While Goudey dominated the baseball card landscape in the 1930s, a new competitor emerged at the end of the decade. Gum, Inc. produced its popular pre-war gum cards from 1939 through 1941. While their run was brief, the cards were extremely important as they were one of the few baseball card sets being produced during World War II.
The 1939 set was also significant because, unlike many other gum cards from that decade, they included real black and white photographs of players. The set’s cornerstone is the rookie card of the iconic Ted Williams. But among the regular cards from the set, a special series of sample cards was produced as well. While many card companies created samples of their baseball card sets prior to production, the Play Ball samples are unique since so many have made their way into the hobby.
Here’s a closer look at these promotional type of cards.
1939 Play Ball Samples
For Play Ball’s first set in 1939, the company tried to spread the word about their cards. They were trying to break into the baseball card market and find a way to get part of the market share that companies like Goudey held. Play Ball decided to use their own cards to promote the set and get collectors excited about them.
The 1939 Play Ball sample cards don’t look much different from the regular Play Ball cards — at least from the front. The cards have the same pictures of players on the front as the regular cards. Backs are where the differences can be seen.
Backs of regular Play Ball cards include the subject’s name, biographical information, statistics, and a card number. Backs of the sample cards have that same information but also include a red overprint that reads:
Free Sample Card
Get your pictures of leading baseball players
Three picture cards packed in each package of
“Play Ball America” Bubble Gum
At your candy store
As the imprint added, the cost of the gum was one cent per package so you essentially got three cards and a piece of gum for a penny.
Of note is that all 1939 Play Ball cards are not found with the ‘Sample’ overprint. That print is known on only cards numbered 1-115. High number cards above that do not carry the overprint.
The idea to use the exact cards that would be distributed was a great promotion. It not only accomplished the goal of giving collectors a heads up about the set, but also allowed them to see actual cards from the set at the same time.
So, where did the samples originate and why are there so many of them?
Well, they were obviously used to help promote Play Ball’s new baseball cards. Other than that, however, I’m not sure anything has ever been 100% confirmed. Some theories suggest that the cards were distributed by salesmen for the company, helping to spread the word about the upcoming cards to businesses and shops that could potentially offer them. Others believe that they were given to stores directly and distributed there by the owners. Possibly, they were distributed by a combination of those two methods.
Whatever the mode of distribution, however, it’s clear that the objective was to inform collectors about a new type of card coming to the market.
Rarity and Value
The samples are, as you would expect, much tougher to find than the regular cards. PSA and SGC have not graded more than a handful of most while the regular cards for the same players have been graded much more frequently. It is tough to determine exactly how much rarer the sample cards are but they are much tougher than the regular versions.
Despite that, the values aren’t really commensurate with the rarity. Decent commons from the regular set typically start around $8-$10 or so. While the samples are a lot harder to find, you can still buy them starting around $15-$20. They definitely carry a little more value but not nearly as much as you might think considering how rare they are.
Why the somewhat low prices on the sample cards? It’s tough to say honestly. The fronts are no different and the sample print is a very cool reminder of the origins of these cards. For some reason, though, collectors don’t seem to value them all that much more than the regular cards. There are some exceptions out there and you will see the samples sell for significantly more at times. But for the most part, collectors haven’t been willing to pay big bucks for the sample issues.
There are currently more than three dozen of them for sale and auction on eBay.