a little budget (say, $100) and an hour of free time, and I’ll just start browsing a number of online postcard listings. Posted below are some of the destinations I usually hit:

Auctions
   eBay: You can start (or end) with the king of online auctions. eBay has more postcard listings (including “Buy It Now” offerings) than you’ll be able to view in one hour. To cut to the chase, go to the home page and click on “All Categories,” then on “Collectibles.” In the drop-down menu under “Browse,” click on “Postcards” (which includes nearly 2 million listings) and then “Sports.” Instantly – 10,000-plus listings. From there, you can browse page by page, or you can type in a search term to reflect whatever you’re collecting, such as Yankees, Cubs, Stadium or Cobb.

Over the past month, we’ve seen some noteworthy offerings on eBay, both at the high end and at the bargain level. An autographed Hall of Fame plaque postcard of Pie Traynor, for example, fetched $950, while a 1907 Dietsche postcard of Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown (graded PSA 5.5/Excellent) brought $400. Also, a colorful Braves team-issued 1959 Hank Aaron postcard picturing the slugger kneeling down and holding four bats sold for $395 (ungraded).

On the bargain side, we noted vintage color linen postcards bearing aerial views of the Polo Grounds in New York, Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Milwaukee County Stadium and Briggs Stadium in Detroit sell for less than $10 each, including shipping.

And you never know when you’ll find a beautiful old oddity like the one pictured in this column – a young boy in street clothes is posing with a bat while a group of friends (accompanied by what appear to be a couple of moms) wait in the background, perhaps to start a game. The photo also reveals the shadow of the photographer in the foreground. It sold for $10 on one bid – an easy steal considering the condition (it was unmailed) and the memorable image. I just wish I had seen this one before the bidding ended.
 
   Hakes.com: This auction house is known for its fun Americana, pop-culture political memorabilia and vintage toy offerings, but it’s worth stopping in and typing “postcard” into the search box. Every new auction seems to bring a number of baseball-related postcards.

In February 2011, for example, a 1905 postally used card picturing Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie shaking hands with boxer Jim Jeffries (whose name is misspelled as “Jefferies”) brought $2,925. In the same sale, a 1906 team-photo postcard of the Chicago White Sox (including owner Charles Comiskey) sold for $155.

   HA.com: Heritage Auctions also is known for a wide range of categories, from entertainment memorabilia and art to coins and, of course, sports memorabilia. In the latter area, you’ll find examples of high-end postcards. A rare 1908-09 Ty Cobb postcard graded VG/40 by SGC brought $6,575 in 2005. And in November 2010, a 1906 Ullman Christy Mathewson (SGC 30/Good) sold for $3,585.

Yet hundreds of desirable postcard lots have sold for sub-$50 prices in recent years, too. Among them are all kinds of autographed Hall of Fame “plaque” cards from the likes of Brooks Robinson, Duke Snider and Stan Musial. (Note: Buying autographed items can be tricky, as you know, so know your signatures before buying.)

Also, in January 2011, a lot containing 40 colorful Dodgers and Giants postcards got away for $50. Speaking of bargains, in March 2011, a grouping of 100 postcards depicting stadiums and parks around the nation went for just $120, giving someone an instant collection.

  Playle.com: This website offers an informational section on postcards. Click on “Deltiology” and you’ll find, for example, a reference guide to Real Photo Postcards (RPPCs) along with tips on how to identify authentic ones. Playle.com also lists more than 11,000 postcards for sale or on the block, and while the Sports category numbers only a few dozen, it’s worth browsing. Just make sure you read the listings; we noticed a number of postcards that looked old but were actually reproductions, as the seller’s description told us.

Also, don’t forget the auction houses that specialize in sports memorabilia, many of which can be in the pages of SCD. They may not have loads of postcards, but they’re worth watching for the rarities that come up.

Online shops
   CardCow.com: As a sports collector, I found this to be the most appealing of all the multi-category postcard sites. It offers a nice mix of postcards among the nearly 250 listings in its “Baseball” category. There are player cards (from Miller Huggins and Joe DiMaggio to Phil Niekro and George Brett), as well as stadium cards (including wonderful views of the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium). There were also advertising cards (among them a great 1970s-era postcard of Frosted Flakes pitchman Tony the Tiger playing ball) and cartoon cards, including a 1907 caricature of a thief stealing a base, literally.

  OldPostcards.com
: This site has a couple hundred baseball-related offerings for sale, most of them in the $10-$30 range. They’re split into subcategories: “Baseball Trade Cards,” “Comics” (including cartoons, drawings and illustrations of baseball players), “Stadiums,” “Teams & Photos” and “Players.”

Your travels will take you to many other places that most certainly will yield baseball-related postcard treasures. But the sources mentioned here should get you started – or re-started. Let us know what you find!

Larry Canale has been editor-in-chief of Antiques Roadshow Insider since its launch in 2001 and was editorial director of Tuff Stuff from 1993-2000. He edited and co-wrote the book Mickey Mantle: Memories & Memorabilia (2011, Krause) and also has collaborated on two titles with photographer Ozzie Sweet: Mickey Mantle: The Yankee Years (1998) and The Boys of Spring (2005).
He can be reached at larrycanale@comcast.net.

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