Original Cracker Jack Baseball Cards Set Still a Sweet Treat

This 1915 “Shoeless” Joe Jackson Cracker Jack card, in rare mint condition, sold for $101,575 last March.

In 1914, the company known for the popular confection Cracker Jack released as series of baseball cards. Designated as E145 in the American Card Catalog, the set consisted of a total of 144 cards.

Measuring 2-1/4 inches by 3 inches, they were larger than most candy and tobacco–era cards of their day but smaller than the modern cards collectors have become accustomed to today. Printed on a thin paper stock, the cards featured players posed in both action and portrait photos against a brilliant red background.

A true challenge for even the wealthiest of collectors, this set poses significant condition issues due to the paper stock that was used and the distribution method of the cards. Simply placed inside Cracker Jack packaging, the cards are prone to staining from the caramelized popcorn and the inherent corner dings and edge wear one might expect from being jostled unprotected within the snack’s box.

Because of this, collectors have to be willing to sacrifice typical grading standards in exchange for simply being able to acquire the cards, as precious few survived over the passage of time.

The checklist is dominated by stars of the American, National and Federal leagues, with some of the more notable names being Max Carey, Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Harry Hooper, Miller Huggins, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Walter Johnson, Napoleon Lajoie, Christy Mathewson, Branch Rickey, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Jimmy Walsh and Zach Wheat.

This near-mint 1914 Ty Cobb card didn’t do badly for itself, selling at auction in 2012 for $88,875.

Adding to the collectible lore of the 1914 Cracker Jack set, the company released a second series the following year. The 1915 version of the cards have some distinct differences from the first, most notably the greatly increased quantity and quality of cards available. This occurred because the company made available for purchase complete sets of the 1915 cards and issued a special album to securely house them for protection.

The checklist was expanded to 176 total cards and created some unique variations within the cumulative set. For example, the 1915 version of Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson’s card depicts him in a portrait, while the 1914 version showcases him pitching. This distinct difference makes the 1914 version significantly more desirable. As a result, simple economic factors of supply and demand make this card one of the most expensive of the entire two-year run.

The overall card design from both years is nearly identical, with the card front featuring the player’s name, city and league. The reverse highlights a biography of the depicted player, the card’s designated number in the set and an advert noting the number of cards in the set and enticing people to collect them all.

The primary physical difference in the 1915 version is that the card backs are printed upside down. With most pieces of collectible ephemera from the time, people often mounted such items on album pages with tiny gummed hinges similar to those used by stamp collectors. This allowed for the card backs to be easily read without having to turn the album or crane one’s neck in the process.

Cards from the 1915 series are much easier to find because the company issued a card holder, protecting them from the perils of time and wear.

Prices on the secondary auction market continue to escalate for both the 1914 and 1915 cards. In May 2013, the highly coveted 1915 version of the Joe Jackson card, graded in Mint condition, sold for $101,575—a stunning, yet not surprising, price given the amazing condition of the card.

Just three years prior, a card just a step down in condition sold for more than $41,000. This difference not only reflects the increased value over time but also just how important overall condition is in the minds and wallets of high-end collectors.

Further examples include a 1914 Ty Cobb, graded in a PSA 8.5 NM/MT+ that sold at auction in 2012 for $88,875.

You don’t have to be a millionaire to collect the set—although it would certainly help. If you’re comfortable owning lesser-graded or non-graded samples of the cards, collectors can find them. To give you an idea, an ungraded specimen of Zach Wheat recently sold at auction for just $125. In the same auction that saw the aforementioned Ty Cobb realize its exorbitant price, a Charles Comiskey card in a PSA 7 NM sold for just $830. As you can see from just these few examples, condition drives price.

Collectors attempting to amass this formidable set must set realistic expectations in terms of desired condition and affordable pricing. And they must practice diligence and patience. While purists might be inclined to start with the 1914 set, most collectors usually try their hand at the relatively easier-to-find 1915 cards first.

Ungraded cards are a less expensive way to get into collecting. This ungraded Zach Wheat card sold for just $125.

For those collectors who love the history and look of the set yet can’t even begin to afford even low-grade-conditioned cards, there are a couple of cost effective alternatives that may satisfy that craving. Due to the original set’s immense popularity, there have been reprint sets made throughout the years. Being reprints, they in no way hold any collectible value, but from an aesthetic standpoint certainly they can fill that collecting void.

Another option to consider is a set from modern-day baseball-card manufacturer Topps, which paid homage to the original series by releasing its own version of the Cracker Jack cards in 2004 and 2005. The product takes the card designs of the original series and uses modern players as subjects. Unique inclusions to the product include autograph and memorabilia cards commonplace in today’s baseball-card products.

Whatever route you choose, remember to be prudent, patient and practical. And most important of all—have fun!

Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.

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