Ever since baseball's earliest days, souvenir scorecards and programs have been a staple at the ballpark. Because they typically not only list the rosters of competing teams but also contain interesting articles and advertisements, baseball scorecards and programs not only are historical records but some are extremely collectible. Have ballgames always been a place where the fan could purchase a program? How did these items become as common at the ballpark as peanuts and crackerjacks? Several people have contacted me regarding the value of some of their old programs saved from a game long ago. This article will tell you a bit about the history of baseball scorecards and will also touch on aspects of the game souvenirs that affect their value.
Why a Scorecard?
From baseball's earliest days, spectators of the game followed their favorite team with pride and gusto. As the game spread from cities into rural areas in America, and the attending crowds began to swell, entrepreneurs began to come up with clever ideas to . . . well, make a buck! One of the early pioneers who successfully tapped into baseball's money tree was an immigrant salesman from Ohio by the name of Harry M. Stevens. For those of us who collect scorecards today, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mr. Stevens for when he frequented ballgames and could not tell one player from another, Harry had the idea of producing a roster card to help the fans keep track of the action! He developed his idea and approached several team owners with a proposal for printing and selling publications to be sold at the ballpark. He called the items "score cards" with the players names preprinted on the card and room for the fan to keep score as the game unfolded. Most important, posited Harry, was that the publications could be printed cheaply and there would be plenty of room for businesses to buy advertising space!
Many team owners bought the idea, Harry charged a licensing fee, created space for advertisers to "show their wares," cornered the market and the rest is history! From this humble beginning there has developed today in virtually every professional ballpark a souvenir program available for a few bucks at most to help the fan keep score and to provide interesting information on the teams and players. Naturally, consistent with almost everything else connected with our national pastime, some programs have become quite collectible and are highly prized.
Scorecards As Collectors Items
Okay, what about the scorecard from yesteryear hidden in the bottom of your dresser drawer given to you by a relative . . . are they prized collectibles? What is it about a particular scorecard or program that makes it valuable and collectible? As Curator of the
National Sports Gallery, since I am surrounded by great artifacts every day at work, I resist the temptation to collect too much sports memorabilia. Besides, it's so expensive today, particularly if you love the old historical artifacts of yesteryear. But I do have a penchant for collecting scorecards, so I can tell you some tips about vintage programs as a collectible.
Although there are many different types of scorecard enthusiasts, some collect only programs from their favorite team or featuring their favorite player while others collect only vintage programs from a particular year, era or event. There are several general rules that can be applied across the board:
Generally, the design and attractiveness of the cover enhances the value of the program. This is especially true if the cover adorns a popular player or team. Some of the scorecards from as long ago as the late 19th and early 20th century are heavily illustrated and in color! Also, of course, the advertisements hastily assembled years ago with hardly a thought are now considered quaint and interesting.
As with most paper products that have an element of collectibility, condition is vitally important in determining a program's value. Most collectors of vintage programs are only interested in those publications without torn pages or inserts grossly separated from the program's spine. Also, of course, stains and unsightly spots adversely affect a program's value. This can be especially problematic to the finicky collector as one can well imagine what could happen when a fan purchases a program at the ballpark -- it can become folded and creased, stained with mustard from a hot dog, and generally treated quite shabbily. It is not unusual to see scorecards decades old with a slight crease in the middle as they were often folded and stuffed into one's back pocket.
Babe Ruth "Called Shot" Program
Vintage programs from games when records were tied or broken or when a significant event occurred obviously command premium prices in the open market. Thus, a 1995 Baltimore Orioles regular season program is worth only a few dollars but if it is the program from the game in which Cal Ripken, Jr.
broke Lou Gehrig's
consecutive games record, the value of the program increases tenfold. Similarly, although a World Series program from 1956 is quite valuable on its own and worth $200 to $300, if the game covered happened to be Don Larsen's
"perfect game" from that Series the value increases dramatically. Perhaps there is a game from this year's Subway Series that will become historical? Only time will tell.
Similarly, programs and scorecards from championship teams command higher prices, as do these items from a team's inaugural year, last game or other significant event. Interestingly, there seems to be added interest attached to defunct teams and other scarce programs such as minor league scorecards featuring the early years of an eventual major league superstar. Like any sought after collectible, the old rule of thumb applies . . . the scarcer and nicer programs have the most value.
The Holy Grail: The 1903 World Series Program
If you happen to be digging around grandma's attic and stumble upon a simple baseball scorecard that looks old, is dated "1903" right on the front cover, and advertises for the "World's Championship Games" between Boston and Pittsburg, then you have found the first and scarcest of all the World Series programs. You have also found a valuable relic. I have only known of two or three of them that have surfaced in the last 25 years and the two examples that have been publicly offered at auction were sold for tens of thousands of dollars. I have always been partial to this particular example, not only because of its true scarcity (the "crowd" that appeared at the first World Series numbered less than 10,000 patrons per game so you can only imagine how few of these relics have survived), but also because I was able to display the finest first World Series program known at the
National Sports Gallery
in Washington, D.C.
The scorecard itself is rather plain looking on its face but is so historically significant that it is highly prized. Like any great antique, the program tells a story and, in reality, represents a time when life was simple and baseball was truly the National Pastime. For when one gazes at the 1903 program they are enjoying an antiquity that was virtually created when the "modern" World Series originated. Late in the 1903 season, the owners of the two first place clubs agreed to play a best of nine World Championship Series. Though 19th century baseball produced many "championship" games, it wasn't until the 1903 World Series
that the Fall tradition we know today really sprang to life.
The 1903 World Series, won by the Boston Americans
in eight games, was the inauguration of the post-season championship play between the National and American Leagues and the first World Series of the 20th century. During the hard fought series, the Boston Americans
overwhelmed the Pittsburg Pirates
on the strength of their pitching staff led by future Hall of Famer Cy Young. Admission was pegged at $1.50 per person and the players for both teams received two weeks pay plus a share of the gate for the eight game series.
How pricey is the 1903 program? The example that we displayed was subsequently auctioned for close to $50,000 two years ago. That would be a nice find, wouldn't it? Well, guess what? It was found in grandma's attic only five years ago . . . and the finder almost threw it out thinking it was worthless paper!
It's unlikely you'll stumble onto the 1903 World Series program in grandma's attic, so you may develop an interest in scorecards of the recent past. They do make nice collectibles and you'll find that modern programs are quite affordable. If you enjoy these little gems and would like to learn how to score a ballgame next time you are at the ballpark, I would recommend reading Paul Dickson's
"The Joy of Keeping Score: How Scoring the Game Has Influenced and Enhanced the History of Baseball."
It came out in 1996 and is published by
Harvest Books, a division of
Harcourt Brace and Company. It is chock full of interesting baseball trivia . . . the kind of information of great interest to readers of Baseball Almanac!