Baseball Cards Steal the Show at Metropolitan Museum of Art

By this time in the baseball season the New York Mets are often many games out of first place. It took Allison Rudnick, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to inform me that's not the case this year.

"The Mets are doing really well," she said.

Ms. Rudnick's expertise can be traced to two sources. She comes from a Mets family. "I was born in '87, the year after they won the Series," she said. "I think that accounts for it."

And she's the curator of "The Old Ball Game: New York Baseball, 1887-1977," a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that features almost 400 baseball cards, and runs through Oct. 20.

"I learned about the sport, but the real thrill has been learning more about the history of the game," Ms. Rudnick told me as we walked through the exhibition in the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art.

If so, perhaps Ms. Rudnick could solve a mystery that's been bugging me for a while: Why do mothers feel compelled to throw out their children's beloved baseball cards?

"I hear that a lot," the curator acknowledged. "People of a certain generation, when I tell them about the show," they say, "'My mother threw out my cards.'"

She was at a loss to explain the sad phenomenon. However, one baseball fan whose collection managed to avoid the trash heap was Jefferson R. Burdick, who assembled one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of cards in private hands. Between 1943 and 1963 Mr. Burdick, an electrician by profession, gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art 300,000 items including 30,000 baseball cards, even though they balked the first time he offered, according to Ms. Rudnick. "Burdick came back and the Met said, 'Sure, but there are hundreds of thousands of cards?'

"Burdick spent from the 1940s to two months before his death in 1963 putting the cards in albums," and also developing a cataloging system that remains in use today.

Needless to say, given the soaring value of baseball cards, the Met is now delighted it accepted the collector's donation.

While the collection includes a Honus Wagner, the Holy Grail of baseball cards, it isn't on display in the current exhibition. "He never played for a New York team," Ms. Rudnick explained. "It goes on view every few years."

The show starts in the 1880s when baseball cards were used as a marketing tool by tobacco companies. They were typically colorful illustrations of players against bucolic backgrounds.

There were also large photo cards meant to be displayed in living-room cabinets and that featured such old-time sluggers as Roger Connor, the home run king prior to Babe Ruth, and legendary catcher William "Buck" Ewing.

It wasn't until the 1920s and '30s that chewing-gum companies came onboard, prompting Ms. Rudnick to speculate that one reason for the rarity of certain cards may be that children "were more interested in the bubble gum. They take the gum and throw out the cards."

I'm not sure I agree. Any child whose first priority was candy—and I include myself in that category—quickly realized a Nestlé's Crunch bar, or even a pack of Mini Chiclets, was a shrewder investment than a pack of baseball cards that included one meager stick of gum.

Babe Ruth is represented by several cards. "You can vaguely make out that his uniform says the Red Sox," Ms. Rudnick said about a card that was part of the American Caramel Baseball Card Series—even though "The Babe" had joined the Yankees by the time the card was issued in 1922.

Other luminaries in the show include Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle.

It wasn't until the early 1950s that baseball cards developed the format we recognize today in a series of cards issued by Topps Chewing Gum. "It was the first time you see the team logo, and the player's autograph became a consistent feature of the cards," Ms. Rudnick explained.

The final series of cards isn't part of the Burdick Collection. They feature New York players from the 1970s, including the Yankees' Jim "Catfish" Hunter and the Mets' Jerry Grote and Jerry Koosman.

"I thought it was important to give a nod to what happens after two of the three major teams move to the West Coast," Ms. Rudnick said.

And it's also important for a Mets fan, whose team replaced the Dodgers and the Giants in the affections of some New Yorkers.

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at Ralph.Gardner@wsj.com


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