A colorized version of 1940?
If you’ve collected or window shopped the colorful 1941 Play Ball set and it’s comparatively drab 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 in the 1940 Play Ball set, minus Pee Wee Reese who did not crack the 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? (Spoiler alert: Bingo!)
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…💡” (My longest–and some would say most heretical if not crackpot–article ever offers a more complicated theory on this.)
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 National Chicle (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.
This middle third of the set also included two brand new players: Al Brancato (43) and Sid Hudson (46). As with cards 1-24, not a single player in 25-48 changes teams from his previous Play Ball card.
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.
Before proceeding to the final third of the 1941 set, I’ll note here that we may have already covered the entirety of the 1941 release. According to a Rich Mueller article in Sports Collectors Daily, only cards 1-48 were issued in 1941, with cards 49-72 added in 1942. (I struggle to wrap my head around this, particularly as it robs the 1941 issue of its most iconic card, but I’ve been wrong many times before!)
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 introduced the only team changes (shown in blue) between 1940 and 1941—
- 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 total makeover.
By the end of this article, I hope to offer a credible explanation for what at the moment may present as two oddities of series three:
- Why did two traded guys get new photos while two traded guys didn’t?
- Why did Fletcher get a new photo?
Wish me luck!
An even closer look
Of the 72 cards in the 1941 Play Ball set, 10 are of brand new players, 48 repeat a 1940 player and his image, and 14 repeat a 1940 player but swap in a new image. Though it’s not immediately evident what it all means, an unexpected pattern emerges when the 48 photo repeats (blue) and 14 photo swaps (yellow) are plotted against the 1940 checklist.
With only three exceptions, all the yellows are at the end of the set, and all the blues are at the beginning of the set. (Blue card 161 may be considered slightly out of place, and I’ll return to it later.) The three yellow exceptions are…wouldn’t you know it!…Dahlgren (3), Arnovich (97), and Fletcher (103)!
The other 11 yellow cells, all of which sit neatly within a run of 32 cards near the end of the 1940 checklist, are pictured below, alongside their 1941 counterparts.
Is there any pattern or common denominator behind these cards that suggests why these 11 (or 14 counting the oddball three) players were singled out for new photos? I will share a few things I don’t think it can be and then wrap up with my leading theory at the moment.
- Rights and permissions to images – One reason to find a new photo would be if the permission to use certain photos did not extend into 1941. Perhaps Gum Inc never got around to securing rights to the photos in the final series of the 1940 set, hence was unable to use them in 1941. However, with the exception of certain retired stars, my belief is that all photos in the two sets came from the same photographer, George Burke. While this doesn’t completely preclude rights issues, it makes them less likely.
- Damaged photos/negatives – Is it possible the original photographic sources that would supported image reuse in 1941 were somehow lost or destroyed? It’s always possible, but I would think the Plan B for that would be to choose different players rather than take new pictures of the impacted players.
- No reason, just random – The non-random distribution of the blue vs yellow cells on the checklist convince me that randomness was not at play.
My best guess
Author’s note: What follows is largely speculative and quite long. It’s okay to skip it you came to SABR for Research with a capital R!
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.
Naturally, selecting 72 random players from the 1940 checklist would have done little to boost the appeal of the new set. I believe the plan was to start with 48 cards (two series) reflecting the “best of” the 1940 set. These cards would constitute the core of the new set and be tolerated if not welcomed by collectors due to the colorized images and preponderance of top stars.
Selecting these 48 cards would be easy. Aside from retired greats, all the top players of the 1940 set could be found among the set’s low numbers (1-144). Selecting one third of those cards to reprise in 1941 was all that was needed to arrive at 48. There was only one small rub to the approach, which is that it would leave out the reigning National League batting champion.
“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 a Pirates teammate. 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.
From there, the brain trust at Gum Inc could take the set in a couple of different directions. Extending the same formula for another one or two series was certainly possible, but the talent pool would now be far thinner. The other approach would be to abandon the 1940 blueprint entirely and offer collectors something they didn’t already have.
First and foremost, that second strategy led to the introduction of ten brand new players who had not appeared at all in the 1940 set.
Bronk, 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. Without a doubt these players brought more star power than your average ten leftovers from the 1940 checklist, and of course there was the added bonus that these were good players kids didn’t already have from the year before.
The inclusion of these 10 newcomers left the set only 14 cards shy of completion. The 1940 low numbers had been cleaned out, top newcomers had been added, and there was only one reservoir of talent yet to be tapped: the largely low wattage 1940 high numbers. Retired immortals aside, pickings were somewhat slim, but on the bright side only 14 players were still needed, and really not even 14.
Here is what I believe went down in some Philly boardroom circa spring 1941.
- Fletcher, fresh off his unceremonious dumping, was the first to make the cut.
- Dahlgren and Arnovich, whose team changes offered an added jolt, joined the party.
- And finally, the dreaded high numbers were scoured for another eleven players.
Realizing this last group brought the least sizzle on its own, a decision was made to spruce up this final fourteen with all new photos. And from there, the rest is history! (UPDATE: See Epilogue for an alternate theory that probably has this one beat.)
I can’t say I’d bet a million dollars that what I’ve just described is a 100% accurate depiction of how the 1941 Play Ball set was designed. It’s possible it’s not even 10% accurate. Either way, I will make sure you don’t regret reading all the way to the end of this post by rewarding you with perhaps the tastiest eye candy in the universe.
Well this was unexpected. As it turns out, the follow-up article I wrote after this one helped me understand the 1941 set even better. If you don’t care to read the article, the short version is this:
- The 1939 Play Ball set included a mix of portraits and action poses. Ditto for 1940.
- Where a player had a portrait in 1939 he got an action pose in 1940 and vice versa.
- The result was across the two sets nearly every player got a portrait and an action pose.
- For each of these players, I suspect both photos were taken in 1939, with the one not used on the 1939 card set aside for the following year.
Back to the article at hand, you’ll recall this graphic from near the end. These were the 11 players from the 1940 high numbers who ended up with new photos in the 1941 set. However, there is another thing these 11 players have in common.
Of all the players in the 1940 high numbers and the 1941 set, these are the only players who are not in the 1939 set. That by itself is kind of neat. But of course there’s more. Take notice of how many of these players have both a portrait and an action shot across the two sets.
Just as (I speculate) George Burke shot portraits and action shots in 1939 for each player in the 1939 checklist, I suspect he did the same in 1940 for any newcomers to the 1940 checklist. If so, what we are seeing in nine of these eleven cards from 1941 is the leftover shot not used in 1940.
So perhaps the reason for the new photos on these 11 cards is what I initially proposed in this article—i.e., that Gum Inc wanted to spruce up what might otherwise be the most boring cards in the whole set. I am now more inclined to believe that the use of the new photos was simply because Gum Inc had the photos and hadn’t already used them anywhere else.
I’ll close the epilogue with a few notables that come only from looking at all three sets together. First, here are the only two players (of 45 total) appearing in all three sets who ended up with the same photo every time. The first is a familiar name, and the second was introduced in the “Cards 25-48” section of this post.
And on the flip side, here are the only players with three different photos across the three sets, referred to earlier in this article as the “yellow exceptions.”
I’d better stop now before the epilogue grows even longer than the post!