If you’re a Cleveland Indians fan, then 1948 was a swell year. It was the last time the Indians won the World Series. In fact, 1948 could be called a Swell year, because a 20-card set called Sport Thrills was issued by the Philadelphia Gum Co.
It’s better known by the brand of gum that Philly produced — Swell — and contains the subhead “Highlights in the World of Sport.” The set featured some of the key baseball memories, spanning the years from Walter Johnson (dead ball era) to Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio (post-World War II era).
It also marked the debut of Jackie Robinson on a bubble gum card, making it a desirable card in an already scarce set. Bowman also made its debut in 1948, and while Robinson is included in the 1948 Leaf set, evidence seems to suggest that card was released in 1949.
1948 Swell Sport Thrills Basics
Philadelphia Gum distributed Sport Thrills cards with its Swell brand bubble gum, but they weren’t in packs. Drug stores, grocers, confectionaries and other outlets that carried the boxes of gum were given the cards to use as a premium. Buy two pieces and you’d get a card.
The design of the cards is simple, with a black-and-white photograph on the front. The card is framed with decorative trim featuring baseball bats in the top left and bottom right corners, and a second, white-bordered frame around the card edge.
The card back offers a descriptive paragraph about the event. In Robinson’s case, it details his historic arrival in the big leagues. The bottom includes a mail-in offer — collectors could send in five wrappers and a nickel, and would receive a button of Indians Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller. “Rapid Robert” also got a plug from Swell, which touted him as author of the book, How to Pitch.
In addition to the Robinson card, the events referenced show some of the best performances in baseball history. Card No. 1 kicks off the set with five of the players who ignited the Philadelphia Athletics’ 10-run inning in Game 4 of the 1929 World Series (although Jimmie Foxx’s first name is spelled as “Jimmy”); card No. 5 features the missed third strike by Mickey Owen in the 1941 Series that enabled Tommy Henrich to reach first base and led to a Yankees’ win; No. 9 shows Al Gionfriddo’s game-saving catch of a Joe DiMaggio blast in the 1947 World Series; and Lou Gehrig is greeting Babe Ruth at home plate after the Bambino’s “called shot” in the 1932 World Series on card No. 12.
Card No. 8 recalls Carl Hubbell’s five consecutive strikeouts in the 1933 All-Star Game, No. 10 memorializes Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, and No. 11 shows Tony Lazzeri striking out with the bases loaded in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series
It’s simply a fun trip through baseball history, mostly from the late 1920s through the mid- to late 1940s.
High Grade Scarcity
Finding cards in this set is a tough challenge. A total of 938 cards have been submitted to PSA for grading, and only three cards have come back as high as PSA 8. One is the Robinson card, the second is Vander Meer, and the third is No. 14, “Great Slugging” by Lou Gehrig. In fact, there are only 37 cards that grade PSA 7.
Over at SCG, 373 cards have been graded, and only two grade as high as 88 — the Hubbell card, and No. 6, which depicts Bill Dickey’s final career home run that proved to be the winning margin in the Yankees’ 1943 World Series title-clinching game. There are also seven cards in the set that graded out at SCG 86.
The factors surrounding the scarcity of high grades include the low quality paper stock that was used, centering issues and creasing along the edges of many cards. Why so many have those thin creases isn’t known for certain.
Single Card Prices
What’s interesting about Swell Sport Thrills is that while it’s tough to find a complete set or the key cards in high grade, savvy collectors can pick up “average” cards at reasonable prices. The latest edition of the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards, for example, lists commons as low as $50 in near mint and $15 in very good condition.
Theories on why it isn’t more popular abound but some speculate it’s because Swell doesn’t have a long track record of producing baseball card sets.
“I believe the set is underrated,” said Leighton Sheldon of Just Collect, which buys and sells large quantities of vintage cards. “Part of the reason it’s not worth more is because it is so difficult to find that collectors often look past it. I think it has nothing to do with who it was produced by. There are lots of hobby instances where great sets or cards were produced by a lesser known company and/or one with a short track record.”
The Robinson card is easily the most valuable and has been climbing steadily in value. What few near mint examples have come to auction typically sell for around $1,000 but mid-grade examples can still be found for $400-$600. Cards featuring Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio can still be found for less than $150 in VG condition.
Card #1, 9, 11, 16 and 20 have generally been harder to find and slightly more expensive than many of the others in the set. The #9 features Al Gionfriddo’s tremendous catch in the 1947 World Series, robbing Joe DiMaggio of a hit. It would be his last appearance in the big leagues as a player.
At just 20 cards, it would seem to be a reasonably attainable goal to put one together. Complete sets aren’t often seen at auctioni, but several have brought in nice prices over the past nine years. In the spring of 2007, Robert Edwards Auctions sold a complete graded set for $3,525. Four years later, Love of the Game sold a mid-grade, raw set for $649. And in August 2013, Huggins and Scott sold an ungraded set for around $1,000.
“I personally love the set and try to buy it when available to break up,” Sheldon stated. “There’s a Jackie card which is really another rookie of his and everyone from DiMaggio, Gehrig, Ted Williams and many more. For such a small set it has fantastic player selection.”
In many ways, 1948 was an interesting year for baseball. The World Series was played without a non-New York based team for the last time until 1959. Satchel Paige made his major-league debut and drew large crowds as the Indians closed in on the American League pennant; Cleveland would become the first franchise to draw more than 2 million fans in a season. The Tribe won that pennant by defeating the Red Sox in a one-game postseason showdown at Fenway Park — the first playoff in A.L. history — preventing an all-Boston World Series. And sadly, it was the year Ruth died from throat cancer at the age of 53.
Nevertheless, it was a swell year for baseball card collectors. The 1948 Sport Thrills set is packed with stars and displays some great action shots.
You can see a few dozen cards from the set on eBay by clicking here.