Collecting Negro League baseball cards can be a challenging experience. It can also be rewarding. While many of the players' statis has been lost, their biographical information has been preserved through their baseball cards. The only problem is, there aren't very many cards either.
Josh Gibson, Satchell Paige, Larry Doby, Jackie Robinson and Buck Leonard -- these names are well known by most collectors. All of them played in the Negro Leagues. It was an era of segregation that ended when Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
The history of the Negro Leagues is a fascinating chapter in baseball. Fortunately for collectors, a lot of it has been documented through the years in specialized sets of Negro Leagues baseball cards. The inclusion of former Negro League players in traditional baseball card products has also provided a basis for keeping that history alive.
The checklists of these sets range from detailed and comprehensive to those focusing on only the league's top players. Notable names who never had the chance to play in the Majors include Cool Papa Bell, Buck O'Neil, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard. Cards of lesser known but equally important players can also be found. Judy Johnson, Smokey Joe Williams and Rube Foster, to name a few, fall into this category.
Other Negro League players might even be a surprise to collectors as they are better known for their accomplished MLB careers. Players like Monte Irvin, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays.
Here is a look at just some of the Negro League baseball cards that document that part of the game's history. These cards and sets also serve as a means of paying tribute to the players who endured through these times. These men pursued their passion by playing the game they loved by the only means available to them at the time.
This 36-card set features a two-tone sepia like color scheme. The backs contain a very detailed player summary. This set was ahead of its time and under-appreciated. Through the years, it has grown in popularity as a niche set.
This is an unfortunate and poor follow-up to the 1974 release. This set is truly unflattering and more of an insult to the players depicted. It consists of 36 total cards. A drab green and black color scheme causes some of the players to appear in "black face." I'm not sure what the company was thinking at the time of this product's release as it is certainly anything but an homage to the players of the league.
This set was manufactured by longtime vintage dealer, Larry Fritsch and is one of the most comprehensive Negro League sets ever produced. The set consists of 119 total cards. The front of the cards showcase vintage black and white photography. The card backs contain a short player biography.
Distributed as a box set, the 36-card checklist features the top names of the Negro Leagues. The cards depict painted images of the players. done with an impressionistic feel. The results are beautiful renderings of the players.
Manufactured and distributed by the Negro League Baseball Players Association, the set consists of 30 card that came as a boxed set. The cards were issued in an over-sized format measuring 3-1/2 by 5-1/4 inches. The artwork was done by acclaimed sports artist Ron Lewis. The set is subtitled Living Legends and is believed that that production run consisted of 10,000 sets. Due to their incredible aesthetic quality, the cards are often used by collectors for obtaining autographs. They make for brilliant display pieces with or without the players' signature.
While not stand alone sets, each year included a subset dedicated to the Negro Leagues. The cards are often sold on the secondary market as a complete set, making them easy for collectors to obtain. Printed on a quality card stock with a high gloss finish, they are some of the best looking cards ever produced of players from baseball’s Negro Leagues. The 1993 edition features 18 cards and the 1994 version 17. The two sets have no duplicate players, making for 35 total cards.
Through the years, there have been numerous modern card sets that have included Negro League players on their checklists. One of the most popular modern sets is 2001 Fleer Greats of the Game. Besides including many players in the base set, Fleer was even able to secure several former players for autographs including the late Buck O'Neil.
Other Sets with Negro League Players
Comprehensive vintage era sets of the Negro Leagues simply do not exist. However, many of the players who participated in the league also played winter ball in Venezuela, Cuba and Puerto Rico. While these sets are obviously not focused solely on Negro league players, they provide one of the only accessible means of obtaining cards from the days in which the players were active in the game. Some of these sets include:
- 1931 Doble Aguila
- 1945-46 Caramelo Deportivo
- 1946 Propagandas Montiel
- 1946-47 Caramelo Deportivo
- 1950-51 Toleteros
Below, on the left is a 1945-46 Caramelo Deportivo card of Booker McDaniels. The card on the right is a 1946 Propagandas Montiel card of Martin Dihigo.
While being far from a comprehensive listing, the above sets and cards provide a foundation in which to build a nice collection of Negro League players. This hobby niche provides an educational insight into the history of our country and the game of baseball. It's also one that is very affordable to start, while at the same time providing a rewarding collecting experience.