Your first cigarette card

Do you remember your first card? The very first card you ever bought, or was given?

I don’t remember who the cards were in that first pack of 1983 Topps, except for Ripken, I still remember the Ripken card, but I do not have that card anymore.

But another first I clearly remember, and I still have is my first cigarette card.

It comes as no surprise that I love pre-war. I started out chasing T206 cards at a young age. I’ve attempted to build the set at least 4 times. The most complete I ever reached was just over 400 cards.

Just like your favorite hero in tights, all collectors have an origin story. My T206, and pre-war journey began with one card: A T206 Fred Merkle portrait.

1909-11 T206 Fred Merkle portrait

There are multiple things going on with this card that make it special, at least special to me (condition not being one of them).

To begin with, it was the very first T206 card I ever owned. I acquired the card at a small motel card show in East Ridge, TN in 1989. I wish I remember how much I had paid, but I know it wasn’t much. I didn’t have much money to put into cards when I was young. By the early 90s, I had a rule that I would pay up to $15 for a T206 without creases. Wish that was possible today.

I loved looking at this card. I loved the antiquated image of Fred. That axle grease-slicked down hair. That old-time uniform and the ad for cigarettes on the back all made this card feel very old. I knew that I had to have more of these cards.

My Great Grandfather, whom I was fortunate to have known until I was almost 26 years old, lived to be 102. I remember showing him my new prized card and was surprised when he said he remembered when baseball cards were in packs of cigarettes. He was just a boy of 8 or 9 when T206s first hit the streets but he remembered the cards being found in cigarette packs and boys would try to find the cards. Unfortunately, he never collected them, or if he had gotten any cards, they were long gone.

It was a cool first-hand learning experience to be able to hear directly from someone that actually remembered seeing cards come out of cigarette packs. He also had seen Babe Ruth play before and once saw the gangster John Dillinger drive down the street to a crowd that cheered for him. My G-Grandfather lived during an interesting time in history.

A few years later, I learned more about who was pictured on the front of the card. I had no idea just who Fred Merkle was or why I should know him. This was pre internet days, kids. We had to learn the old fashion way, through books and word of mouth!

I remember discovering Fred and what he was famous for in a book about baseball history (wish I remembered the book title). The “Merkle Boner” was poor Fred’s claim to fame. It haunted him for the rest of his life. It has always stuck with me what he must have gone through for years after the incident, how one event changed his entire life. If you do not know about the Merkle Boner, do yourself a favor and research it.

Something else with this card that I did not appreciate until years later is the rubber stamp that is on the back of the card. The stamp on the back reads:

“Howe McCormick 309 W. Main St. Gainesville, FL”

As a kid, I recognized the stamp as probably belonging to a collector contemporary to when the card was released. How cool was it that I have at the time an 80-year-old card that has a connection to possibly its first owner?

What I didn’t realize is that I was not the first to discover Howe and his stamped T206 cards. In fact, there were several collectors out there that knew about these stamped cards. Now we know that Howe was indeed the first collector of these stamped T206 cards. He grew up living over the store his family owned. Howe would collect the cigarette cards from the smokers that bought packs of smokes at his family’s store that did not want the cards. In collecting terms, ‘ol Howe was shooting fish in a barrel. He had access to the source of T206 cards!

While there have now been hundreds of cards identified as having Howe stamps on them, there has not been a Wagner to surface. What is interesting to me is that there very well could have been a Wagner in his collection. When looking at patterns based on the brands on the backs of his cards, we see the backs we would expect to see from a Southern collection. The backs are heavily Piedmont of all series as well as some Hindu and Old Mill backs. While most T206 Wagners have a Sweet Caporal back, a Piedmont back is possible for a Wagner.

I have sold and traded thousands of T-cards over the course of my collecting life. I’ve become bored building T-card sets, I have changed focus of my collecting, and some were sold for financial reasons, but the one card that was always off-limits was the Merkle card. I’m thankful that I kept Fred all these years.

Every card has a story to tell. I am glad my first T206 has so much to tell.

This is a great writeup here about Howe and the cards he stamped.

And another great article here on Howe and his cards.

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