What is the History of Negro Leagues Baseball Trading Cards? A KC Q Answered

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Inside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at the 18th and Vine District, keep an eye out for two baseball cards displayed, Willard Brown and Robert (Bob) Thurman.
Inside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at the 18th and Vine District, keep an eye out for two baseball cards displayed, Willard Brown and Robert (Bob) Thurman.

By Sam McDowell, The Kansas City Star

It’s summer in Kansas City, so it’s time for “What’s Your KCQ?” to take a swing at a baseball question.

Ashley Tebbe recently submitted her question to The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library about some local baseball history: "What is the history of Negro Leagues baseball trading cards?"

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located in the 18th and Vine District and across from the Gem Theater, is a staple of Kansas City. Its vast collection of keepsakes tells an important part of baseball’s past.
But if you walk through the museum, you won’t see any official Negro Leagues baseball cards — at least not from that era, about 1920 to 1951.

Why?

"They just didn’t exist," said Bob Kendrick, president of the museum. "It’s kind of a shame that nobody really had the foresight to do it, but at that time, the folks who were making cards, they probably weren’t going to make Negro Leagues cards."

All is not lost.

If you want a Cool Papa Bell or Josh Gibson or Buck O’Neil trading card, you might have a couple of options, though they are quite rare. While no American companies made Negro Leagues cards during the four decades of its existence, those players could still be found on the classic 2 1/2-inches-by-3 1/2-inches sheets of cardboard.

But there’s a twist — they’re in Spanish.

Inside the museum, keep an eye out for two of them on display — Willard Brown and Robert (Bob) Thurman. But translation is necessary if you want to read the information on the back.

Kansas City Monarchs, 1934.
Kansas City Monarchs, 1934. Kansas City Public Library

Here’s another option: Since the Negro Leagues folded in the early 1960s, some of the more well-known companies retroactively printed cards depicting the league’s top players. Ted Williams, who famously used his Hall of Fame speech to advocate for the inclusion of African American players, owned a company that printed a set of them in the 1990s. They can be found on eBay and other auction sites.

The museum also displays a set of baseball cards toward the conclusion of the tour — a collection of former Negro Leaguers shown in their Major League Baseball uniforms, made after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, of course. It also has a set of in-house cards available in its gift shop. Kendrick said they are popular.

Can you imagine if someone had made a set during the league’s existence?

"They’d be worth a fortune," Kendrick said.