Thursday, December 17, 2009

1939 Play Ball Baseball Card Set

The 1939 Play Ball Baseball Card Set of 161 cards was the first set ever produced by Gum, Inc. of Philadelphia and was a nice improvement over earlier baseball cards.  The Goudey Gum Co. had by then lost interest in baseball cards and had not had a major issue in several years.

The 1939 Play Ball Baseball Card Set had a plain design but featured a larger card, crisper black and white photos and more detailed player descriptions than previous baseball cards.  About half the players in the 1939 Play Ball Baseball card set make their first appearance on a baseball card and are technically considered Rookie Cards.  If it were not for Play Ball, many players from this generation would have never had a baseball card.  The two blue chip 1939 Play Ball rookie cards are Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

One possible flaw of the 1939 Play Ball set is that the players' names are not on the front of the card.  Even if you know your baseball, you often have to turn over the card to determine who the player is.  This flaw must have been made known to the company by collectors of the day, because the 1940 set featured the names on the front of the cards.  If you watch my 1939 Play Ball Set Break video, you will see that I fell into this trap by incorrectly identifying a card as Dizzy Dean! The card is actually his brother Paul!

Another knock on the 1939 Play Ball Baseball card set  is that so many of the stars of the day did not have cards issued in the set because their cards were scheduled to be in this missing third series.  The most noticeable missing player was Lou Gehrig.  In 1939 no one realized that the big guy was sick and that 1939 would be his last season.  Some of the other Hall of Fame players that did not appear in the 1939 Play Ball set are Ernie Lombardi, Johnny Mize, Joe Cronin, Luke Appling, Bob Feller, Lefty Gomez, Lefty Grove and Joe Gordon – just to name a few.

Hank Greenberg

On the back of each 1939 Play Ball baseball card, it states that the set contains 250 cards, but Gum, Inc.  never issued the 3rd Series of cards.  Baseball cards were a new product for the company.  My guess is that the production of the cards took longer than expected and as the season was nearing its end, the company became fearful that the planned 3rd series would not be issued in time to sell enough cards to cover costs.

The 1939 Play Ball baseball set is also very unbalanced in terms of players per team.  For example, there are 19 cards of Dodgers players, 15 cards for the Red Sox and Giants – while the Browns only have 5 players on cards, the Indians have 4, and the White Sox have only 2 of their players featured on cards.

The reason for this misallocation remains a mystery.  If you stood up and said, “Play Ball only bothered making cards of the best players!”, it is a good thought, but please sit back down, this logic does not hold.  The 1938 NL Champion Chicago Cubs had NONE of their players on cards in the 1939 Play Ball set! So, where are the Cubs?

None of the articles or books that I looked at even mentioned this fact.  Neither do the Beckett or SCD Price Guides.  The only reason that I noticed there were no Cubs players in the 1939 set was because of the advanced functionality of the Dean’s Cards website.

If you go to the 1939 Play Ball Reprint set (because it contains every card in the set) on and look at the refinements tool in the right hand margin, you can see how many players are represented for each team. There had to be some reason for this misallocation, but it seems to be lost to history.

The 1939 Play Ball set has been largely ignored in collecting circles over the years.  Much more attention has been paid to the later, more advanced Play Ball sets.  Information about the 1939 set is limited and much of the insight in this article is my own.  Please feel free to add to or correct anything that I missed in the comments section below.

The 1939 Play Ball Baseball card set was a bold and innovative first issue for Gum, Inc. and began a grand new (but short-lived) era for baseball cards.  The Play Ball cards expanded the number of cards issued in the 1940 Play Ball set and added color to the cards for 1941 set.  Gum, Inc. was definitely gaining momentum, but that all changed (as did much of American life) the moment Admiral Yamamoto’s planes dropped their bombs on Pearl Harbor.  Play Ball was done after only three years, having its life cut short by the paper and ink rationing of World War II.

The very nice 1939 Play Ball Reprint set is available at Dean’s Cards for the budget collector.  The 1939 Play Ball Reprint cards are an affordable way to buy a Complete Set or build a Team Set at an affordable price.

Click here to see Dean’s YouTube Video about a 1939 Play Ball set break

Click here to buy 1939 Play Ball

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1939 Play Ball baseball card set facts:
  • Issued by: Gum, Inc. of Philadelphia
  • ACC#: R334
  • Size: 2 ½” x  3 1/8”
  • 161 cards.  Issued in 2 series.
  • Cards are numbered 1 to 162.
  • Card #126 was never issued
  • Innovations: Largest card size to date, actual player photos, detailed biographies, & the players full name.
  • # of Rookie Cards: too many for me to count!  Probably more than half the set.
  • Most Expensive Cards: are the Rookie Cards of #26 Joe Dimaggio and #92 Ted Williams
  • 3 Rookie Cards of Hall-of-Famers: add #7 Bobby Doerr to Ted & Joe D
  • Hall-of-Fame Players: 17 (by my count)
  • HOF Player’s best card: #30 Bill Dickey
  • HOF Player’s worst card: #50 Charlie Gehringer.  Not a bad card, but his hat seems crooked.
  • Specialty cards: #106 Dolly Stark, an Umpire and #113 Al Schacht, the Clown Prince of Baseball
  • Reprint set available

1 comment:

  1. Baseball is the most exciting sport in the world. I'm really looking forward to the new season. Should be the best yet.