The 1939 Play Ball set is one of the more popular pre-war issues. It came after the craze of tobacco cards and was a contrast to the mostly colorful Goudeys issues of the 1930s. Here are five quick facts about this unique gum card release.
1. It Includes Ted Williams’ Rookie Card
The Ted Williams rookie card is one of the most iconic pre-war issues. At a minimum, it’s one of the biggest gum cards of the 1930s, anyway.
1939 was Williams’ first year in the majors and it didn’t take him long to impress, leading the league in total bases and RBI while finishing fourth in Most Valuable Player balloting. While his No. 92 card is not particularly rare, it sells for big bucks. The card starts in the $1,500 – $2,000 range for lower end mid-grade specimens.
2. There is No Card No. 126
There are often believed to be a total of 162 cards in the entire set but the true number is actually 161. That’s because card No. 126 was not issued.
Who was supposed to be on the card is a mystery and many theories have been floated around through the years. Perhaps it was 1939 Play Ball’s own way of creating a chase card, similar to what Goudey did in 1933 before printing the missing No. 106 Nap Lajoie issue. But, for whatever reason, 126 was a card that is not known to have been printed.
3. Samples Exist
While the backs of most cards were pretty standard, some samples promoting the set are known. The sample cards are more difficult to find than the regular cards but they are relatively common.
Samples look just like regular cards for the most part but are easily identified by their red overprint on the backs. The ‘advertisement’ mentions that the card was a free sample and that the 1939 Play Ball cards could be found packaged with “Play Ball America” gum in candy stores for one cent.
Not every card is found with an alternating sample background. Samples only are known for cards numbered 1-115.
4. The Set was to be Much Larger
While the checklisting of the cards only goes to 162, it was actually supposed to be much larger. We know that from the backs.
In addition to the player’s name and a biography, the bottoms of the backs included a short message claiming the card was one of 250 pictures in the set, telling collectors to find them all. Why the set never grew beyond No. 162 is not clear but more cards were originally intended to be in it.
5. High Numbers are More Valuable
Like many sets, the cards with high numbers seem to have been printed in smaller quantities. As a result, they are worth a little more.
High numbers began with card No. 116 and continued through the end of the set. They aren’t usually outrageously priced but commons are a few bucks more than those in the first 115 cards. Most of the big names are in those initial 115 but Hall of Famer Earl Averill (No. 143) is an exception.