Vintage baseball card collectors who like a challenge can point to the 1933 Tattoo Orbit set as a product worth building.
It’ll keep you busy looking but the 60-card set is not impossible to piece together. Expensive? In some cases, yes, but there are lower grade cards available that can fill the tougher slots. It certainly is not as pricey as the 1933 Goudey baseball set, for example.
It’s also far more rare. Tattoo Orbit cards are about 14 times harder to find.
“I find that they’re like the redheaded stepchild of the 1930s cards,” said James Feagin, who has put together (and sold) two Tattoo Orbit sets.
In May 2013, a complete, graded Tattoo Orbit set sold for $4,740 at Robert Edward Auctions. The SGC-graded set had 12 cards in EX condition, 24 in VG/EX, 12 in VG, five in G, three in fair, two in poor and two authenticated.
In June 2015, a nearly complete set of 1933 Goudey (minus only the Napoleon Lajoie card) was sold by Legendary Auctions for $16,730 (including the buyer’s premium). Only 14 of the 238 cards offered were graded.
Tattoo Orbit cards have consistently sold for less money than Goudeys, even though there are fewer cards in the set and far fewer examples in the marketplace. Collectors who might believe finishing a Goudey set might take too much time and money could actually have better luck focusing on Tattoo Orbit cards. One would think cards that are in shorter supply would sell for more money but that’s not the case here.
Earlier this summer (July 2015), a PSA-8 Tattoo Orbit of Burleigh Grimes was sold for $1,016. by Mile High Card Company, one of only two examples at that level, and only 27 overall, yet Mile High sold a similarly graded 1933 Goudey card of “Old Stubblebeard” for $1,253 in its March 2015 auction. There are 34 PSA-8 Goudeys registered with PSA and over 460 total–more than 17 times as many, making the Tattoo Orbit quite a bargain.
For Feagin, 40, who writes for Huggins and Scott Auctions, the appeal of the Tattoo Orbit cards began when he obtained a Dizzy Dean in 2007.
“I really loved the pose and the beautiful red, vibrant background,” said Feagin, who is based in Maryland and no longer collects cards, although he still writes about them. “I was looking for an appealing set.”
Both card designs are colorful and attractive, although the Tattoo Orbit cards have more of an art deco feel to them. While Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are not included, there are 17 other Hall of Famers scattered throughout the set. The big names include Dean, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx (spelled “Jimmy” on the card), Lefty Grove, Paul Waner, Connie Mack and Mickey Cochrane. The player’s given name is used on the card back; so Lefty Grove’s card back reads “Robert M. Grove,” while Bump Hadley’s card lists his birth name of Irving.
With so many Hall of Famers, this is a pre-World War II set with plenty of upside.
The cards — designated as R305 — originally were issued in penny packs of Tattoo Chewing Gum, which was a product of the Orbit Gum Co.
“They were not in wax packs,” Feagin said. “They were distributed in a decorative sleeve.”
Orbit Gum was based in Chicago, so it is not a shock that 25 percent of the set (15 cards) are members of the Chicago Cubs. Six more cards are Chicago White Sox players. The Red Sox, Indians, Athletics and Browns have six cards apiece, while the Cardinals have five. The Reds and Phillies have two players each, while there is one each of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves.
Four teams are not represented — the Yankees, Giants, Tigers and Senators. That helps keep set prices somewhat in check.
“I didn’t have to worry about getting a Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig card,” Feagin said.
The cards measure 2 inches by 2 ¼ inches and showcase a black-and-white photograph of the player, although a fleshy tint is applied to the player’s face and hands to give it a more colorful tone.
The background color scheme on the card front is bold, with red, green and yellow dominating the card face. That’s in contrast to the card back, which is gray and plain. The back lists the player’s name and position, birth date, height and weight. It also lists the team name in quote marks, which is a charming touch.
The card stock is thin, which makes it prone to wear.
The most expensive cards in the set, according to the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball cards, are the Hornsby ($1,450), Hadley and George Blaeholder ($1,200) and Ivy Andrews ($1,100).
Hornsby really needs no introduction. Hadley pitched for 15 seasons and went 14-4 in 1936 with the Yankees, leading the American League in winning percentage (.778). Andrews was predictably nicknamed Poison and had an undistinguished eight-year career as a pitcher, going 50-59 for the Yankees, Red Sox, Browns and Indians.
Blaeholder’s only claim to fame in 1933 was allowing the most home runs in the American League, as the right-hander yielded 24. However, the 11-year pitching veteran did win 10 or more games for seven straight seasons with the St. Louis Browns, which was quite an achievement with a mediocre ballclub.
Dean can book in the $700 range in near-mint condition, while Grove checks in at $600.
Those seem to be the tougher cards to find, but Feagin said finding the Ernie Lombardi and Dick Bartell cards “took forever to find.”
Feagin said he built his first set — “a mid-grade set, between 40 and 60 SGC” in two years and sold it sometime around 2009 for $6,000. At the time, it was ranked the No. 2 Tattoo Orbit set on the SGC Set Registry. His second Orbit set took about 18 months to build, and he sold it after the youngest of his three children was born three years ago.
“I took a little bit of a hit on the second set,” Feagin said of the $4,500 sale, “but I was never in it for profit.”
Because of the card’s flimsy nature, finding high-grade cards are extremely difficult. Of the 1,497 cards submitted to PSA, there are no gem mint cards and only three that graded mint (PSA-9). Most cards appear to fall into the PSA-5, 6 and 7 range.
Similarly, cards submitted to SGC are also lacking in high grades. Of 1,187 cards sent to SGC, nine grade 98 or 96, and only four earned a 94. Cards graded 40, 50, and 60 are more plentiful.
There are only 30 graded versions of Hornsby in the Tattoo Orbit set, and the high PSA grade is 7; there are seven cards graded that high. Both of Hornsby’s cards in the Goudey set have more than 400 registered with PSA. Card No. 119 has 530, but the highest grade is a 9; three cards have been graded that high. The other card (N0. 188) has 518 registered cards, with one gem mint and three PSA-9s.
The Tattoo Orbit set is an interesting one, with some decent everyday players. Guy Bush, Smead Jolley, Mark Koenig, Carl Reynolds, George Earnshaw, Dick Bartell and Jimmy Dykes were household names during the 1930s. Combine that with the Hall of Famers, and this set can be both fun to own and challenging to complete.
For Feagin, the non-minty sets have a special appeal.
“It’s kind of neat to have cards that you know were handled by kids back in the 1930s,” he said.
At last check there were more than 250 Tattoo Orbit cards on eBay. Click here to see them.