The 1930s brought Goudeys and Diamond Stars. The '50s saw the dawn of Topps. The 40s?
"Limited" would be the word that comes to mind for collectors.
After the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, there were no major mainstream sets issued until 1948--a full three years after the hostilities ceased. Surprisingly, though, there is plenty of history packed into the decade.
The 1940 Play Ball set was the first set to stop and take a look back at baseball's 20th century history to date. It's an impressive run of all-time greats, but it's more of a collector's set than one that reflects the game as it was pre and post-War.
The 1940s sets can be pricey in higher grade because of scarcity and the quality of the star and rookie cards included. For those who want their collection to have some sort of representation of the era that brought us ballplayers who were also servicemen, there are five cards we'd consider 'must haves'.
1) 1941 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio. This isn't DiMag's first card, but it may be the most desirable for what it represents. Lou Gehrig died and the Yankees torch officially passed to the young San Franciscan.
The summer of '41 was magical. Ted Williams was on his way to a .406 season, but DiMaggio captivated the country with his 56-game hitting streak. From May 15-July 16, he got a hit in every single game. It hasn't been done since. No one has even come close. You'll spend around $1,000 for a nice '41 Play Ball DiMaggio, but $300-400 will buy you one of the most respected cards you'll ever own, even if it shows its age. DiMaggio was done by the early 50s and the number of vintage cards that feature his image are a precious few.
2) 1948 Bowman Stan Musial. Musial is highly regarded around the country as a Hall of Famer, but revered in the Midwest. If he'd played in a larger market, his autograph would be one of the most expensive on the market. This card is clearly the cream of the '48 Bowman crop, with Yogi Berra a close second. Considering Musial's career numbers and his place in the history of one of baseball's best franchises, the '48 Bowman rookie is undervalued. You can buy a decent looking example for around $500.
3) 1948-49 Leaf Babe Ruth. The #1 card in the set was DiMaggio, but Leaf smartly reserved #3 for the Babe, who wore it for so many seasons. It's a card that at least dates to the same decade that his name was used in the present tense; a nice tribute card that isn't so far removed from his coaching days that it looks out of place. If you can't afford a Goudey, this is a nice backup plan. The last 'real' vintage Ruth card can be had for around $1000 in excellent condition.
4) 1948-49 Leaf Jackie Robinson. Can you imagine if today's baseball card issue schedules had been in place in 1947? If you think Stephen Strasburg's first card is creating a sensation in 2010, what would the frenzy have been like over a Jackie Robinson rookie card?
This card will have to serve the bill instead and it does represent Jackie in his first full big league seasons. Amazingly, $1,000 will buy you this card in a very presentable grade. The Satchel Paige card may be much harder to find, but from a purely historical standpoint, Robinson is the one that will be the biggest conversation piece.
Bonus points if you can afford the Larry Doby single print that's also in this set.
1948-49 Leaf Honus Wagner. Yes, it's another card from the Leaf set, but for collectors, this card speaks volumes. Husky Hans was still in the game at this point, coaching his way toward retirement. He's also about to put a huge hunk of chew into his mouth, which debunks the thought that he was anti-tobacco and thus had his card pulled from the T206 set 40 years earlier. This amazing card connects a man who played in the 19th century to guys like Warren Spahn, who debuted in the same set and played into the Vietnam era.