Baseball as a professional sport began in earnest in 1869, with the advent of the Cincinnati Red
Stockings. By the mid-1880s, the names of baseball's greatest, such as Mike "King" Kelly, Cap Anson, and Buck Ewing had established strong followings. It was also at this time that the first baseball cards were issued by companies like Allen & Ginter and Lonejack Tobacco. They appeared on the back of cigarette packs largely as stylized cardboard stiffeners to reduce accidental crushing.
The idea of collecting a baseball card series did not become apparent to manufacturers until 1933, when the Gaudi Company released a run of numbered baseball cards, with No. 106 missing. Letters and calls were made to Gaudi by disgruntled collectors trying to find this nonexistent card. In reply to these concerns, Gaudi issued a card that was subsequently sent to only those who had posted or called. Today, this baseball card is extremely rare and in great demand.
Over the decades, baseball cards of specific star players have commanded a premium, but it wasn't until 1987 that prices began to skyrocket. Waiting lists for sealed complete sets appeared, unopened gum packs (a packet containing a few cards and a rather foul tasting stick of stale bubble gum) sold at a premium, and speculation replaced the collecting spirit. Books and newsletters were issued frequently to track the phenomenal rise in prices. Baseball card stores, auctions, and conventions became widespread, and the word "investment" was bandied about to entice "new blood" into the card market. By 1992, overproduction by baseball card makers like Topps, Fleer and Upper Deck had saturated the market, creating a larger supply than anyone wanted. Prices for contemporary cards collapsed. A painful example is the Darryl Strawberry Rookie card, which from its peak in 1990 to today's price has lost 95% of its value.
Older, classic baseball cards have fended much better, though, and continue to do so largely due to rarity (not many made or exist), condition (whether the card is worn or like new), and a continued interest or demand by serious collectors. At a recent auction in New York, a 1910 T-206 Honus Wagner fetched the record price for a baseball card of $640,000!
What does the future hold for baseball cards? As with anything, a card is worth only as much as someone else is willing to pay for it. Common baseball cards will always be common, and rarities will likely never become less rare. By taking oneself out of the mind set of "What will it be worth tomorrow?" and instead thinking "What is it worth to me now?", collecting becomes a relaxing hobby, rather than a get-rich-quick scheme that all too often ends in disappointment
Thanks to Alex Sawchak and T.J. Schwartz for their kind assistance.