Seventy-one years ago this week, America was waking up to a new reality. Thousands of men were dead in the South Pacific and the war the country had managed to avoid for several years had come to us. It would be a difficult four years. The 1941 Play Ball issue brought color to baseball cards and the heroes of the game never seemed as real as they did when kids across the country opened the waxy wrapper.
Each pack contained two baseball cards along with the gum for just a one cent investment. Of course, no one really thought of them as investments then. They were something to save. Something to play with and talk about on the front porch with your friends.
There was DiMaggio’s streak.
Ted Williams hit .406 and drove in 120 runs and didn’t win the MVP. The vote was on November 27. Ten days later, the war that took The Splinter away for a few years would begin and the stars wouldn’t return until our enemies had been defeated.
The two superstars are the most valuable cards in the set today but it’s packed with many other familiar names: Mel Ott. Carl Hubbell. Pee Wee Reese’s rookie card. Jimmie Foxx. Hank Greenberg. Lefty Gomez. Bill Dickey. Bobby Doerr. It’s the only set with all three DiMaggio brothers.
Today, the 1941 Play Ball is not only collectible for what the snippet of history in represents, but also because despite the star power, it’s within reach of the average collector at just 72 cards.
After two black and white sets in 1939 and 1940, the 1941 Play Ball set offered pastel-colored snapshots of Major League Baseball’s best players, although some of the ’41s are just colorized versions of their 1940 issue. The design is clean and simple. They measure 2-1/2” by 3-1/8” in size with write-ups on the back.
Interestingly, Bowman Gum designed and printed the set. The first 48 cards were issued in the summer of 1941. After the phenomenal ’41 season, the company apparently decided it had to keep producing cards—war or not. They trotted out the first 48 again, but added 24 more cards according to research by vintage card experts. Therefore, the first 48 cards are much easier to find than the last series, having been issued over a much longer time frame.
A complete 1941 Play Ball set, uniformly graded in the EX-EX/NM range, albeit with the DiMaggio and Williams in VG-EX, sold on eBay last month for $4,061. A NM/MT graded set sold for more than $41,000 in a 2010 catalog auction.