By Elizabeth Muratore
When I went to the Met recently looking for a baseball card exhibit, I got lost several times. I had been under the impression that the 2.2 million square foot museum had kindly spared an entire room for this selection of baseball cards from yesteryear. Surely, I thought, an exhibit on such a topic warranted a prominent location in one of the great institutions of the art world.
I was mistaken. The exhibition I had gone to see, entitled “Baseball Cards from the Collection of Jefferson R. Burdick,” is buried in the back of a “visual storage” area on floor 1M in gallery 774 A, which is accessible by only one elevator and takes up one corner of the sprawling room. Much like seeing a movie for a particular actor, only to find out that they are in five minutes of said movie, I was initially disappointed that my trip to the Upper East Side appeared to have ended anticlimactically. Still, I figured that I might as well give the exhibit due diligence, and I began to peruse the descriptions and cards mounted on the museum wall.
The selection of baseball cards came from the mammoth collection of Jefferson R. Burdick, a Syracuse electrician who was an avid collector of many paper goods besides baseball cards -- his collection later grew to include greeting cards, valentines, postcards, and paper dolls. He originally started collecting baseball cards as a child when they were favors included with his father’s tobacco products and cigarette packages. As an adult, with arthritis that hindered many other hobbies, his passion for collecting resurfaced, and he became somewhat of a celebrity in the card-collecting space.
In the late 1940s, with his health declining, Burdick committed to preserving his entire collection of 30,000 cards and began cataloging it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Incidentally, the way he preserved his cards actually slashed much of their value and had to be completely undone years later in order for any of them to be displayed -- he pasted and glued his treasured baseball cards into photo albums.
Burdick spent 15 years on this painstaking process, which began in 1948 with sending boxes of cards to the Met and ended in 1963 with rushing to complete his mission in January before dying two months later. The Met has been periodically displaying selections from his baseball card collection since 1993, rotating the cards every few months to avoid light damage.
As I strolled through the exhibit, I noticed how drastically different the art looks across the decades and between different companies. The first panel of cards, from 1887, displayed no information about the players portrayed. The images of each player appear hand-drawn, or at least reproduced to look like a painting done in watercolors or pastels. These miniature paintings do show players in baseball uniforms, but only one out of the 20 cards actually shows a player holding a bat.
The T207 series, produced by the American Tobacco Company in 1912, featured images that are nearly all black and white, save for red trimming on some of the players’ uniforms. The players’ faces appear against dark backgrounds, almost ghostlike. Yet the 1911 T205 series, also from the American Tobacco Company, featured players’ faces against colorful backgrounds of bright red, green, orange, and blue.
Perhaps I’m just ignorant, but I didn’t realize that Cracker Jack used to produce baseball cards until I saw a panel of Cracker Jack-emblazoned baseball cards from 1914-15 in this exhibit. These cards were much larger than the tobacco company cards that preceded them, and also contained more information about each player on the back of the card than their predecessors.
Cracker Jack briefly brought back in-package cards in the early 1990s, 75 years after they first ran, but this tradition has since died out once again.
My favorite cards that I saw came from the Goudey Gum Company in 1938, and included legends such as Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, and Hank Greenberg. Each card looks like a panel from a comic book and features a photograph of a player’s head atop an illustrated body with exaggerated proportions, and also contains miniature black and white drawings and combines biographical info with cartoonishly hyperbolic statements, all in a playful font.
Founded in 1919, Goudey produced baseball cards from 1933 to 1941. They were the first gum company to include baseball cards with sticks of gum, and ended their operations in 1962.
The newest cards included in this latest display of Burdick’s collection came from Topps’ 1954 set. These richly colored cards distinguished themselves by including two photos of each player per card, one of them posing and one of them in a baseball motion, as well as a reproduction of each player’s signature. Three of the players on display were Hall of Famers: Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, and Ted Williams. The other was former Yankees player and manager Billy Martin.
When I read about the exhibit in advance, I expected more context to accompany the cards and was, at first, underwhelmed by the amount of history included in the exhibition. However, I soon realized that the cards themselves really were the story. They give insight into players’ pitching windups and batting stances from eras in which there was no video taken of baseball games. They represent prominent American companies and artistic trends throughout the 20th century. They also indicate which players truly were popular at different points in baseball history.
I’ve never been into card collecting myself, but I appreciated how these little slices of baseball and American history had a place at the Met, among masterpieces spanning centuries of art. Perhaps this charming exhibit being tucked away and a little difficult to find made me appreciate it even more.
Burdick is still being recognized for his contributions to the baseball zeitgeist. In 2018, SABR posthumously awarded Burdick the Henry Chadwick Award, which was established in 2009 to “honor baseball’s great researchers—historians, statisticians, annalists, and archivists—for their invaluable contributions to making baseball the game that links America’s present with its past.”
This current exhibit is on display at the Met through Nov. 22, 2021. If you live near Manhattan, I would highly recommend stopping by to get a closer look at these tiny works of baseball art. Even if you miss this year’s display, there will almost definitely be another one in the near future.
Elizabeth Muratore is one of the editors of the Here’s the Pitch newsletter. She also works as an editorial producer for MLB, writes for Rising Apple and Girl at the Game, and co-hosts a Mets podcast called Cohen’s Corner. Elizabeth is a lifelong Mets fan who thinks that Keith Hernandez should be in the Hall of Fame. You can follow her on Twitter @nymfan97.