It is said that sports cards started the entire sports memorabilia collecting hobby when tobacco companies used sports trading cards (then called as cigarette cards or tobacco cards) as marketing tool during the 1800s.
The most expensive sports card is a vintage cigarette card – the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner which was sold for more than $2 million in 2008.
Aside from tobacco corporations, other early manufacturers of sports cards were candy and bubble gum companies. Baseball cards were inserted within the packaging of the products to attract more buyers. These freebies from gums and candies have become collectible items.
Until today, sports trading cards are widely collected by sports enthusiasts of all ages. In this article you will learn what are the popular sports cards manufacturers and brands of both modern and vintage sports cards.
Upper Deck Cards vs Topps trading cards
Upper Deck and Topps are two of the most famous brands of sports cards in the sports memorabilia industry. Sports enthusiasts often engage in debates about which company makes the best cards in terms of quality, relevance to the game, and eye appeal.
Some hobbyists would say that it is hard to compare the two brands because they have specialties of their own. Many collectors however say that Topps is the best sports card manufacturer in more aspects.
Upper Deck is a sports memorabilia company well-known in producing collectible sports cards. It was founded in 1988 with the aim of capturing the excitement of the games for sports fans by producing sports cards. It was also in 1988 that Upper Deck was granted a license by the Major League Baseball (MLB) to issue baseball trading cards. On February 28, 1989 the first batch of Upper Deck Baseball cards were made available for the buying public.
Through the years of manufacturing high quality cards, the Upper Deck sports memorabilia company had earned several awards like Best Sports Card Manufacturer, Best Base Brand Product, and Best Insert Card Set to mention a few.
Premium cards of Upper Deck are the NBA Exquisite Collection (which was first released in 2003-2004), Gold Series, and Yankee Stadium Legacy.
Topps was founded in 1938 as a manufacturer of chewing gums (it is the maker of the popular and classic Bazooka Bubble Gum). In 1950, they inserted trading cards in their gum packaging to draw more buyers and increase sales.
In 1951, they produced baseball card sets called the Red Backs and Blue Backs. Unknowingly, this marked the beginning of Topps’ success in the sports cards industry. The Topps baseball cards became very popular that its card design and size has become the standard size for any sports trading card.
For many years, no other companies had competed with Topps Company Inc. It was only during 1970s-1980s that other card manufacturers (Fleer and Donruss) finally penetrated the sporting cards market.
Other than sports cards, Topps also issue entertainment cards. Recently, the company has worked with the Disney Channel for the making of High School Musical and Hannah Montana cards.
Leaf Candy Company is a maker of both candy and trading cards founded in 1947. During pre- and post-Second World War eras, it has competed with other gum and candy companies in releasing insert sport trading cards.
Leaf produced its first set of baseball cards in 1948. In 1983, Leaf was bought by a Finnish company Huhtamaki. In the same year Donruss trading cards manufacturer was also acquired by Huhtamaki and this lead to the merging of Donruss and Leaf companies.
Leaf did not last long in the card making industry but had released a few valuable rare sports cards in its lifetime.
One Leaf sports card is among the most expensive baseball cards in the sports collecting hobby – the 1949 Leaf #8 Leroy Satchel Paige card. In 2005, value of this baseball card was $82,000.
Donruss is a trading card manufacturer established in the 1950s, it is one of the oldest card companies today. In its young years in business, this card manufacturer was best known for their entertainment cards featuring rock bands and other celebrities.
Eventually, Donruss wanted to expand their business by venturing into sports cards. In late 1980, the company was granted license by the Major League Baseball (MLB) to produce cards. Shortly after, Donruss baseball cards entered the sports collecting market competing with Topps and Fleer. During these times, the population of sports cards collectors was also growing tremendously that more card manufacturers emerged.
In 2005, the MLB changed their licensing criteria for cardmakers to control the quantity and quality of baseball cards entering the market. Only Topps and Upper Deck passed these new set of license standards. Today, Donruss specializes in producing football cards, basketball cards, and entertainment cards.
Bowman Gum was a bubble gum and trading cards manufacturer based in Philadelphia. From 1948 to 1952, the company was known to be the major producer of baseball cards. Two of the ten most expensive and most important baseball cards in the sports collecting hobby today come from Bowman – the 1954 Bowman #66A Ted Williams and 1951 Bowman #305 Willie Mays cards.
In 1956, its strong competition, Topps company, bought Bowman and led Topps monopolizing the sports cards market.
Topps revived the Bowman card brand in 1989 focusing only on baseball rookie cards (which the brand has become popular for today).
Examples of modern Bowman sets are the Bowman Chrome, Bowman Draft Picks and Prospects, Bowman Sterling, Bowman Heritage, and Bowman’s Best.
More than being a gum company, Goudey has become popular (even until today) for producing few of the most important baseball trading cards and card sets in the sports collecting history. Its 1933 set is considered one of the “Big Three” classic baseball card sets (two others are the 1909 T206 and 1952 Topps).
Three of the ten most valuable baseball cards were produced by Goudey Company – the 1938 Goudey Heads Up R 323 #274 Joe DiMaggio, 1933 Goudey #53 Babe Ruth, and 1933 Goudey #106 Nap Lajoie. Prices of these baseball cards could reach $150,000.
The Goudey Gum Company was established in 1919 but was closed down in 1962. In 2007, Upper Deck started to relive the good old Goudey cards days when they issued the Upper Deck Goudey Baseball cards. These trading cards have the look and artistry of the 1930s-40s Goudeys but feature both old and new athletes.
Fleer Skybox Autographics sports cards – Fleer Skybox Autographics are sets of autographed sports cards (may they be baseball cards, football cards, and basketball cards). These are produced by Upper Deck under the brand name Fleer Skybox.
Fleer Corporation was started in 1885. It was the first company to successfully produce bubble gum and was also a well-known manufacturer of sports cards.
The most famous basketball rookie card of all time was produced by Fleer – the 1986 Fleer Premier #57 Michael Jordan rookie. It is also the most expensive card in that 1986 rookie set.
In 1995, Fleer purchased Skybox International, a trading card making company focusing on football and basketball cards.
Fleer-Skybox International declared bankruptcy in 2005. The Upper Deck Company acquired the Fleer brand, rights, and business strategies.
Just a few months later, Upper Deck produced basketball cards, football cards, and hockey cards using the Fleer Skybox brand name (e.g. Fleer, Fleer Ultra, Skybox Autgraphics).
Cracker Jack is not really a manufacturer of sports trading cards. It has been a famous brand of American junk foods since 1893 known for its “toy surprise inside”. In 1914 to 1915, it had released baseball cards as the “toy surprise”. The entire set consist 144 cards.
Two cards of the 1914-15 Cracker Jack set are the #30 Ty Cobb and #103 Joe Jackson – both are among the most important and most expensive sports cards in sports collecting hobby.
To honor the priceless Cracker Jack baseball cards, Topps released a recreation of the vintage Cracker Jack designs (distinct red background) but featuring the newer players such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
SA-GE Collectibles, Inc. is a small, independent sports card company with founders that come from one of the biggest sports cards manufacturers or brands, Upper Deck.
With the aim of giving quality sporting cards to their fellow sports card collectors, SA-GE focuses on autographs and rookie cards in limited production.
Since 2006, this card company concentrates on producing football cards.