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The Greatest Sports Card Collection Ever Is Finally Where Everyone Can See It

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has owned the greatest card collection ever for nearly 70 years, and kept it mostly out of sight. Now, slowly, it is arriving online.

by Joe DeLessio
Oct 13 2015, 5:10pm

Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

Freyda Spira knew the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York possessed one of the most famous collections of trading cards in the world when she began working as an associate curator in the department of drawings and prints six years ago. She also knew that most of it had never seen the light of day. The collection—famed not just for its valuable rarities, but also for its scope—consists of some 30,000 baseball cards, plus more than 30,000 others depicting boxers, football players, tennis stars, and other sports figures. Yes, it includes a Honus Wagner T206—the holy grail of sports collectables, and a card that sold for $1.32 million earlier this year and has been sold for as much as $2.8 million. But it also contains the entire T206 series, as well as countless other cardboard treasures from the late 19th century through the late 1950s.

All of these cards were donated by a Syracuse electrician named Jefferson Burdick, who obsessively collected postcards, advertising inserts, and other printed materials; he created a system for cataloguing these items that remains the standard to this day. (It was Burdick who gave the T206 series that label). Considered the father of baseball card collecting, Burdick donated some 303,000 materials to the museum in all, beginning in 1947. The Met has generally kept some small portion of the Burdick collection—largest public collection of cards outside of the Baseball Hall of Fame—on display, but few people have actually seen all of it.

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Most of the collection has been hidden away in the more than 500 albums donated by Burdick and were kept in a museum storeroom that's maintained at a certain temperature with a certain airflow to protect them. The museum did display some cards in rotating exhibits, but the same six rotations had been used since 1992. Spira began planning new exhibits to showcase more cards, but even then, there would be no more than 200 cards on view at a time, in exhibits that would change only every six months. The public had no way to access the rest, since the museum no longer allowed people to view the cards in storage.

"There's so much fantastic sports material, and I was learning so much about the history of America and the history of sports through the cards, that it was really just such an immense resource for everyone," says Spira. "The culture of baseball is so much a part of American culture, and it's so widely valued, that we thought it was the best part of the collection to showcase." the wall. — Photo by Bowman Cards, via Wikimedia Commons

And so in 2010, Spira put together an initiative to raise funding to digitize the entire collection and create an online database where collectors or anyone else could pore through the archive. By the start of 2014, she'd studied the Library of Congress' popular (but much smaller) digital archive of baseball cards, and mapped out a plan with the museum's conservators and photography department. The funding materialized around the time the Meadowlands hosted the Super Bowl in February 2014, thanks to a donation from Leonard Wilf, the co-owner and vice chairman of the Minnesota Vikings, and his wife Beth; they'd been in town for the big game and saw a pop-up exhibit of football cards from the Burdick collection during a visit to the museum.

"It was important for me and my family to preserve this great piece of 20th century American sports history," says Leonard Wilf, via email. "Digitizing this important collection will ensure that a greater number of people throughout the world will see it."

The digitization process required hiring a part-time cataloguer to log the details of every card while a photographer snapped an image. It began in earnest in the fall of 2014, and the archive went online late last month with the first batch of 34,772 records, of which about 15,250 already have images. For the first time, the public could see images of cards from the collection that had never been displayed at the museum, like a 1911 Ty Cobb card issued by the American Tobacco Company. They could also compare cards in a way they never could before: The design from that 1911 Cobb card, for instance, was reused the following year for a series known as the Hassan Triple Folders—long horizontal cards that promoted Hassan Cork Tip Cigarettes with an action shot in between two portraits. Cards are continuously being added to the database, and soon visitors will be able to see things like the entire 130-card series produced by the American Caramel Company in Philadelphia between 1909 and 1911, featuring such legends as Shoeless Joe Jackson and Christy Mathewson.

"The Burdick collection is such a rich collection about the cultural history and the visual history of America that we felt like it was an important thing for people to see a virtual collection online," says Spira. "People can actually page through the albums and see not only what Burdick collected but how he collected and the system that he came up with for cataloguing this type of material, which is still being used today."

Imagine this very same card, except Bartolo Colon is on it. Yeah, that's the good stuff. — Photo by Cracker Jack, via Wikimedia Commons

The project is funded through November of 2016, and the goal is to get all the sports material in Burdick's collection online by then. (Spira says she hopes to continue adding the rest of the collection after that.) The sports trading cards are integrated into albums with other subject matter, so every piece inside any album that contains sports material is being digitized. That means plenty of non-sports items have found their way into the database already, a grab bag that includes a set of cards depicting famous American newspaper editors—including a Joseph Pulitzer rookie!—and one from 1887 depicting "occupations for women" such as teacher, painter, boat racer, and imperial counselor.

Start clicking through the collection and you risk disappearing down a rabbit hole of vintage sports collectables. You'll bounce from Cap Anson's 1887 card used to promote Allen & Ginter brand cigarettes—a design that Topps revived in 2006—to Miller Huggins's 1911 American Tobacco Company card, to a 1912 card of Walter Johnson, to a set from 1910 featuring minor-leaguers from the Southern League, to a 1909 T204 card of "Wee" Willie Keeler, to a set produced by Murad Cigarettes depicting generic college athletes, to an 1887 card featuring a less-than-natural pose from Hall of Famer (and Twitter legend) Old Hoss Radbourn.

You may come across an 1886 set of women baseball players, or an 1888 series of the "World's Dudes." Or see familiar names like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, and Ted Williams. Or encounter all sorts of eye-popping colors and gorgeous designs: Among Spira's favorites are the 1914-15 Cracker Jack set—"I love the red background and the very visual, arresting nature of those cards"—as well as those 1912 Hassan Triple Folders.

Burdick, who began collecting when he was 10 years old, didn't seek to obtain all these cards out of a particular love for baseball or even sports in general. But he nevertheless amassed a legendary sports collection. "He was obsessive about collecting," says Spira. "And so for him, the baseball cards were part of a history about advertising in America. It wasn't a specific love of baseball. He never went to a baseball game. But he was interested in completeness, which I think a lot of collectors are." Now, nearly seven decades after his gift to the Met, the fruits of his obsession can finally be seen by everyone.

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