A pivotal scene in the 2014 film Million Dollar Arm shows John Hamm's character, sports agent J.B. Bernstein, standing in an office directly in front of a pair of poster-sized photographs of old baseball teams. While the movie follows the factual story of Bernstein and his discovery of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel—young amateur baseball players from India—the photographs suggest another story steeped in the history of the sport, one that channels the careers of equally ambitious men dedicated to the game.
To some viewers these images would have escaped unnoticed, but their familiarity caught my eye as they are part of the Met's Jefferson R. Burdick Collection of Printed Ephemera—specifically series T200, Baseball Teams, published in 1913 by the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company to promote their Fatima "Turkish blend" cigarettes. Significant in subject matter, history, and medium, these large black-and-white prints shown in the film display the team roster for the Chicago Cubs (above) and the Boston Red Sox (below).
The oversized format of the photos used in Million Dollar Arm makes them visually engaging; however, the original design of these pieces was initially offered at a more intimate and tangible scale. In the early distribution of sports cards, it was common practice to include them in packages of cigarettes and chewing tobacco, as demonstrated by the sixteen cards in the T200 series, which each measure 2 11/16 by 4 3/4 inches and feature the same layouts showcasing prominent teams from both the National and American Leagues.
Operated at one point by the American Tobacco Company, Liggett & Myers was a leading manufacturer of tobacco products. Like many of their competitors, Liggett & Myers employed a strategic marketing tool to bolster product consumption by providing the public with the opportunity to collect a distinct set of sports cards to be distributed in their goods. After acquiring forty cigarette coupons, purchasers could then write to the company's New York–based "Premium Department," as instructed on each card's verso, to participate in a special offer in which Liggett & Myers "will send you an enlarged copy (13 x 21) of this picture (without advertising) or of any other picture in this series. This picture is mounted and ready for framing." It is these enlarged copies of the baseball cards that adorn the walls in the film.
The Pictorial News Company, most notable for their focus on sports teams, arenas, and government officials during the early decades of the twentieth century, was responsible for the documentation of this unique series of gelatin silver prints. They often employed panoramic formats, thus demonstrating the expanse of the teams and of the playing fields. Unlike the controlled studio environment used to photograph previous cards due to the technical parameters of early cameras, this series took place outdoors with the teammates seated, and often lounging, in the grass. The players were placed in front of a draped white backdrop, which aided visual clarity and simultaneously made the stance and uniforms of the players more pronounced—as seen in these images that show the casual pileup of Philadelphia Phillies teammates (above) and the highly contrasted print of the Chicago White Sox dressed in their intimidating black uniforms (below).
Due to a shift towards distribution in gum and candy packages, product placements that ultimately resulted in more expansive consumer participation, the T200 Baseball Teams series was one of the last sets issued by a tobacco company. The rare 1909 Honus Wagner card from series T206 initially sparked this change, as the famed Pittsburgh Pirate opposed the association of player cards with goods deemed inappropriate for children, and production quickly halted.
Though Million Dollar Arm speaks to the perseverance and triumph of young athletes, it also highlights the history of the sport through the use of the T200 series images, which continue to provide great relevance to the history of the sport over one hundred years after their initial production.
The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection of Printed Ephemera
Now at the Met: "Celebrating the Jefferson R. Burdick Collection" (September 24, 2015)