They look a little crude today. Black and white photos. Dated fonts on the back and some printing errors. More than seven decades after they first hit the market, though, the 1939 Play Ball set has stood the test of time.
In fact, the 161-card set was a bit revolutionary. While photos of some earlier issues were often dark, grainy or distorted, the Play Ball cards kids pulled out of gum packs were pretty clear. Advances in photography following the Depression had changed the landscape. Magazines like LIFE brought world events home through those modern images. Americans, no matter where they lived, were seeing things in a much clearer light.
Baseball was celebrating its centennial year in 1939 and Gum, Inc., based in Philadelphia, took the bull by the horns to become the only card manufacturer in ’39. Goudey Gum had basically disappeared by then, and was four years removed from any large scale offering it had made.
Play Ball cards were also unique in that baseball cards had not only grown up, but grown in size at 2 1/2″ x 3 1/8″. It allowed for extensive write-ups on the back–even the use of the players’ full names. Kids may have learned for the first time that their favorite player was “Joseph Paul DiMaggio Jr.” and Ted Williams was “Theodore Samuel Williams”. We can only surmise the number of playground bets that were won and lost.
There may have been some confusion, too, for the aggressive youngsters who tried to collect a complete set. At the bottom of each card’s back was an advertisement that stated there were 250 cards in the set. By the time Gum Inc. had finished production, there were only 161 subjects. 162 cards had been numbered but #126 was never issued.
There were two series and the high numbers are decidedly harder to come by. #1-115 are usually $20 and under in mid-to-high grade. Commons from #116-152 are twice that and more.
The key cards in the set include the Williams rookie card (#92), which commonly sells for $2,000 and up in higher grade, and DiMaggio (#26), just coming into his own as a Yankee. Expect to pay $1,000 or more for a good quality DiMaggio, many times that for a graded NM or Mint copy. Both are high on collectors’ want lists. There are also a number of Hall of Famers including Leo Durocher, Bill Dickey, Lefty Gomez, Charlie Gehringer, Mel Ott, Hank Greenberg and the Waner brothers.
Another popular card is the ‘rookie’ card of catcher Moe Berg. A journeyman player, Berg gained fame for his work as a spy for the United States leading up to World War II. A book about Berg entitled “Athlete, Scholar, Spy”, paints a fascinating portrait of the quirky but brilliant ballplayer. Berg’s card can run over $100, despite his profound lack of Hall of Fame credentials as a player.
There are variations throughout the set, including a number of first series cards which have the player’s name in all capital letters or upper and lower case, which many consider to be more scarce.
A complete set of 1939 Play Ball cards will cost anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 in mid to high grade. Completely graded sets will run higher, while lower grade sets can be had for less.
Play Ball would last just three years. An extensive set of modern and retired players was issued in 1940, followed by a color set in 1941 that included only 72 cards. War was approaching and paper conservation meant few cards of any kind were produced until the late 1940s.