In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression and seeking to gain an advantage on their competition, the Boston-based Goudey Gum Company dusted off an idea that had worked well for tobacco and candy companies earlier in the 20th Century: including baseball picture cards in packages of their products as an incentive to buyers. That 1933 Goudey set is generally acknowledged as the first baseball issue sold with gum, and it helped to revitalize a sports card industry that had lagged during the Roaring 20s. Featuring hand-painted renditions of black and white photos, the first colorful Goudey set is a classic that begat similar issues in 1934 and 1935. In 1936, though, Goudey decided to try something different, and the result is a small, quirky set that has been much neglected by collectors in the intervening decades.
Nevertheless, that 1936 Goudey baseball set, designated R322 in the American Card Catalog, is an important part of baseball card history, and it merits another look.
The Basics of the Game
The fronts of 1936 Goudey cards are as about as simple as it gets, featuring a black-and-white head shot of the player (snapped by George Burke) surrounded by a white border. The player’s facsimile autograph is printed over top of the image in black ink, usually at shoulder level, and is the only other design feature. In cases where the photo is somewhat dark, white piping surrounds the letters of the signature, as can be seen on Hank Greenberg’s card (#15, sort of). The cards are nearly square at 2-3/8″ x 2-7/8″.
Card backs are a bit more interesting, as the middle portion of the card provides a brief biographical paragraph that highlights some aspect of the player’s baseball career. At the top and bottom of each card reverse is a baseball play, indicating that Goudey’s intention was for the cards to be gathered into a deck so that collectors could use them to play a baseball game. Each play also comes along with a description, presumably to help you really get into the mood for some table-top horsehide. So, for instance , you might draw a DOUBLE, with an elaboration that tells you “To left center–a peach! (Any runner scores from first base.)”
With only 25 unnumbered cards in the set and no known variations, the 1936 Goudey issue presents few challenges for collectors, beyond condition and price considerations. If you’re a really ambitious master set collector, though, the game-play backs will make your job quite a bit tougher.
Collector Dave Weisner has conducted extensive research into possible front-back combinations, and he discovered that Goudey created 25 different two-play combinations for use on the R322 card backs. Each card front can be found with between six and eight different card backs, averaging seven different backs per player, which means that accumulating every possible permutation balloons the total pasteboard count to 175 if you feel like you have to collect them all.
One other interesting aspect to note about 1936 Goudey card backs, as Dave pointed out in a 2012 discussion thread at Net54Baseball.com, is that the baseball plays they feature are identical to those found on the backs of the 1937 Goudey R325 set, also known as the Knot Hole League Game issue. The R325s feature 24 different play combinations, all of which can be found in the R322s, which means that there is one extra in the 1936 set. It makes sense that Goudey would have as many backs as fronts, but the expansion to 25 cards is somewhat curious since the gum maker generally printed in sheets of 24.
Aside from the wide array of front-back combinations, putting together a full set of 1936 Goudey cards is a fairly straightforward endeavor, especially if you’re not super picky about condition and are a patient shopper. Raw examples of even the bigger stars in the set are often available on eBay or at dealer sites, and you can pick up commons in decent condition for $15 or less. It’s also not unheard of for complete sets, or near complete sets, of R322s to come to market. Over the past year, at least five such lots have sold, with prices realized ranging from less than $400 for a predominantly VG-VG/EX set to just over $2500 for a partial set (23/25) with all cards graded EX/NM or better.
Even the card of Hall of Famer Greenberg, the priciest piece in the R322 set, can easily be had for under $300.
The reason that not many high-grade, slabbed 1936 Goudey cards are offered for sale is that they simply do not exist, at least not yet. Of more than 1250 cards submitted for grading to PSA, not a single specimen has received a mark of 10, and only two 9s have been handed out. Many cards suffer from creases and dings, likely a consequence of the game plays on card backs that encouraged collectors to handle their pasteboards regularly. Another common malady is glue or paste on card backs, and that’s not too surprising, either, considering that the cards resemble ordinary photos that might be pasted into a scrapbook.
Swing and a Miss!
The 1936 Goudey set is hurt, in terms of collector appeal, by its small size and lackluster display qualities, but it’s a lack of of big-name stars that has really held the set back. At a time when Jimmie Foxx was terrorizing pitchers, Lou Gehrig was winning his second MVP award, and Babe Ruth had just retired, Goudey missed out on all three legendary sluggers, among many other superstars. The most significant whiff for this set, though, was not including the card of New York Yankees rookie Joe DiMaggio, who, along with Gehrig, helped lead the Bombers to yet another World Series title that fall.
Goudey made up for most of its oversights in player selection with their 1936 “Wide Pens” set, issued as in-store premiums to promote gum cards and designated as R314. The “Wide Pens” moniker references the broad facsimile autograph affixed to each card front, and the set contains 120 cards, including DiMaggio, Ernie Lombardi, and many other baseball luminaries of the time. These cards, too, are frequently available on eBay, and mid-grade copies of DiMaggio can bring more than $500.
The gum maker was not finished, though, and took one more crack at beefing up their baseball offerings with a point-of-sale premium that consisted of 50 hand-colored pastel cards — 25 individual players, 11 action poses, and 14 multi-player cards. Designated as R312, this set is arguably the most attractive of all of Goudey’s 1936 sets, and collectors have gravitated to the DiMaggio card over the years. As with the R314s and R322s, condition is tough for the R312s, and while there are some on eBay, graded copies bring a premium. A DiMaggio first-year card, graded PSA 7, brought more than $2100 in May of 2014.
Sign of the Times
With little curb appeal and poor player selection, the 1936 Goudey set has been largely forgotten by baseball card collectors over the last 80 years, but it is an important issue that marks a fairly dark period in world history. Even while the Great Depression ravaged families and towns in America, the Axis powers were aligning their resources and planning for the aggressive moves that would spawn World War II just three years later. Many of the faces that smile at us from the R322s would head to war when the United States entered the fray in 1941, and the cards serve as a reminder that baseball makes us hopeful for better days ahead, even in the bleakest of moments.
Goudey would try their hand at bland cards again in 1937 before returning to their roots with the colorful “Heads-Up” set in 1938, followed by two years with no card production aside from a couple of point-of-sale premiums in 1939. The gum maker gave it one last go in 1941 and then disappeared from the market forever.
Could the disappointing 1936 set have been the catalyst for Goudey’s baseball card demise? It’s hard to say eight decades on, but the issue stands as an inflection point in collecting history and is, at the very least, an interesting snapshot of the times.