There is a lot one can learn about the great T206 White Border set, but here are some of the basics you should know.
The T206 White Border set, affectionately known as "The Monster", has been studied by many hobby scholars over the years and much has been learned about the set. Even today new theories are being put forth regarding how the set was printed, why some cards are more difficult than others, etc. But here we will just be taking a look at the basics of the set. It's such a complex beast that it can be overwhelming and confusing if you just jump in and try to digest it all at once. So let's begin...
The set was produced by The American Tobacco Company (ATC) during the period 1909 through 1911 to be inserted into various brands of tobacco products as a premium to be collected by consumers. The cards began to be very popular with children and it was common for kids to ask smokers for their "baseball men" when they bought a pack of smokes.
The cards were printed by The American Lithograph Company (ALC) in New York and were then sent to one of six factories to be inserted into the product for distribution. Printed on the backs of the cards was an ad for whichever brand of tobacco the cards were packed with. There were 15 different brands of tobacco advertised on the backs.
These 15 brands in alphabetical order are American Beauty, Broad Leaf, Carolina Brights, Cycle, Drum, El Principe de Gales, Hindu, Lenox, Old Mill, Piedmont, Polar Bear, Sovereign, Sweet Caporal, Tolstoi and Uzit. A large number of collectors also consider the Ty Cobb back to be part of the T206 set as well, but these 15 brands are the unquestionable brands in the set. The Ty Cobb "King of the Smoking Tobacco World" back is only found with the Ty Cobb red background portrait front and is extremely rare. For this reason, I will consider it a separately issued card that is not part of the set.
Some collectors also entertain the idea that the Type I Coupon cards are part of the T206 set as well. While it is true that these share a very similar ad design on the backs, I believe the Coupon sets are distinct separate sets as well. Below is a Type I Coupon back with four T206 backs that all share the same design.
The backs all identify what factory the cards were distributed from at the bottom and, as was mentioned earlier, there are six different factories. Some backs were distributed from several different factories and some were distributed from just a single factory. Another designation on the backs of some of the cards is the series in which the card was issued. For example, some backs state 150 Subjects, 350 Subjects, 350-460 Subjects or 460 Subjects. These help identify when the cards were printed between the three years of distribution.
When you consider all the backs possible with different ads, different factories and different subjects you end up with 36 different backs. This does not include the Ty Cobb back, Coupon back, blank back or brown Old Mill back. The blank and brown Old Mill backs are considered scraps or not actually issued with the tobacco.
There are 524 different fronts in the Monster set. But when you take into account all the front/back combinations there are over 6,000 unique card possibilities.
Within those 524 different fronts there are many tougher cards than others and some outright rare cards. There are four cards you should definitely know in the set. These are called "The Big Four" and they are Wagner (Pittsburgh), Plank, Magie (error) and Joe Doyle N.Y. Nat'l.
Then there are the next two cards that make it the big six: Demmitt (St. Louis) and O'Hara (St. Louis). One thing you should know about these two cards is that they are only found with the Polar Bear back. There are multiples of several players with Ty Cobb having four examples alone.
Hal Chase has the most unique cards with five examples. But many players have two or three. There are 76 Hall of Famer cards in the set as well. And there is a subset of players from the Southern Leagues that includes 48 different cards. These are all a little tougher to find than the other common cards in the set. One of my favorite subsets is the horizontal subset. There are six horizontal cards in the set and they seem to carry a slight premium as many collectors focus on them.
There are many different ways to collect T206s; trying to get each of the 524 fronts (although many consider the set complete at 520 and do not include the rare Big Four), team collections and player collections, front/back combos, back runs of a particular front, etc. Below is an impressive back run of a Fred Merkle front. Click to enlarge the image.
Another popular way to collect cards from the set are to collect what are called "Freaks". They can be anything from a miscut card that shows part of another card, a name caption on the top as well as on the bottom, overprints, missing colors, missing names, proofs, etc. Here are some cool examples of T206 Freaks...
There is no wrong way to collect them. So go ahead and jump right in and start picking some up. But be careful as you may get hooked on these cards.
As I said, these are just some of the basics of the set. There is much more to learn about T206 but this should give you a good start.
Enjoy the hobby all...it's a Monster!