Updated: Nov 25
Legendary among the Hobby’s vintage baseball sets is “The Monster,” the 524-card 1909-11 American Tobacco Company “White Borders” issue better known by its American Card Catalog designation T206. Even subtracting the set’s “big four”—among them the famous Wagner card—the casual collector is as likely to complete this daunting set as the casual hiker is to summit Everest. Still, the allure of T206 is such that many collectors are compelled to look for an in, whether a small one (e.g., owning a single card) or a large one (e.g., collecting all 250 cards with Polar Bear backs). In my case, that “in” is somewhere in between.
I am collecting mainly the Brooklyn club, known then as the Superbas but today as the Dodgers. Ignoring back variations, there are 27 different Brooklyn cards in the set. I currently have 26 of them, which is not quite to say I’m almost done since the card I’m missing ain’t cheap! Here is a “color sort” of my collection, along with my near set of 1911 T205 Superbas.
Because seven of the players have two different poses, the number of different players in the T206 Brooklyn set is not 27 but only 20: Hall of Famer Zack Wheat and 19 other guys most modern baseball fans have never heard of! (Of course, part of the fun of collecting these cards is learning who the players are! For example, two of the “sluggers” shown accomplished a feat matched only by Ralph Kiner, Mark McGwire, Aaron Judge, and Pete Alonso!)
Tim Jordan (batting and portrait)
When I picked up my first couple of T206 cards a few years ago, I knew virtually nothing about the structure of the set apart from its being extremely large. (The next mainstream baseball issue to include more cards than the Monster was 1959 Topps, half a century later!) The set was essentially one big blob to me. In time I learned that the card backs offered valuable information about the composition and chronology of the set.
Backs advertising 150, 350, and 350-460 subjects
Though hard-core collectors and researchers dig deep into “off backs” and factory numbers, my focus here will be on the number of “subjects” indicated on the backs of the cards.
Cards with the “150 Subjects” backs represent the set’s first major release, which took place around the summer of 1909. As advertised, this release included (about) 150 different cards, 11 of them Brooklyn players. While not a Superba yet, it also included a Boston (NL) card of Bill Dahlen, whose card I’ll show for reasons of continuity later on.
There are a couple things to notice right away about these cards, though I’ll caution against generalizing to other teams besides Brooklyn. For one thing, there are no Brooklyn players with multiple poses in this series. Each player has only one card. Another feature of this first series is that it includes three portrait cards (Rucker, Jordan, Lumley)—four if we count Dahlen. As we’ll see soon enough, subsequent series will not introduce any new portraits, at least to the Brooklyn squad.
All but two of the above cards were later issued with “350 subjects” backs as well. These reboots are known as the 150/350 group, not because their card backs display “150/350” (they don’t!) but because their card backs can be found with either the 150 or 350 designation. Therefore, the dozen cards I’ve shown above from the 150 series are more commonly split into two categories, “150 only” and “150/350.” Collectively these two subgroups are known as “Print Group 1”
Though shown here as a Boston player, Bill Dahlen joined the Superbas in October 1909 and most of his “350” cards were correspondingly updated to Brooklyn. (Dahlen “150” backs were no longer being printed by this time.) As the hole in my collection can attest, the Brooklyn Dahlen card is not cheap. However, the Boston 350 Dahlen is even pricier, so scarce that it belongs to a group of Monster rarities known as the “Elite 12.”
Though Dahlen does not have any Brooklyn cards with “150” backs, his Brooklyn card is nonetheless classified as 150/350 since it came out of this first print group. Therefore, I can update the previous picture in a manner that’s technically correct even if a tad misleading.
With “350” card backs already advertising more than double the number of cards available, it was only a matter of time before another 200 or so cards (“Print Group 2”) would be added to the set. Focusing solely on Brooklyn, this entailed the release of five new cards, probably in early 1910, highlighted by a wonderful cardigan and three blazing red backgrounds.
With the inclusion of these five “350 only” cards the Brooklyn set had now grown to 17 cards, each of a different player. No alternate poses had entered the Brooklyn set to this point.
Further expansion of the set, at least as far as Brooklyn is concerned, would occur in two phases. The first of the two (“Print Group 3”) added five cards, each of which could be found with “350” or “460” backs. (For the two most common tobacco brands, Piedmont and Sweet Caporal, “350-460” was used in place of “460.”) All were new poses of players from Print Group 1.
Notably, the card of Harry McIntryre also reflects his trade from the Superbas to the Cubs, indicating his team as “BKLN, AND CHICAGO NAT’L.” As this transaction took place on April 13, 1910, his card offers evidence that this print group could not have been released any earlier than April 1910. A summer launch is sometimes assigned to this group.
The final expansion of the set (“Print Group 4”) would come in late 1910 and include five more Brooklyn cards. Two would contribute alternate poses to players from the first print group.
Three others would showcase players making their T206 debut, expanding the size of the team set to 20 players and 27 cards in all.
While it would have been possible for the American Tobacco Company to keep the party going beyond this final print group, the famed “white borders” set ultimately gave way to a “gold borders” successor in early 1911, marking the end to the set many collectors still consider the GOAT of the Hobby.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Here then is a visual representation of the entire Brooklyn T206 team set as the cards would have been released over time. Arranging the cards in this manner highlights which players entered the set before others, which players received multiple poses, and which poses preceded their alternates.
Finer details come into focus as well. For example the “BROOKLYN” lettering down the placket of the team’s road jerseys, which debuted in 1910, is only evident in the final print group.
In short, a set that was once a big blob (albeit an awesome blob) has now come to life. While you still won’t find me chasing down all 524 cards any time soon, a deeper understanding of the set’s structure has me enjoying my current collection even more than before, which is always a Hobby win.
Whether holding an entire team set or just a few cards, I’d encourage all Monster enthusiasts to conduct a similar analysis of their favorite team. If any cool patterns emerge, be sure to post your findings and tag us at @hobbynewsdaily!
EXTRA FOR EXPERTS
The information I’ve presented is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the structure of the Monster. Sites like prewarcards.com, the Net54 baseball forum, and T206resource.com are tremendous sources of information, as are the many collectors whose passion for the set has led them down more rabbit holes than Elmer Fudd.
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