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Ramblings: Williams Not Part of the Great Pre-War Rookie Card Debate

I’m always enamored of trivia so imagine my surprise when in one of the daily e-newsletters of baseball tidbits, Lee Sinise, mentioned the all-time leader in pinch-hit homers for the Boston Red Sox. Yes, the answer was a Hall of Famer, but not one you usually associate with coming off the bench. Would you believe Ted Williams?

1939-Play-Ball-Ted-WilliamsRich Ramblings 2014Teddy Ballgame was featured as an active player in cards in four decades. He began with the 1939 Play Ball set and ended with his appearance in the 1960 Fleer set.  Despite his absence from several Topps sets during his career, Williams is well represented on cardboard, right from the start of his career and that brings up an interesting part of recent hobby history.

Several years ago, Beckett produced a nice work called the Ultimate Rookie Card Encyclopedia. What brought attention almost immediately was not the well written little blurbs about various rookie cards in a timeline nor the effort to gather all the needed photos.

No, what really got folks talking was the book’s effort to define players’ rookie cards in pre-War cards.  Many players who first appeared in the big leagues years earlier, were given their ‘rookie card’ designation in the 1933 Goudey set.  On one level a decision like that made sense as there were almost no nationally released cards since the T-206 set almost a quarter century earlier and collectors putting together things like ‘Hall of Fame rookie sets’ wanted some sort of ‘official’ designation. Many don’t consider regional or food type issues that may have been issued before then a ‘real’ rookie card.

Some players had made their big league debuts at a time close to when a specific set was issued but putting the ‘rookie card’ label on Babe Ruth’s 1933 Goudey card just wasn’t right. The set was issued nearly two decades after he began his career.  In fact his career was over just two years later.

What about Lou Gehrig? Or Jimmie Foxx? There’s a real dearth of 1920s issues that could be considered national issues.  In fact, the post-tobacco and caramel card era up until the Goudey sets, is pretty dry and yet we have hundreds of major leaguers who made their debuts from the late 1910’s through the early 1930’s.  Later on, Stan Musial would suit up for the Cardinals in 1941 but his ‘official’ rookie card is now considered to be his 1948 Bowman and Leaf’s 1948-49 product.

Fortunately, the 1939 Play Ball Ted Williams card has none of these issues. Williams came up to the majors as a rookie in 1939 and immediately had an impact and would not stop until he hit a home run in his final major league at-bat in 1960.  Now to me, there is no doubt the 1939 Williams is a rookie card and should always be noted as such.  And the value of this card is significant and does appear often in auction house offerings and on eBay as well.  That particular card has a nice black and white shot of Williams doing what he did best, swinging a bat. Williams would have cards from major manufacturers through his managerial career and thus made his firth decade of cards when Topps included him in their 1970 set as a manager.

So, if you want a pre-war rookie card which really should be considered a rookie card, take a look at the 1939 Play Ball Ted WIlliams. There are a few others from the 1930s and 40’s which fit the rookie card bill nicely.  The 1941 Play Ball Pee Wee Reese matches his debut and since Dom DiMaggio come up during the 1940 season we can certainly call any of his Play Ball cards legit rookies as well. There are others, of course, but guys like Ruth and Red Faber in the 1933 Goudey set, not so much.

As always, your comments are welcome via the email address below.

About Rich Klein

Rich Klein has spent almost his entire life collecting baseball cards having begun at the tender age of seven. He has spent more than three decades in the organized hobby including editing the first 12 editions of the Beckett Almanac of Baseball Card and Collectibles. He lives in Plano, TX along with his wife Dena and their two dogs. You can reach him at [email protected].

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  1. […] collector Brett Ingram let us know he loved the idea of creating hobby buzz with re-defining a rookie card and shared some strong […]

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