Truly World’s Champions: Allen & Ginter Champions Sets Had a Little of Everything

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When Allen & Ginter debuted its iconic ʻChampionsʼ sports cards in the late 1800s, they almost certainly did not foresee their long-term hobby impact. But more than 130 years later, their original cards are more popular than ever.

Allen & Ginter, of course, wasn’t trying to break into the sports card business, per se. In the 19th century, a er all, sports cards weren’t really a standalone business. Instead, they were primarily used as advertisements and stiffeners in packages of cigarettes and other products. Dubbed as “The World’s Champions,” one of these cards was found in each 10-cigarette box of Allen & Ginter’s cigarettes. While many have been discarded over the years, some of those groundbreaking sports cards are still around today and are quite desirable to collectors.

Allen & Ginter issued two distinct ‘Champions’ series – each one consisting of a total of 50 cards. Today, the second series cards are significantly rarer.

The cards were a stark contrast to many of the earlier 1880s tobacco cards. Instead of sepia-toned cards with real images of subjects affixed to cardboard backings, Allen & Ginter’s cards relied on more colorful lithographic depictions. The decision to place the pictures against full white backgrounds, in hindsight, was a fantastic one and only highlights the wonderful artwork even more. The cards, too, are quite sturdy, printed on thicker cardboard, as opposed to the thinner style utilized in the early 1900s in popular tobacco and early caramel cards. That has unquestionably increased the durability of the cards.

The cards in both sets are similar in appearance with the subject’s name on the front and a checklist on the back. However, a minor adjustment was made for the second series cards, removing the Allen & Ginter name from the front. While a definitive reason for that decision is not known, that could have been a nod to collectors that did not want a cigarette brand name so prominently featured. That was undoubtedly an issue to some collectors who sometimes trimmed the portions of cards where tobacco company names appeared.

The Earliest Names

Many sources claim that the first set (cataloged as N28) was issued in 1887. However, that is almost certainly incorrect based on the card of Hall of Fame pitcher John Clarkson. Clarkson is shown as a member of the Boston Beaneaters, but did not join that club until the spring of 1888 after strong-arming his way out of Chicago. The more accepted dates of issue for the cards today are 1888 for the first series and 1889 for the second series.

Ask today’s collectors about the earliest stars in baseball and you might hear names such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, or Cy Young. But Allen & Ginter’s first series introduced several lesser-known greats, including the likes of Clarkson, Cap Anson, Tim Keefe, and Mike “King” Kelly.

To the collectors of 19th century baseball cards, those are household names. However, younger collectors or ones with more modern tastes might be surprised at their brilliance. Anson, in particular, is consistently viewed as an all-time great. He won four batting titles and was arguably the biggest star of that era. To be sure, 2,000 career hits is a notable achievement. But Anson recorded 2,075 runs batted in while also collecting 3,435 hits.

The baseball cards are the unquestionable keys to the series. Even the common baseball players these days command starting prices of $200-$300 for lower-graded cards. Anson’s card is the most valuable in either set with even modest examples these days starting around $2,500-$3,500.

None of the 10 baseball players were repeated in the second series, which featured six subjects. The second series cards, understandably, lacked the same star power in the initial set, which featured most of the sport’s big names. But Hall of Fame Swiss Army knife Buck Ewing (Ewing played games at every position, including pitcher) leads the N29 follow-up issue.

If you’re thinking these are baseball-dominated sets, though, think again. The baseball cards are the most valuable ones but they make up a small piece of the overall series. Of the 100 cards across both Allen & Ginter sets, a scant 16 are dedicated to athletes in America’s pastime. You’ll excuse the set’s many supporters, however, if that is of little concern.

Really, the set’s identity comes in that it is decidedly not a baseball release. Baseball is but a small part of the series and while you won’t find any of the other ‘Big Four’ American sports featured in it, the set includes just about everything else. For many, the lack of baseball is not a detraction. Rather, its diversity adds to the charm of this 19th century issue.

Boxers, Tennis Players and Sharpshooters

After baseball, the next most popular sport found in both sets is boxing/pugilism. The cards for early fighters, such as legendary champion John L. Sullivan and Jack ‘Nonpareil’ Dempsey, are popular. Sullivan’s, in particular, is valued like a baseball card of a star player.

The tennis cards found in Allen & Ginter’s N29 set are among the earliest cards issued for that sport. Four tennis cards are found in the set, highlighted by Richard Sears who dominated the sport, winning the first seven U.S. Open Singles Tournaments (as well as six doubles titles, partnered with James Dwight, who also appears in the release). Other sports of prominence across the two sets include wrestling, cycling, track and field, billiards, and more. The series is full of world class athletes at the top of their respected sports.

Collectors should also not sleep on cards of “Buffalo” Bill Cody and Annie Oakley found in the first series. While they would only be considered fringe athletes to some, classified as sharpshooters, their cards are among the more valuable in the series. Cards of Cody and Oakley typically begin in the $150-$250 range for lower-grade examples.

It is worth noting that Allen & Ginter produced supplementary albums for the series, too. These were premium items that included pictures of all of the cards in each set. Albums were available to collectors by redeeming coupons from Allen & Ginter products. The albums (recognized as A16 for the 1888/N28 first series and A17 for the 1889/N29 series), as you can imagine, are much rarer than the cards themselves.

1888 Allen & Ginter Champions Album

Because the albums included full-size pictures of the cards, many collectors cut them out to create makeshift cards. These ‘cards’ are still collected today and usually referred to as album cuts. They are not as valuable as the actual cards but are still routinely bought and sold. Collectors seeking the original cards should be aware of these album cuts that were printed on thinner stock and do not have the checklist back advertisements. The album cuts for the first series can also be distinguished by the lack of Allen & Ginter text on the front, which appeared on the regular cards but not on the pictures of the cards in the albums. Full, uncut albums in good condition sell for thousands of dollars.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Allen & Ginter name remains strong even today. That has been helped not only by the staying power of the original cards but by the resurrection of the brand by Topps in 2006. True to the origins of the 19th century series, Topps’ Allen & Ginter cards have created such a mishmash of subjects that it has even led some modern collectors to question the diversity of the releases. Those that understand the hodgepodge nature of the original cards, however, can better appreciate the merits of including such a wide mix of athletes and non-sports personalities.

Will the Allen & Ginter brand still be going strong into another century? Time will tell, of course, but this collector isn’t betting against it.