Penny postcards once celebrated the Tigers’ success

This postcard featuring Bill Donovan was issued in 1907.

This postcard featuring Bill Donovan was issued in 1907.

A penny for your thoughts? One hundred years ago, that’s all it cost to mail a postcard – and more than a few of those cardboard rectangles carried the image of the sender’s favorite Tiger.

The height of the postcard craze was the first few years of the 20th century. In 1908, the U.S. Post Office estimated that nearly 700 million postcards were being mailed annually, and that figure didn’t include the tens of millions that were never mailed but instead placed inside scrapbooks or pinned to walls. By 1913, nearly a billion cards were being put in the mail each year, a deluge that finally ended with the outbreak of war in Europe.

Postcard mania coincided with the Tigers’ pennant three-peat of 1907-08-09, resulting in a variety of sets that today are valued by baseball memorabilia collectors and diamond-minded deltiologists. The going rate for a postcard (exclusive of the penny needed to mail it) was usually a nickel for two cards, meaning a fan only had to decide whether it was better to buy a Ty Cobb and a Wahoo Sam Crawford or maybe get two of the same. Sometimes a whole set of 15 or 20 cards could be purchased for a quarter. They weren’t hard to find, being sold at souvenir shops, cigar stores, newsstands, cafes, the ballpark, and just about everywhere else around town.

Detroit’s H. M. Taylor published a popular series of cards depicting such scenes as Wild Bill Donovan receiving a floral horseshoe at home plate before a game in his native Philadelphia and the Chicago Cubs’ Frank Chance visiting his managerial counterpart, Hughie Jennings, on the Detroit bench prior to the 1907 World Series. Other local publishers, such as United News Company, Wolverine News, and the Detroit Free Press, stuck largely to action poses or head shots of individual players.

A. C. Dietsche, who operated the city’s largest fleet of tourist buses from his Woodward Avenue location, produced many of the commercial postcards he sold in his store. These included sets of each of the three pennant-winners as well as the 1907 Chicago Cubs, one of the greatest teams of that era. Dietsche’s cards are highly prized among baseball memorabilia collectors, with even journeyman players like Fred Payne and Tiger first baseman Claude Rossman fetching good prices on eBay.

By the end of World War I the postcard fad had run its course, though the cards have never gone completely away. There was, for example, J. D. “Charlie” McCarthy of Oak Park. Beginning after World War II and continuing through the 1970s, McCarthy photographed Tigers and visiting players as they passed through town. Players bought the cards in bulk to handle autograph requests and could order them with or without facsimile signatures.

Once, in a world devoid of television and the Internet, baseball postcards helped satisfy fans’ demand for images of their heroes. Today, these now-vintage cards help satisfy the demand of collectors who sometimes will pay thousands of dollars for a single postcard.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.