Memorial Day is a time to reflect and remember those that have served this country in the military. And as baseball card collectors, most of us know that some of the game’s earliest heroes on the diamond also were veterans.
Some players had only brief stints during wartime while others missed several years of their careers. Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson suffered the effects of war after his playing career had ended, having had his life cut short by effects of exposure to mustard gas.
While most big leaguers served in the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, some participated as members of the Marines or the Coast Guard.
Here’s a look back at some unique cards of these legendary players who juggled military service with baseball.
Casey Stengel 1923 Maple Crispette
The 1923 Maple Crispette set was a Canadian issue that featured major league baseball players. Casey Stengel is known more for his managing but he also enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War I and was included in this set as a player. While in the Navy in 1918, Stengel spent part of his time during the war running the Brooklyn Navy Yard baseball squad in what was a precursor to a Hall of Fame managerial career.
Stengel’s card is extremely notable as it was a shortprint in this rare Canadian set. Maple Crispette included a shortprint, likely to limit the number of prize redemptions they needed to dish out to collectors who assembled a full set. Stengel happened to be the player featured.
The card is nearly impossible to find and, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame, only one is known to the hobby. It was a part of their new Shoebox Treasures baseball cards exhibit that opened this weekend.
Tris Speaker 1933 Goudey
Speaker was another veteran of World War I, serving in the U.S. Navy. Like Stengel, he barely spent any time in the service during the war, joining in 1918, the year it ended. But he also spent time in the reserves afterward.
One of Speaker’s more interesting cards is his 1933 Goudey issue. Speaker is in the set even though his career had ended several years earlier. Exactly why he is included in the set is kind of a mystery. But the fact that he remained close to the game could have been a factor. According to SABR, he was a broadcaster for the Cubs and White Sox in 1931 and then became manager and part owner of the minor league Kansas City Blues in the American Association.
Because he was no longer an active player, Speaker’s Goudey card reads more like a tribute to his major league career. Even though it’s a post-career card, it still is quite desirable. In mid-grade condition, it starts around $200.
Ty Cobb Advertising Back Tobacco Card
Many collectors are likely unaware that Ty Cobb himself was also a veteran. But Cobb served with the U.S. Army in World War I briefly in 1918 just prior to its end. Despite being in the war only briefly, Cobb was actually a part of some dangerous training exercises, as covered here.
Arguably Cobb’s top card is his tobacco card with the Ty Cobb advertising back. This card remains somewhat of a mystery. Some have even classified it as a T206 card since it follows the same design as the cards from that set. But the reverse includes an advertisement for Ty Cobb-branded tobacco instead of one for the other T206 brands. To date, no other different cards are known with this advertising back. Despite the recent discovery of several of these cards in recent years, it is still incredibly rare and always fetches big money when available for sale.
How big? This extremely low-grade PSA 1 shown here sold in 2018 as part of a REA auction for $108,000.
Ted Williams 1939-46 Salutation Exhibit – No. 9 Version
Ted Williams missed three years of baseball during World War II, serving with the U.S. Marines. If Williams had those years back, it is difficult to imagine him not eclipsing the 3,000-hit mark as he finished his career with a total of 2,654 hits.
Williams is included twice in the 1939-46 Salutation Exhibits set, one of the few issues produced during the war. One version is quite common and can be bought in low-grade condition for as little as $15-$20. But a rarer version is another story.
The more difficult card, shown here, is known as the No. 9 version since his uniform number is visible in this pose. Even in low-grade condition, this card often sells for more than $100.
Bob Feller 1937 O-Pee-Chee Rookie Card
Bob Feller is another Hall of Famer that missed several seasons due to his service with the U.S. Navy in World War II. Finishing with 266 career victories, Feller would have likely topped the magical number of 300 without an interruption in his career.
Feller is found in the ultra rare 1936 Boston American Sport Stamps set, a series of newspaper cutouts. But many collectors don’t consider his true rookie issues to be found until 1937. He’s found in several issues (and as I’ve written here, these cards would have come while he was still a teenager) but his standalone 1937 O-Pee-Chee card is probably as close to a true rookie card as he has.
Issued in Canada, it’s not an easy one to find. It’s also a die-cut issue of sorts as the picture of Feller pops out to present a 3D image. And with even lower-grade copies selling on eBay for several hundred dollars, it’s not all that cheap, either.