A colorized version of 1940?
If you’ve collected or window shopped the colorful 1941 Play Ball set and it’s comparatively demure predecessor, I’m about to start with something you already know.
Here are the 15 Hall of Famers in the 1941 set.
And here are their cards the year before, minus Pee Wee Reese who did not crack the 1940 checklist. You may notice some similarities.
Aside from the color, some added background elements, and a different tilt to Lefty Gomez’s head, the images are identical. For this reason, the 1941 set is sometimes regarded as a colorization of the 1940 set. (Side note: I had a lot of fun making these!)
Not so fast!
Precisely because the only images from these sets truly burned in my retina are those of the Hall of Famers I was caught by surprise a couple weeks back when I saw these two cards of Babe Dahlgren. (Pro tip: His grandson is a great follow on Twitter.)
Was a different picture really needed just to capture the Babe’s move from the Yankees to the Braves? That would have been odd since numerous contemporary sets managed to update a player’s team without need for a new photo. (See this article for a ton of examples or this article for the set I think did it best.) Or was it the case that I simply didn’t know the 1941 set as well as I thought I did?
Ultimately, the main question I’ll attempt to answer in this article is why some repeated players kept their 1940 photos while others, such as Dahlgren, got new ones.
Before developing the answer further, I’ll take a quick detour to two famous sets from the previous decade. Here are the first 24 cards in the 1934 Goudey set.
And here are the same players from the 1933 set. They should look very familiar.
Were one to generalize from the first 24 cards in the set, one would suppose a great many of the remaining 72 cards in the 1934 set would reuse art from the prior year. Instead, zero did. Cards 1-24 were all repeats. Cards 25-96 were all new.
I can imagine the brain trust at Goudey thinking, “Hey, an all new set would be terrific, but it’d sure be nice to get something onto the shelves early…💡”
Returning to Play Ball, I wondered to what extent a similar rush-to-market image reuse strategy would characterize the first series and whether image reuse would all but disappear in the latter parts of the set. Sixteen and a half hours later…
The first 24 cards in the 1941 Play Ball set feature players from the 1940 set. In each case, the player image is derived from the 1940 Play Ball photo. In that respect, the set—at least so far—follows the precedent of the 1933-34 Goudey sets. None of the 24 players even change teams from one set to the other. The single biggest variation is with card 12, Jimmy Brown, who thanks to a zoom-out manages to (wait for it) regain his footing.
Another similarity to the 1934 Goudey first series is that the first 24 Play Ball cards are disproportionately packed with stars. Nine of the 15 Hall of Famer cards shown at the beginning of this post come from the set’s first quartile, including Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, and Hank Greenberg. (The corresponding count for 1934 Goudey series one is 13 out of 19.)
As Play Ball faced competition from both Goudey and Gum Products Inc. (Double Play) that year, it makes sense that they would want to front-load stars as a means of establishing early dominance. Then again, had they known the 1941 Goudey checklist in advance, they might have realized how little they needed to worry.
The first card in the middle third of the set introduced a bigger change than the previous 24 cards combined. Though both card backs put Gene Moore with the Boston National League squad (Bees in 1940, Braves in 1941), his 1940 card front has him in his old Brooklyn Dodgers uniform.
I’ll use the Gene Moore card to illustrate two quick points. For reference, his move from Brooklyn to Boston came on May 29, 1940.
- The 1941 Moore card clearly shows that Gum Inc had the “technology” to update a guy’s team without taking a new picture. As such, the team change alone does not fully explain the reason a new Dahlgren photo was used.
- The 1940 Moore card is a reminder that procuring updated photos (or manipulating photos) was harder back then than it is now. Even as the back of the card has Moore with Boston, the most recent photo available was a Brooklyn one. Meanwhile, the sets based on artistic renderings were much more able of adjusting player images on the fly.
Where the set really starts to change is at card 27, which starts a streak of 10 of 11 cards that use entirely new player photos. The graph below shows green for players with reused images, yellow for players with new images, and red for players altogether new to the set. Notice that cards 1-24 were all green (i.e., reused images).
As the graph shows, 11 repeated players scored brand new art. The first two of these, cards 27 and 28, along with their 1940 counterparts, are shown below. Do these cards reflect Gum Inc trying to go the extra mile for collectors, or was something else at play?
This middle third of the set also included two brand new players: Albert Brancato (43) and Sid Hudson (46). We will see many more new players in the third series, but this pair is it for cards 1-48.
One player whose card may require a double-take is Buddy Lewis of the Washington Senators. Stare at his 1940 and 1941 Play Ball cards long enough, and you may just notice a subtle difference.
Lest you wonder how the artist screwed up so bad in 1941, Lewis was a left-handed hitter, so the 1941 card is actually the correct one. The symmetry of the “W” logo on the hat and sleeve make this error more difficult to detect than most reversed negatives (e.g., 1957 Topps Hank Aaron, 1989 Upper Deck Dale Murphy)—so difficult that I was unable to find reference to it anywhere online or in the Standard Catalog. Could this be a SABR Baseball Cards blog scoop?! 📰 [UPDATE: Trading Card DB has now updated their 1940 Play Ball Buddy Lewis listing to include this UER. Thanks, guys!]
There are no Hall of Famers (unless you pronounce Jack Wilson with a Spanish accent) in this middle third of the set, though there were some players who were at the time considered stars. Still, whatever your metric for star power, cards 25-48 paled in comparison to cards 1-24.
The final 24 cards in the set introduced significantly more new players than did the first 48. Most famous among the 8 new players was card 54, the rookie card of Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, but close behind Pee Wee are cards of the lesser two DiMaggio brothers: Vince (#61) and Dom (#63). As brother Joe was card 71 in the set, one-fourth of the final dozen cards in the set were DiMaggio cards!
This final series also functioned as a traded/update set, introducing the only four team changes (shown in blue) between the 1940 and 1941 sets—
- Babe Dahlgren (49) – Yankees to Braves
- Morrie Arnovich (57) – Phillies to Giants
- Frank Demaree (58) – Giants to Braves
- Jack Knott (68) – White Sox to Athletics
Interestingly, Dahlgren and Arnovich got new photos while Demaree and Knott did not. Aside from the Dahlgren/Arnovich cards, only one other player, Elbie Fletcher, received a makeover.
WHERE ARE WE?
Having now looked at all 72 cards in the set, we can tally up our findings.
Consistent with the portrayal of 1941 Play Ball at the beginning of this article, the set recycled photos for a full two-thirds of its cards: the entirety of its first series and roughly half the cards in each of the two subsequent series. We have speculated that the 100% recycling in the first series was out of expedience, but was there any rationale or pattern to the selective recycling across the rest of the set? Answering this question will require an even closer look.
An even closer look
Something interesting emerges when we look at where the 62 repeated players fall within the 1940 checklist. With very few exceptions, the 48 players with recycled art (shown in blue) come from the 1940 set’s low numbers (1-144) while the 14 players with new art (shown in yellow) come from the 1940 set’s high numbers (145-240).
We can map the 62 repeated players of 1941 Play Ball onto the 1940 Play Ball checklist, using blue for repeated art and yellow for new art. As you can see, the placement of the blue and yellow cells is not random. With only a few exceptions, we see the blue cells all fall within the 1940 set’s low numbers (1-144) while the yellow cells all fall within the 1940 set’s high numbers (145-240).
Is it possible that this mapping tells us something about the story of the set? What follows is certainly speculative, but I do think there may be something to it.
STORY OF THE SET?
Following the mammoth 240-card release of 1940, I suspect Gum Inc saw little need to push out anything comparable in 1941. The 1940 cards had largely scratched the collecting itch of most young gum chewers, who might now rather spend their hard-earned pennies on cards of airplanes or Superman. Even with a colorful new design, ripping a 1941 Joe Krakauskas when you already had his 1940 card might feel like a penny wasted.
As such, a much more modest offering would have felt more appropriate. (In this respect Gum Inc may have been influenced by Goudey, which followed up its 240-card debut set in 1933 with a much smaller 96-card offering in 1934.) For the moment, let’s assume that an early commitment was made to a set of 48 repeated players, with the possibility of adding more later.
Aside from retired greats, all the top players of the 1940 set could be found among the set’s low numbers, so drawing all 48 players from these first 144 cards made sense, at least for a first draft of the checklist. If there were any drawback to the approach, it was only that it left out the reigning National League batting champion, who (as you might guess) had card 161 in the 1940 set.
“What the hell! No Debs Garms? You’ve gotta be kidding me! Stop what you’re doing and find a way to get a Garms into the set.”
That’s exactly what I picture some guy’s boss yelling upon seeing an early draft of the 1941 checklist. After all, how do you leave out a guy who just hit .355? And what do you do when your boss yells at you and you know he’s right? You go and get the Garms.
And this is how the 48 blue cells in the checklist came to include one lone high number, card 161, among them. Of course, adding Garms also meant subtracting someone else. I know it’s a convenient theory on my part, but I honestly believe THE thing you’d do is swap out another Pirate. Get ready to be outraged, sabermetricians, but I would bet a lot that this is exactly how it went!
We now have the core of the set, 48 players from the previous issue, colorized but otherwise unchanged in any significant way. Perhaps not to a man but at least broadly, these 48 could be construed as a “best of” or “top stars” reissue of the 1940 series. Maybe nobody wanted that second Joe Krakauskas, but they’d be okay with most of these guys.
Of course the set would go on to include 72 cards, not just 48, so how did Gum Inc go about completing the checklist? Perhaps three players were easy targets.
- Elbie Fletcher (1940 Play Ball #103), who may have been part of the original 48
- Babe Dahlgren (1940 Play Ball #3) and Morrie Arnovich (1940 Play Ball #97), whose team changes made them a bit more noteworthy than your typical player
Going back to our 1940 checklist, these three players correspond to the three yellow cells “misplaced” among the set’s low numbers.
There would also be obvious value and appeal to including some brand new players. Though more would have been welcome, the ten Gum Inc selected were strong choices.
Bronk Mancato, who had taken over shortstop duties for the A’s, was probably not a player kids would have killed for, but the other nine players were pretty legit at the time: all-stars, MVP vote getters, popular young rookies, brothers of the Yankee Clipper, etc.
Still needed then were eleven more players, all of whom came from the 1940 set’s high numbers.
With the addition of these eleven, we now have the 24 cards desired. Importantly, and perhaps circularly, all 24 feature completely new images rather than colorized photos from the 1940 set.
On one hand, we might suppose the new images reflected a Gum Inc decision to make at least a portion of the set novel and exciting, not simply a more colorful version of the same old same old. On the other hand, the final eleven additions just mentioned have something in common, something easily missed by the casual collector of the set.
Despite being active at the time, none of these eleven players were included in the 1939 Play Ball set. Okay, but why is that significant? In my article on the 1939 and 1940 sets, I suggest the photographer George Burke likely provided Gum Inc with two photos per player in advance of the 1939 Play Ball set. By 1941 then, both photos would have been used (one in 1939, one in 1940) for players in both the 1939 and 1940 sets. However, for players in the 1940 set but not in the 1939 set, Gum Inc would have still had an unused photo available.
Ultimately, I think this last point helps us understand not just the 1941 Play Ball set but its predecessor as well. We can now imagine Gum Inc having access to photos of 200+ players, only 161 ultimately made it into the 1939 set. For the most part, the 1940 low numbers drew from these same 161 players while populating its high numbers with a mix of managers, coaches, retired stars, and–importantly–players who didn’t make the cut in 1939.
We can see this in the 1940 checklist below where I use red to indicated repeated subjects from the 1939 set and various self-explanatory abbreviations such as MGR for the set’s other subjects.
I speculated earlier that Gum Inc sought out its final 11 players for the 1941 set from its 1940 high numbers checklist, an operation that probably sounded odd. Fortunately, we can now reframe it more sensibly. I think we can better picture Gum Inc looking to their stack of previously unused player photos (i.e., the gray numerical entries above), which–as is evident from the table–happened to correspond almost without exception to the 1940 set’s high numbers.
I’ll close this article with some trivia that draws on the three Play Ball sets together. First, over the 45 players who ended up in all three set, there are two that use the same photo every time. Interestingly, both are the subject of subtle team updates.
- Though Chuck Klein is pictured on the Phillies in 1939 and 1940, his 1939 card back places him with the Pirates.
- Though Gene Moore is pictured on the Dodgers in 1939 and 1940, his 1940 card back places him with the Bees.
And on the flip side, here are the only players with three different photos across the three sets. They are the same three players referred to earlier in this article as the “yellow exceptions.”
Finally, if you enjoyed this article, please do check out my sequel (or maybe prequel) focused on an unusual relationship between the 1939 and 1940 Play Ball sets.