They may not be as colorful as the gum cards that would be issued in the next couple of years, but the 1931 W517 baseball card issue is one of the few relatively major issues that might still be a bargain for collectors looking to start a new project or build a small stash into a set.
The W517 is believed to have been produced by the Exhibit Supply Company, maker of the many black and white postcard-sized sets from the 1920s-early 60s. About 60% of the cards in the W517 set feature Hall of Famers and there are two Babe Ruth cards among the 54 cards in the set (and two of Mickey Cochrane as well).
Owners of the candy shops and grocery outlets where most of these were likely sold may have cut them apart at the perforation marks in order to distribute them individually. If not, the kids who got them were known to separate them, often in a haphazard fashion that doesn’t to the professional grading results any favors. However, their 3x4" size mirrors more popular card sets of later years and that’s one reason why they do have a fan club among vintage card collectors.
While most of the cards were done in sepia tone, variations include those with ink tones of magenta, green, purple and blue. Yes, card makers were doing 'parallel sets' long before the current era. A lot of seven Chuck Klein tint variations sold for $205 on eBay recently.
Professional grading of hand cut cards can be confusing for collectors who submit them. That's why so many remain ungraded--and on the bargain price list.
Lower grade Hall of Famers are dirt cheap. Many lower end Hall of Famers can be found for less than $40 if you’re not obsessed with near mint cards. A very respectable SGC 50 Lou Gehrig brought $477 on June 6. Mid-grade common cards are usually less than $25 each.
You'll have competition chasing the two Ruth cards or the Gehrig, but there seem to be enough to go around that prices not only don't get out of hand, they stay relatively affordable. An SGC 84 Ruth action shot sold last week for $1,225. A PSA 3-graded portrait went for $1,070. It can be found for less, in varying grades, with a little shopping around. The original Ruth photo used for production of the Babe’s card, has sold a couple of times in the last ten years via major catalog auctions.
A find of high grade W517s, uncut, along with an original box, was uncovered many years ago inside a Pennsylvania store that was being renovated. The story was the focus of a cover story in The Trader Speaks, a hobby publication of the time.
A reprint set was issued decades later and while it might offer a quick way to get a feel for the design, the W517 baseball cards are valued at a level that shouldn't scare away set builders. At just 54 cards, it shouldn't take long. Click here to see what's currently for sale/auction on eBay.