The Jefferson Burdick Collection:
Pre-Metropolitan Museum Donation

Everyone knows where Burdick's final collection may be found.  But what about the cards that were once a part of his collection but were traded to other collectors?

In my eternal quest for signed pre-war cards, I recently discovered a T201 Mecca double-folder that had been beautifully signed by its subject “Lefty” Leifield. While I have come across a few of these in my endless searching – and already own one of the finest examples – this particular autographed T201 Leifield carries a very special provenance in addition to the player’s signature. Indeed, this particular tobacco card was once owned by none other than the Godfather of baseball cards himself, Jefferson Burdick. How do I know this? Because Mr. Burdick stamped his name right on the back – not once, but twice.

Even the most casual collector of vintage baseball cards knows who Jefferson Burdick is. That he was a trading and baseball card collector. He cataloged his cards in the American Card Catalog (“ACC”), which is still used today. For instance, the T206 set received its name from its designation in the ACC. And Burdick’s collection is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where a small part of his collection is always on display in the American Wing.

Sadly a small amount of Burdick’s ultimate collection has fallen victim to theft. We sometimes see evidence of this when cards surface in the market with stamps identifying them as gifts of Burdick and property of the Met. Two such examples are set forth below:

However, despite the efforts of unscrupulous card thieves, there is no doubt that the bulk of Burdick’s enormous hoard is firmly a part of the Met’s permanent collection.

But, every card collector worth his salt knows that hoarding is only part of the fun. The moment you stop collecting may signal a final stage in the collecting journey – but what about all of those cards that you acquired and then sold or traded along the way?  Are they any less part of your collection when the inevitable move comes?  Collectors love to buy, sell and trade. And we know that Burdick was at least trading cards by the mid-1930s. In his first Card Collector’s Bulletin (“CCB”) on January 1, 1937, Burdick listed the first “Collectors Directory” of known card collectors. 15 of the earliest known collectors, including their specific collecting interests, was on page 1:

It is also well known that Burdick would share and trade cards with these collectors. For example, Lionel Carter received his 1933 Goudey Lajoie from Burdick when Burdick learned that Carter was unable to locate one for his collection.  And we know that Burdick shared baseball cards with John D. Wagner -- number 12 on the list of collectors above -- because we have the following letter from 1939 as proof:

In addition, many old-time collectors would stamp their names on the backs of their cards, oftentimes so that the cards would not get inadvertently comingled with the collections of others. Thus, a collector would send a stack of cards to another collector for a potential trade, without fear that he would not receive his untraded or unsold cards back.

It appears that Burdick did just that. As you can see on this broad array of vintage cardboard, Burdick routinely stamped his name on cards, whether the subjects were boxers, Olympians or great explorers.

Skeptics may say that anyone can stamp “J. Burdick” or “Jeff B.” on the back of a trade card. But the E80 Jack Johnson also contains an ornate “B”, which at least one reputable collector identified on the back of another card when he was researching Burdick’s collection at the Met. This “B” marker provides a significant anchor of provenance, for on the Johnson we also see the stamp “Jeff B.” which is also on the Sheppard and Leifield. And the Sheppard and Leifield also have the same “Jeff Burdick.” stamp, which is also on the Lockwood. There is little doubt that all of these cards come from the same collection, and that they were at one point in time a part of Jefferson Burdick’s active or less permanent, pre-donation collection.

Today a collector would be ill-advised to stamp his own name or initials on the back of his antique baseball cards. But consider that Burdick passed away in 1963, and that these cards have changed hands any number of times before and since. Burdick may have only held these cards in his possession for a brief period of time. But, because he stamped them, Burdick’s association with these cards endures for as long as they remain collectibles. We constantly celebrate Burdick’s legacy when we collect baseball cards. Because Burdick stamped these cards, we are able to feel a little closer to that history.

Returning to the Leifield, it may be suggested that Burdick was also interested in player autographs. But, given that he was much more a trade card and postcard collector than specifically a baseball card collector, I very much doubt that. What is much more likely is that he traded this Leifield to one of his fellow collectors, who in turn sought Leifield’s signature through the mail in the 1960s.  

One exciting bit of coincidence is that not only was John Wagner one of the first baseball card collectors to trade cards with Burdick, he was also one of the early pioneers of through-the-mail autographs on baseball cards.  Even Jeff Morey, famed collector of autographed pre-war cards, notes that Wagner was “a bit my senior” and was “way above me for what he collected.” Some evidence that Wagner received autographs on pre-war cards through the mail is found with this small collection of Fred Snograss memorabilia, which includes a signed T206 card and a letter from Snodgrass to Wagner:


Wagner must have gotten his collection of cards to send to players from someone. Without a record of correspondence between Leifield and Wagner, it would be impossible to confirm with certainty.  But, it is not overly optimistic to suggest that some of the baseball cards that he sent to players were once a part of Burdick’s collection. The signed T201 Leifield with Burdick stamp might very well be one such example.

The travels of pre-war cards over the past 100 years is frequently boring. Collectors ironically celebrate most the cards that have been moved the least. Such are the cards that retain the sharpest corners and the whitest borders. The hobby values the clean and unmoved cards more than those that have been shared and enjoyed by collectors through the years. Perhaps we have it backwards. This T201 Leifield may show evidence of wear, but within each crease, stain, and stamp is found so much of the proud history of our hobby.

A copy of George Vrechek’s fantastic article about the Burdick stamp on the T218 Sheppard is available here:

Click Here: Vrechek Article

A copy of Ken Belson's May 24, 2012 New York Times article about the Burdick Collection can be found by clicking here:

Click Here: Belson Article

Here's what Mr. Belson had to say in an email about the Burdick stamps shown on this website:

Wow, Paul, this is a great Web site! I wish I had found it while researching the story. It’s amazing Burdick stamped his cards. It’s fascinating that they were stamped this way, and that collectors would send them back and forth to each other in a kind of honor system. Seems to prove the point that Burdick and others were in it for the collecting, not the investing.

Many thanks for your note. This is great stuff.

All the best, Ken

May 24, 2012