Even though the sports card hobby was hit especially hard by World War II thanks to paper rations and playing time lost to military service, collectors were nevertheless treated to some pretty stout 1940s baseball rookie cards. Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, and Warren Spahn, for instance, were giants of the game, and all three of them made their cardboard debuts during the war-torn decade.
Just as in every other period of baseball history, though, the ’40s produced scores of star players who never quite ascended to a Hall of Fame level but still managed to thrill fans and become legends in their own rights.
These players, a rung or two (or three) below the absolute superstars of the era, made their card debut in the years that straddled the Allied victory, and many of those cards have been overlooked by collectors across the decades.
What follows are six of these underrated baseball rookie cards of the 1940s, presented in the order of their initial release.
1941 Play Ball Johnny Vander Meer
Johnny Vander Meer was a solid part of the rotation for several Cincinnati Reds teams that contended for titles during the 1930s and 1940s, including the 1939 club that was swept by the New York Yankees in the World Series.
From 1938 through 1948, Vander Meer won at least 15 games five times and was a regular top-20 finisher in the National League MVP vote. He does appear on some team issues during the late 30s but didn’t appear on a mainstream set until his smiling countenance adorned card #56 in the ’41 Play Ball set.
Even though he finished his career with a mediocre 119-121 record, Vander Meer was a powerful lefty and a legitimate star during the peak of his career.
If that were the extent of the story, he probably wouldn’t make this list, and fans might have largely forgotten about him. In his second year in the majors, though, Vandy stamped his name on baseball history.
On June 11, 1938, he fired a no-hitter against the Boston Bees, for the Reds’ first no-no since 1920.
He was an instant baseball celebrity.
Then, on June 15, Vander Meer took the bump against the Brooklyn Dodgers for the first-ever night game on the East Coast and promptly set down another 27 men without a hit. It was the first and still only time a pitcher has thrown consecutive no-hitters in MLB history.
In the span of four days, Vander Meer had ensured that we would never forget him, and created an everlasting market for his cards.
Even so, his 1941 Play Ball rookie card suffers from the glare created by the Pee Wee Reese and Dom & Vince DiMaggio rookies in the same set. The Vander Meer card is fairly tough to find in any condition, but you can generally snag an EX copy for less than $100, while NM specimens can bring $200 or more. See them on eBay here.
1948 Bowman Ferris Fain
Ferris Fain may have had his problems later in life, and his relatively short career relegated him to afterthought status for most casual fans, but he was one of the finest hitters in the American League during the early 1950s.
That’s really saying something, too, when you consider the batting company he kept in those years.
In winning the 1951 AL batting title, Fain bested, among others, the great Ted Williams. While Williams was fighting in Korea during 1952, Fain got the better of a young Mickey Mantle and the obscure Dale Mitchell to win his second crown in a row.
Fain hit .300 only one time after that 1952 season, and he was done by 1955, but he provided a rare bright spot for the Philadelphia A’s in the years before they moved to Kansas City.
Fain’s rookie card can be found in the 1948 Bowman set and trades for under $50 in anything less than NM condition.
1948 Bowman Johnny Sain
“Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain!” So went the old saw about how the Boston Braves planned to win the 1948 National League pennant.
While Warren Spahn went on to a Hall of Fame career and the rest of that Braves pitching staff was actually pretty solid, Johny Sain was a legitimate NL superstar in the years after World War II. From 1946 through 1950, he won 20 games four times and finished second in the 1948 MVP voting to Stan Musial.
Thanks to war-time paper restrictions, Sain didn’t appear on a baseball card until the 1948 Bowman set, where he checks in at #12. His black-and-white card rookie card is readily available in lower grades for under $20 on eBay, but NM copies bring close to $100.
1948-49 Leaf Larry Doby
It may seem strange to classify a card that sells for nearly $500 in FAIR condition as “underrated” until you consider the full context of the player and his meaning to the game of baseball.
While Jackie Robinson is rightly lauded and exalted for his groundbreaking career and his courage in busting baseball’s “color line” in the summer of 1947, Cleveland Indians center fielder Larry Doby was not far behind.
Doby made his MLB debut less than three months after Robinson broke in for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Doby faced many of the same issues that Jack did during that historic season. As the first African American to play in the American League, Doby also faced fans (and racism) in cities — Detroit, Cleveland, DC — where Robinson did not first blaze the trail.
Doby was also a fearsome hitter, collecting 1500+ hits and 253 home runs during his 13-year career. Those numbers, and his historical importance, led to his Hall of Fame election by the Veteran’s Committee in 1998.
Doby’s 1948-49 Leaf rookie card is a single print and tough to find in any condition, with only a few popping up on eBay over a couple of months.
1948-49 Leaf Ted Kluszewski
Sporting guns that would have made a young Mark McGwire blush, Ted Kluszewski was the original bash brother and one of the first players to use pure muscle to intimidate his foes. When opposing teams came to the Riverfront, they knew they’d have to face a sleeveless Big Klu and the homer barrage that was always just around the corner.
In 1954, Klu smacked 49 home runs and drove in 141 to lead the National League in both categories, and he finished second in the MVP voting to Willie Mays. That was his peak season, but he managed another 47 homers in 1955 and tallied 279 over a 15-year Major League career.
Although Kluszewski didn’t make it to Cooperstown, he’s a Bunyanesque figure and a legend in Cincinnati, the masher against whom all Reds’ sluggers are measured.
You can find Kluszewski’s rookie card at #38 in the 1948-49 Leaf set, and, though it fetches more the $300 in NM condition or better, solid ungraded copies trade for $50 or less.
1948-49 Leaf Andy Pafko
Andy Pafko is most familiar to collectors as the lucky player on card #1 in the iconic 1952 Topps set, but many forget that he was a feared slugger during the 1940s and 1950s, which is likely how he warranted that lofty pasteboard position in the first place.
From 1948 through 1951, Pafko smacked at least 20 home runs three times, topping 30 twice. He also finished fourth in the 1945 MVP ballot, when his Chicago Cubs lost the World Series to a strong Detroit Tigers team.
Pafko’s rookie card is part of the colorful 1948-49 Leaf set and is usually available for $75 or less in solid EX or better graded condition.
These six players never climbed to the heights of the more ballyhooed Hall of Famers of the 1940s and 1950s, but they were all stars who made a lasting impact on the game. Their underrated rookie cards provide a glimpse into Major League baseball at a time when America itself was trying to figure out what came next.
On the field, what came next were these standouts, now mostly overlooked but never forgotten.