In March 2021, I went to visit a good friend of 16 years or so for a home cooked breakfast and a good catch up, not expecting what would follow. Over breakfast on his verandah, he produced two file sleeves filled with cricket cards and asked me whether I knew much about them. My friend, an Englishman, has lived mainly in Australia since the 1970’s and told me he had been given the cards in a tobacco tin by an Aussie friend in about 1989. He still has the the old pewter tin for Torch Brand tobacco in which they came. He probably knew that I have a certain interest and purported expertise in football and cricket cards, and that I am the founder of two online historical photo library websites, Vintage Footballers and Vintage Cricketers, many of the photographs in those libraries originating from cigarette and trade cards. My expertise in sports cards I guess has recently been acknowledged in having received special thanks in the foreword to the excellent recently published book entitled “Sporting Collectibles” by Carl Wilkes, his comprehensive follow up to his highly successful award nominated “Football Collectibles” 2019 publication, albeit I’m not sure my contribution to the latest book deserved such prominent acknowledgement. Sitting at our breakfast table, I was suddenly looking at 32 cricketer cards published by McNiven’s Toffees that were completely unfamiliar. I had never seen these cards before and had never heard of their issuer.
On first glance I was genuinely taken aback, albeit already filled with a frisson of excitement to which any sports card enthusiast can attest, I call it card lust, brought on by the mystery of the unknown in front of me. Straight away I could recognise almost all of the players and I could tell that these cards had been issued in conjunction with the 1928-29 Ashes tour to Australia by the English touring party (at that time being denoted as The Marylebone Cricket Club or M.C.C.). I remember noting the card of England’s Phil Mead, who featured for Hampshire from 1905 to 1936 and for England from 1911 to 1928, by when he was already in his early 40’s, a player who also played football for Southampton in his younger sporting life, his inclusion unmistakably confirmed a 1928-29 card issue. Whereas a whole gammut of the players such as Douglas Jardine, Harold Larwood, Les Ames, Wally Hammond, Bill Ponsford, Bill Woodfull, Bert Oldfield and of course Don Bradman would also play in the legendary 1932-33 “Bodyline” M.C.C. tour to Australia, players like Mead did not. Straight away I knew, despite a reasonable knowledge of cricket cards, both UK and Australian issued, that I’d NEVER seen any of these cards before. Straight away, when I saw Bradman’s card, I realised that this was his “rookie”, and therefore a card of extraordinary importance to many sports card collectors.
What is a rookie?? Well for many years now rookie cards have been sweeping the enthusiasm of global sports card collectors. The definition of a rookie card (essentially) is the first card or cards issued for any sportsman, and there are often a range of rookies for a particular player. So for example when 17 year old Brazilian football legend Pelé made his World Cup bow for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden, a range of issuers worldwide published cards featuring Pelé as a member of the Brazilian World Cup squad. All of those separate card issues are considered rookies. Some are more valuable than others and several have sold for six figure prices lately, Pelé like Bradman being “a GOAT” in his sport – greatest of all time – and therefore an apple of the eyes of rookie card collectors.
Rookie cards have become incredibly sought after, and those of certain sporting icons have sold for increasingly large sums of money, and in recent years certain rookie cards have blown through all previous known values. Inevitably US sports lead the way as rookie card investing and collecting has come from a US base of origin although it now spans a global base of collectors. In 2016 a 1909 Honus Wagner (baseball) rookie card, named the “Jumbo Wagner”, was sold at auction for a record $3.12 million, at the time the most valuable baseball card in history. However, this record was recently broken when a Mike Trout 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospectors Superfractor series rookie card with a card count of 1 sold for a record setting $3.93 million, and pushed further back by a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card that sold for $5.2 million in November 2020. While these are extremes, the same price explosion has happened for the rookie cards of numerous sporting icons across a range of the world’s top sports.
Donald George Bradman, “The Don”, “Our Don”, is arguably the most famous Australian to ever have lived. Greg Norman? Rod Laver? Kylie Minogue? Rupert Murdoch?? Don Bradman is as famous as any and remains a sporting icon to this day. What sets Bradman apart from every other sporting icon is the extent of his achievements, and the extent to which he is by far and away far more highly ranked than the second best player, MORE THAN 60% BETTER than the second best to ever play the sport!!! There is no sportsman that has ever been that has so dominated his particular sport to the extent that his record is so incredibly superior to the thousands of others who also played the same sport at the highest level. Bradman in this respect is unique and such achievements are covered in the tab featuring his life story.
In 2013 a Perth newspaper ranked Bradman the second most famous Australian of all time, with the following biography:
“Bradman. Even the word has authority. The most dominant sportsman the world has ever seen. His story is Australian folklore. A country boy whose first makeshift bat was an idle cricket stump. For hours each day he’d hit a golf ball against a corrugated-iron water tank honing his skills as the ball fired back from every angle. At 13 he played a first-grade game for Bowral scoring 38 not out. He made his debut for New South Wales at 19 and hit a century. The next season he stepped out for his first Test against England scoring 18 and 1. Dropped for the second match he returned for the third and chalked up 79 and 112 to become the youngest player to score a Test century. He would go on to make 6996 Test runs at an average of 99.94 – bowled for a duck in his last innings when he needed only four runs for a triple-figure average. His 29 centuries came in just 81 innings including two triple centuries and 12 double centuries.And while his achievements are timeless, to appreciate his greatness they have to be looked at in the context of the time he played. “The Don’s” Test debut was in 1928. Australia had lost 60,000 men in World War I and was still a sparsely populated country with a core percentage still living in the bush. For an Australian country boy to dominate the British Commonwealth’s major sport was unique. And as the world slipped into Depression, his batting gave people hope; his humble manner made him a hero. In many pictures you’ll see women crammed against the fences when Bradman comes out to bat, their smiling faces just as prominent as those of men looking on in awe. If he made runs or lost his wicket, newspaper headlines didn’t even need to use his name. “HE’S OUT” was one famous front page. There are countless reverent quotes about our greatest-ever sportsman but one that puts him and his aura into perspective came from someone unexpected. When Nelson Mandela was released from jail after 27 years one of his first questions was: “Is Don Bradman still alive?”
There are countless other similar eulogies, and what is certain is that Bradman’s status and achievements endure.
What we know for sure about Don Bradman’s playing career is that The Don made his debut in first class cricket in the State cricket tournament, known as The Sheffield Shield, playing for New South Wales during their 1927-28 campaign. He had played grade cricket for Sydney area club St George, making his debut on 27th November 1926, when he took his place in their team against Petersham. On his first class debut for New South Wales against South Australia in Adelaide he scored a century, remarkable in that in the match Bradman only batted at No. 7 for a side that included Alan Kippax, Arthur Mailey and Bert Oldfield. He scored 118 in 188 minutes with eight fours before being the last batsman to be dismissed, caught off John Scott. In the second innings he made 33 and was bowled by legendary leg spinner Clarrie Grimmett, who reached 300 first class wickets in the match. South Australia won by one wicket. In the final match of the season, he made his first century at the Sydney Cricket Ground, against the Sheffield Shield champions Victoria. It’s likely Bradman played in all 6 of their first class matches that campaign and that he had played in 3 further first class matches for New South Wales in the early months of the 1928-29 season, for when first selected for Australia aged 20 years old, he made his debut for Australia in the first Test match against England at Brisbane on 30th November 1928, it was only his tenth first class match. This initial Test match proved a harsh learning experience. Caught on a sticky wicket, Australia were all out for 66 in the second innings and lost by a jaw dropping 675 runs, still a Test record for the largest margin of victory.
And so back to my breakfast and my first sight of these cards. When I started to research these cards, I soon noticed something remarkable. Google, drilling down through various searches, listed almost no instances of cards for sale, and seemingly to this day no McNiven’s Toffees cricket card of any player has ever been listed on eBay. No wonder I’d never seen them before! Indeed, a complete series of 40 McNiven’s Toffees Cricketers was auctioned at Christie’s in Australia in the year 2000 for a hammer price of AU$2,500 against an expected valuation of $400-600. That complete series, whereabouts unknown, of course must include a Don Bradman card, which remains the only other known McNiven’s Toffees Bradman rookie. In the two decades since this sale, Google has registered only 37 cards ever being sold, including 27 in two auction lots of 15 and 12 cards. 8 other cards have appeared in individual or small group lots. The Duckworth card has appeared a few times and it’s possible some of the Duckworth sales are the same card re-appearing.
These occasional instances are all reviewed in the McNiven’s Toffees 1928-29 Cricketers section on this site. None of the cards listed included Bradman. This immediately confirmed my suspicion that this card series is absolutely one of the rarest cricket card series ever issued. The simple mathematics are compelling. Let’s say there are 20 complete card series somewhere out there, locked in attics, buried in collections, tucked away in tobacco tins. It’s very possible but clearly 20 alone would make them extremely scarce. If so the global population of cards is 800. We know one such complete series of cards was auctioned at Christies in the year 2000. But if there were 760 other cards in existence, would there really be only 37 cards ever put up for sale in 8 instances during the 21 years that have elapsed since the hammer came down on the Christie’s lot??
So when my friend produced his 32 cards for my examination, they asked far more questions than I could answer. Who else is missing from the 8 cards not in the sleeves? To date, we only know of one card, of England tour party captain APF “Percy” Chapman, which is photographed in one of the auction listings. We know that 5 are the missing English tourists. The cards themselves ask questions and some of the issues are discussed in the section on this site, where all the extremely rare player cards we have are exhibited. That said, thanks indeed to George from Sydney, who has contacted me and provided some images of most of the missing cards from his trove of 24 out of 40 cards, which you can see on the next page, some of these questions have now been answered! Sincere thanks George for your excellent contribution!
It is no exaggeration to compare this Don Bradman rookie card to a masterpiece in the art world. Most art, most artists’ work, is mere decorative wall covering, so it’s the same with sports cards. But every now and then, a masterpiece emerges, a Rubens, a Turner, a Rembrandt, a Renoir, a Picasso, the list of the great painters of course goes on and their greatest works continue to gain value, while all other more modest artists’ work will never reach the same level. So I believe that the card featured on this site is a masterpiece of the sports card world.
As well as being a tribute to the remarkable sporting achievements of Don Bradman and his incredibly rare rookie card, this site is dedicated to showing this extremely rare series to sports card enthusiasts, and we welcome people to contact us with further details of these cards as they have them, using the contact form on each page.