CD: I first must clarify that I think it’s the largest. I currently own close to 1,100 original cards between the 1850’s and 1972. The cards also have to be printed around the time the athlete competed. I tell myself that there has to be a finite limit but even after 23 years of collecting, I keep finding cards I’ve never seen before! I’ve never run across another collector with a similar collection anywhere near this size so I say it with some confidence, but can’t say it unequivocally.
I have two goals for the collection; a book and a museum show so I needed a name for the collection. After mulling the options over with friends, “Tiny Treasures, Giant Legends” was born a few years ago. The name encompasses what they represent in four words. The cards are tiny. Most are smaller than a credit card. Finding them is like a treasure hunt, and they are also treasures of history. These were the best athletes of their day. Many were giant legends in the world of women’s sports. Some were the grandmothers of women’s sports, establishing rules and leagues. Because of these women, we are blessed to have the opportunities we have today.
CD: I had some baseball cards as a kid – even had a Hank Aaron card but sold them all before I was 10. I didn’t do anything with cards for 20 years. Finding a women’s card was a complete accident. I was at a yard sale in Virginia around 1993 and this little boy was selling his sports cards. I glanced at the cards on the table and was shocked to see a woman’s card! I’ve always loved visual images of women in sports so this caught my attention. It took me a while to define the collection’s time frame of pre-Title IX (1972) cards but now that’s pretty much all I collect.
CG: Can you remember your first card?
CD: I joke that you never forget your first one. Manon Rhéaume was the card at the yard sale. She was a Canadian minor league ice hockey goalie. She also had the same appeal as Danica Patrick (read, she was pretty) and between those two factors, there were great hopes that she would break into the professional league and become a hockey phenom. Card companies made many different cards of her.
CD: I love images. A picture is so powerful, and with trading cards, the magic is that you can hold your hero in your hand. And they are neat because they have infiltrated the world of men’s sports cards. I focus on cards and not stamps, posters, postcards, etc. because trading cards were meant to be collected and traded. Most cards were made to be sturdier than the other forms mentioned because they were created as a collectible. I like the older ones because they are rare and hard to find (unlike contemporary cards today) and I enjoy the challenge of finding them. And, financially, it also keeps me focused. These trading cards are also artistically beautiful. I started by only buying cards that used photographs because that showed that the athlete actually was competing. But then I grew to love the lithographs, drawings, caricatures, hand painted cards…all the different styles that were used in the vintage cards.
CG: And if I can get a little personal here… what about you? What’s your sports history…? Should we have a card for you?
CD: Lol! No. I had Olympic aspirations but my talent wasn’t at the same level as my dreams. I ran track in HS and played college volleyball. Today, I am an avid cyclist and I swim.
CD: Trading cards were initially known as “tobacco cards” in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. When cigarette packs were first made, they were floppy so the manufacturers inserted a blank piece of cardboard to keep them stiff. Marketers quickly realized that blank space was marketing space so every topic under the sun is pictured on tobacco cards. Athletes were one of the subjects and became one of the more popular ones to collect. These are, therefore, the predecessors of the sports cards we know today. When women were on tobacco cards, they are mostly seen as movie stars or as ‘beauties’. Seeing women as athletes flies against the ladylike image that society pushed on women back then.
While most of my cards are tobacco cards, some were distributed with chewing gum, chocolate, shoe polish, margarine, and even a piano! What puzzles me is that it was not fashionable for women to smoke before the 1920’s. So I have to wonder, who were they marketing to by adding female athletes? I’ve asked some card aficionados why manufacturers would include female athletes and the answer is always, “Because they were a novelty.”
The neat thing about the cards back then is that the images do not sexualize the women. They are athletes. Today, there is a lot of discussion and research about how women are portrayed in the media so it’s refreshing to see that the majority of these images portray the women for what they were – athletes.
CD: In the 1990’s I started by asking sports card dealers at shows and stores if they had women’s cards. Dealers sell what sells so once they knew I was interested they started holding them for me. They would sometimes even give them to me for free because to them, they didn’t have value. At card shows, upon asking, I’d often get that blank, puzzled look as if I just asked them something that they had never heard before.
Sometimes they would have a card or two, and sometimes I was even told, “I have coaches wives” or “I have cheerleaders.” This was before eBay became a household name, the WNBA was still a dream, and before women’s soccer exploded. One by one, I learned of sets where women’s cards were inserted into a men’s sets because women were rarely sold as a set of their own. After a little while, and armed with knowledge, I'd ask the seller if he had women’s cards. If he said “no” I’d ask if he had ‘x, y, and z’ sets. He’d pull out the boxes of cards and I’d leave with a stack of women’s cards. I started to get a good collection of contemporary cards…and then I came across my first vintage card and that one card changed my focus.
The Internet opened the world of collecting and at the same time, that accessibility also closed many bricks and mortar card stores. The cards in my collection were printed in 25 countries around the world. The main challenge with buying over the Internet is trusting that it’s an original card and not a reproduction, while praying it doesn’t get lost in the mail!
CD: Yes, I love the stories and language used on the backs of these cards. My uncle translated the German cards, and he kept coming across the phrase “Olympia of Grace” in German. We looked it up and discovered there was a women’s only Olympics hosted in 1931 in Italy! I had NEVER heard of this before. It was not sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee and Americans did not compete in it, but it did have an impact on the Olympics thereafter. Italy was a fascist country then and the games were allowed because of the belief that “strong women made strong babies,” so it was acceptable for women to be athletes, as long as they didn’t forget their main purpose in life; being a mother.
With the swimming cards I noticed that the images never showed the athletes wearing goggles so I asked former Olympian and world record holder, Misty Hyman, and she said that goggles weren’t used until the 1960’s. When I look back at records and distances swam, understanding this gave the times context; knowing that the swimmers could only swim as long as their eyes could withstand the chlorine or salt water.
I learned that women boxed in the 1880’s thanks to the card of Hattie Stewart. Her card is significant because the illustration shows her as both bare-fisted and wearing gloves. The card is from 1888 and that’s the time of transition between when women boxed bare-fisted, and sometimes even bare-breasted, to the rules boxing recognizes today.
I’ve learned about more stories than I can mention here. These cards are a perfect way for me to do my own history research with each card I find. They’ve made learning about history fun!
CD: This is an important point. I like to say that it’s important to acknowledge the women portrayed on these cards, and it’s equally important to acknowledge the ones that weren’t. Sports, as a microcosm of society, were beholden to the racist beliefs of the times; therefore the collection is mostly of white women. Financially, it was a luxury to be able to compete, travel, and tour, but the biggest barrier was to be allowed to compete – many women of color were not selected, even if they were of equal or better ability than their competition, when trying out for teams.
My oldest card portrays Kinue Hitomi, a Japanese runner from the 1928 Olympics. She was the first female medalist from Japan, but she medaled in a sport that she didn’t even train for! She was a sprinter (100m) and a field specialist. 1928 was the first time the 800m run was offered to women (two laps around a track) and the officials asked who would like to join the race. She did and she came in second place, earning a Silver medal. Two side stories – the 800m run did not return to the Olympics for women until 1960 and sadly, Hitomi died two years after her Olympic debut.
African American women from the US don’t appear on cards until 1960. Wilma Rudolph has several cards, and I have one rare card that was printed in Greece of American Earlene Brown, a Bronze medalist who broke the 50-foot barrier in shot put. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a card of Alice Coachman; the first African American to win a gold medal in the 1948 Olympics in high jump. There have been cards made of her jump decades after the fact.
I would love to see these in a museum show! In 2012, the MET hosted an exhibit called “A Sport for Every Girl” but their collection showed mostly cards of illustrations of women playing sports, or women that were dressed as baseball players but were actually the gals that rolled the cigarettes. Using the MET’s credibility as justification for a show, about a year ago I sent the Phoenix Art Museum a proposal. The significant difference of my collection is that most of my cards are of actual athletes. PAM declined. About a month ago, PAM opened the “Ultimate Baseball Collection” which is a premier collection from the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was disappointing to see that the women weren’t considered but it was their business decision.
I have been approached by the Women’s Museum of California for an upcoming show about women in sports. I would love to see this collection in the National Women History Museum in Washington, D.C. as well. I don’t expect a museum to show all 1,100 cards but it would send an impressive visual message to see so many women being athletes and loving sports since the 1850’s! I’ve also been asked to give some talks locally by the people that watched the Ignite Phoenix presentation.
CG: What can we do to support your work?
As a follow-up to the Ignite Phoenix video, I created a video to help show that there is interest for a collection of this nature. It’s hard to sell someone something that they don’t know exists…but if there’s interest, well, many voices are always stronger than one. Also, I’m looking for a publisher that would be interested in this type of history/collectible/women’s sports book if any of your readers can suggest a good fit. Most sports books are about men and all trading card books are of men so it’s hard to identify a publisher that would understand the importance of these cards. If you enjoy vintage women’s sports items, please visit the On Her Mark website. The funds allow us to do what we do and honor women’s sports history, one great story at a time.