The 1939 Play Ball baseball card set has it all. Thanks to the rookie issue of Ted Williams, there’s an iconic first-year card. There are shortprinted high number cards to increase the difficulty in building a set. And there is a slew of star cards, including the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mel Ott, and Hank Greenberg, among others, that are plentiful enough to create a meaningful release.
The set also has a bit of intrigue as card No. 126 in the set was never issued. While not confirmed, the general line of thought is that producer Gum, Inc. intentionally left that card out of the set to drive sales — much in the way it is believed that Goudey did the same with its 1933 baseball card set.
The set still includes a total of 161 cards with a sizable checklist for a 1930s gum card release. But there would have been plenty of candidates for the missing No. 126. Here are six ‘candidates’ off the top of my head.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the omission of the legendary Lou Gehrig. Gehrig’s credentials don’t need to be repeated but I’ll mention them here, anyway. The Iron Man was a two-time Most Valuable Player, a Triple Crown winner, was named to seven All-Star teams, and won six World Series titles with the New York Yankees.
His career, of course, was cut prematurely after his death in 1941 following his 1939 diagnosis of ALS. Gehrig appeared in only eight games in 1939 before his retirement.
It’s possible that contractual issues were at play here. Gehrig had, of course, been a staple with Goudey, prior to mysteriously disappearing in their later sets. Perhaps Gum, Inc. simply could not come to an agreement to include him in the set. Whatever the cause, it’s a shame he didn’t find his way into their series. Given his abrupt retirement, a 1939 card in a major baseball card release would have been a fitting send off for the iconic player.
Dizzy Dean is a popular choice for missing players from 1930s sets. Despite being one of the game’s top pitchers in that decade, he is conspicuously absent from many releases.
Dean led the league in wins in both 1934 and 1935 and won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1934. He finished second in the voting in 1935 and 1936 and was a four-time All-Star in the 1930s. So why would have a player of Dean’s caliber been left out? For one thing, he suffered a major injury and after 1937, he never reached the 10-win total again. Dean was also a member of the Chicago Cubs and no Cubs appear in the set (some believe this was due to competitor Wrigley Gum with William Wrigley, Jr. as the majority owner of the team).
Still, Dean being inserted into the set would have been a great choice. He was still a popular player and would have given collectors another opportunity to own one of his cards. Another reason to include him? Dizzy’s brother Paul (aka Daffy) is actually found in the set. Having both brothers in the set would have been an added bonus.
While Dean was nearing the end of his usefulness as a player, in 1939, Bob Feller’s career was only just beginning.
Feller’s long-term credentials established him as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Despite missing three full seasons in the prime of his career due to service during World War II, Feller still won 266 games, was an eight-time All-Star, and led the league in victories six times. As a strikeout artist, he also led the majors in that category seven times. In 1939, Feller was only 20 years old and went 24-9 with the Cleveland Indians, leading the league in wins, complete games, innings pitched, and strikeouts. By that season, he had emerged as the next great young pitcher.
For some reason, Feller is missing from the three Play Ball sets. This could have been due to a contracting dispute but, whatever the reason, his appearance here would have been welcomed.
After Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx is arguably the most important position player missing from the set.
The reason for his absence, like others, is unknown But if one thing is clear, it’s that there’s a great case to be made for his inclusion.
The year before this set was released, Foxx had continued to establish himself as a top star. At the age of 30, he won his third Most Valuable Player award and led the league in batting average, RBI, walks, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS.
It’s unclear if his omission was due to a contractual dispute with another company. But Foxx was included in the company’s 1940 and 1941 Play Ball sets, so Gum, Inc. clearly recognized his value. It’s a shame he didn’t make it into their inaugural release.
Managerial cards were somewhat present in pre-war cards. But that was often because many players were also the managers. When it comes to pure manager cards, there are many less.
Why not use a card on a manager? And if we’re including a manager from 1939, I’d propose Joe McCarthy of the Yankees. Sure, some collectors might want a Connie Mack card while Mack headed the Philadelphia Athletics. But McCarthy led the Yankees to the World Series title that year with one of baseball’s most dominant teams. That year, New York went 106-45-1 while winning the World Series in a sweep over the Cincinnati Reds. McCarthy’s Yankees also won the three previous championships.
In all, McCarthy had a heck of a career managing the Yankees. And while detractors will point to the talent he had with that club, winning seven World Series titles was still an incredible feat.
Managerial card of a Hall of Famer leading the greatest franchise in baseball? Yes, please.
Ruth, of course, had long since retired by 1939. His last year in baseball came in 1935 so why is he a good fit here?
Well, Play Ball’s 1940 set included a slew of former players and there’s nothing to suggest they could not have thrown the retired Ruth into this set. Ruth also did not make it into Play Ball’s 1940 set and it would have been great to see him at some point in the 1939-41 run of Play Ball sets after he had appeared in several Goudey issues earlier in the decade.
Don’t forget, too, that this is how Goudey approached their ‘missing card’ debacle. After collectors complained about No. 106 being missing from their 1933 release, Goudey chose to create a card of Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie to fill that void. Lajoie had been out of major league baseball for nearly two decades when his 1933 Goudey card was issued the following year.