Card of the Day: 1888 N173 Old Judge Pete Browning

Today’s Card of the Day doesn’t picture a player on the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, it’s a famous player who played his first game for the Pirates 132 years ago today.

The nickname “Pirates” was first given to the team in 1891, after they signed some players who weren’t on the protected list of other teams following the 1890 season. It’s a long story, but the short of it is that it gets attached most often to second baseman Louis Bierbauer, but there were more players involved that off-season. You often hear that the team became the Pirates in 1891, which is lazy history that I believed for many years until doing the research.

The Pirates name didn’t catch on locally until 1895. Even then it wasn’t permanent, because the team took on the name Patriots for the 1898 season. Where the Pirates name was hung on them and eventually caught on, the Patriots name was actually a name that they called themselves. No one should refer to the 1898 team as the Pirates, even though it’s easier than doing what I’m doing right now in very summarized writing, so occasionally I will let it go because it’s simpler than telling the story. Also, there are about 3-4 people who could call you out on it.

Anyway, the 1891 Pirates also signed Pete Browning, who probably ranks as their second most famous 19th century player behind Connie Mack. Browning was/is known as the Louisville Slugger, just like the famous baseball bats that still exist. You can see him pictured prominently at the factory if you choose to one day visit (bucket list item for me). He was one of the greatest hitters of the 19th century. He’s known for spending most of his career with the Louisville team, but he was an outfielder for the Pirates for a time as well.

There are no cards of him in Pittsburgh, but I figured this card was acceptable to use on the anniversary of his first game with the team. He’s known as the Louisville Slugger, so I found a card of him batting, while pictured on Louisville.

Here’s the front of the card (the back is blank cardboard):

This looks like the iconic Old Judge set that we have covered here numerous times, but this is actually the off-spring of that set. You were able to order Cabinet cards back then that used the photos you found on the original N172 Old Judge cards. Those cabinets are now referred to as the N173 set. The “N” just stands for 19th century, while the number is just the next one up numerically. Nothing more than randomly chosen numbers at first. There are N174 and N175 sets as well.

These cards are much bigger than the original N172 cards. They are also much thicker due to the cardboard backing. It’s main purpose was as an advertisement for Old Judge cigarettes, but these were not found in packs. The packs came with a slip. If you collected 25 (at one time it was 35) of those slips and sent them to the company, you could get one of these cabinet cards in return.

Browning was a superstar at the time of this set being released. He already had two batting titles at the time. He was two seasons away from winning the only batting title in the history of the Player’s League. He was a career .341 hitter over 13 seasons, with 1,646 hits in 1,183 games. The Old Judge company gave him five cards in their set. He was pictured fielding on two cards, throwing on one, and batting on two other cards. This is referred to as the bat vertical pose.

As you might imagine from what you had to do to acquire one of these cards, there are not a lot of them in existence. I don’t just mean for Browning, I mean N173 cards in general. I wanted to collect the N172 cards, so I basically ignored these cards due to the prices. I found someone in the somewhat early days of Ebay who got my entire paycheck (I’m talking early 2000s money just out of high school) so I could get two of these cards (both Alleghenys/Pirates players). Those would be the only two I’ve ever bought, though I still have them. The prices have gone up since then.

If you want to splurge on an old item, I’d suggest an N173 card. The picture quality on them is amazing. You can really see the details in the photo. You might not want to put Browning on your list unless you have low five-figures to spend and time to wait, because he’s very rare and very popular. This particular scan came from the Library of Congress collection, which means it won’t be for sale. I know one other exists, but the number existing might not be much higher than those two known. There certainly aren’t ten of them out of there, just in case you thought that was a possible estimate.

There are six N173 cards on Ebay right now. The lowest priced one is a low-grade common player for $1,700. You can get them for less in the straight auction listing, but only two have sold in the last three months on Ebay, so they’re not popping up often.