Baseball card collecting has always been divided neatly into categories, typically by brands, sets, distribution methods, type or other niches by which collectors focus their goals. But one division has always been a cornerstone for the hobby: Pre-War vs. Post-War.
Those who specialize in the former group can reach back almost to the Civil War itself and find at least one set to collect from every year all the way up to World War II. From tobacco manufacturers to gum companies, candy companies, publishers and bakeries, there were plenty of different producers once baseball gained a foothold in the American culture. There was no shortage of businesses which saw the value of promoting the sales of their product by enticing customers with pictures of ball players.
The “post-War” era is usually considered to have begun with the release of Bowman’s first gum set and continuing through the current generation’s most popular sets.
But what about the lost years in between? America entered the Second World War in December of 1941, closing the door on a host of sets from Goudey, Play Ball and Double Play. Bowman and Leaf didn’t rekindle the card craze for America’s youth until 1948-49. That left kids back home without much of anything to choose from for a solid six years.
Granted it wasn’t the first time collectors have been denied their hobby. America’s involvement in World War One back in 1918 created a one year hobby desert, saved only by an obscure (and really, really ugly) strip card set and some posters issued through Baseball Magazine. But that lasted just one year before choices returned to the hobby.
But World War 2 was much different, and much longer. Rationing of paper and gum began quickly, leaving precious resources to create such trivial items as baseball cards. It might not have mattered if they were produced, as mothers around the country were saving their pennies for more critical needs than allowing their kids to by baseball cards.
So what did exist during those “missing years”? Collectors looking to complete annual runs have to get very creative in order to keep their collection truly complete. Below is a look at card sets available from 1942 through 1947.
1942 – This could well be considered the “Year Without Baseball Cards” It was likely kids might still find packs from the previous year’s deluge still on shelves but little else to choose from. There is some speculation that the higher numbered cards in the 1941 Play Ball set (the ones without a 1941 copyright date) were actually issued in 1942, but no confirmation of that exists.
The only option available for this year (and continuing for many years beyond) was the “Salutation Exhibits” set issued by the Exhibit Company of Chicago, Illinois. The postcard sized cards were available from vending machines in Penny Arcade and drugstores throughout the country. For the most part, 36 cards were released each year, but pinpointing what year a particular card comes from is an impossible task as many of the cards were issued over several years.
The cards were part of a long standing series of cards produced by Exhibit dating back into the 1920s. The “Salutation” subset got its name from the courteous greetings that accompanied the players’ signatures. The Salutation Exhibits subset first appeared in 1929 and continued until 1946 when they changed the format of the signatures.
Super sleuths can help narrow the release date by the size and positioning of the copyrights on the card, but only to a minor extent. Values of the cards vary greatly depending mostly on how many years a particular example was available. Card values can range from $15 for a common to well over $1,500 for a rare example.
1943 – It is possible to dub the M.P. & Co. set of 1943 with the title of the only national single season baseball card set released during World War II. Unfortunately that title gives a much grander position to a set that has little else going for it.
These strip cards featured line drawing action poses depicting 24 different players. Unfortunately the drawings bore little resemblance to the players indicated. Most of the game’s top stars were featured including Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg. The backs gave a brief bio of the stars in a crude format. The cards were produced by Michael Presser & Company and sold in strips at local stores. They are almost always found cut apart by kids with little regard for straight lines.
Showing how little the set cared about actual player depiction, many of the drawings for players used in the 1943 set were reused for other players in a similar set released in 1949.
Cards from this set, even for the superstars, are easy to find at affordable prices, unless you were looking for high grade examples. Then you might be looking a long time.
1944 – Much like two years earlier, no nationally produced major league card sets existed in 1944. The best options for collectors were the 1944 Cubs team picture packs and the 1944 New York Yankee stamps commemorating the 1943 World champions.
The Cubs set was sold at Wrigley Field and does include Jimmie Foxx, whose career was winding to a close. Sets and the occasional single can sometimes be found on eBay.
Thirty players were pictured in the Yankee stamp set and an album was even available to hold them. While it was only available in the New York area, the major benefit of this issue was that it involved color photos, a rarity until the 1950s.
1945 – If you wanted a set of baseball cards in 1945 you better have been prepared to leave the country. With professional baseball in America floundering due to the loss of talented players to the war effort (and not slighting the Professional Women’s League) the best baseball around was being played 90 miles off the Florida coast in Cuba. The winter league boasted not just several major leaguers, but a host of Negro League Hall of Famers like Martin Dihigo, Raymond Brown, Minnie Minoso and Ray Dandridge. Cuban candy Caramelo Deportivo (translated to Sporting Caramels) issued a set of 100 paper stock stamps featuring players, teams, umpires and even broadcasters from the league.
The stamps were designed to be housed in an album, meaning high grade copies are all but not existent today. Completed albums were worth a premium as the company employed the time-tested trick of withholding one stamp from wide distribution. Collectors who wanted stamp #73 of Napoleon Reyes had to be at a certain location at a certain time to get it. Few accomplished the trek making the card one of the scarcest of the era. The set is considered complete without it.
Caramelo Deportivos are fairly easy to find today in lower grades. Commons can be had for a few dollars today, while the higher demand stars can demand $300 – $600. The company released another larger set a year later.
1946 – Shortages plagued the country in the immediate aftermath of the war and once again there were no nationally distributed major league sets issued (save for Exhibits).
One of the more popular issues came out of St. Louis where Sears issued fairly comprehensive sets for the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns. Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter and Joe Garagiola were part of the Cards set. Rare today, complete sets run into the thousands.
Picture pack sets were created by the Boston Red Sox and Brooklyn Dodgers with the Bosox set including one of the more reasonably priced Ted Williams cards (if you can find one).
Collectors could also to turn to the West Coast minor leagues for their fix. Remar Bread of Northern California issued a 25-card set featuring the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. The set was distributed one card per week and featured a couple players who went on to uninspired major league stints. The true key card was that of the team’s manager, none other than Casey Stengel. With no real scarcities or superstars (other than Stengel) cards from this set are affordable. Remar would also produce a similar set in 1947.
1947 – After several years of precious little to choose from, collectors suddenly had a choice of a couple of trading card options, thanks to a couple of bakeries. Bond Bread and Tip Top Bread sets remain very popular with vintage collectors today.
Tip Top had the distinction of being the largest set produced in many years (163 cards), but was distributed in regional groupings. Local interest in both the baseball team and the bread company resulted in some regional subsets being much harder to find today than others. Some of the earliest cards of Hall Of Famers like Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn and Phil Rizzuto appear here before their debut in national sets, leading to some pricey targets.
What Bond Bread lacked in sheer size, it made up with in one name; Jackie Robinson. In New York, Bond produced a 13-card set honoring the first player to break the color barrier. Robinson could be found in a number of posed action photos. Authentic examples in any quantity are pretty elusive but represent the earliest cards from his MLB career.
They also produced a more traditional set of 44 cards (and four boxers). Robinson appears here, too, along with Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Gil Hodges, Stan Musial, Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese and Ted Williams. There are some single prints among the 48 cards but considering the scarcity, they remain relatively affordable.
The following year things began looking up as the bond between kids and bubble gum cards began anew. In 1948 the Bowman Gum Company kicked of their eight year run by pushing rival Leaf out of the way after a single season. They would have much worse luck four years later when Topps Chewing Gum hit their stride.
While sets issued during and immediately after World War II don’t typically generate much attention, the few that were issued provide an important link for anyone who appreciates both baseball and card collecting history.