Super Asymmetry meets Play Ball

Author’s note: I suspect what I’m presenting here must have been obvious to the collectors of the day. However, any record of it seems to have gone unpublished. I am hopeful that I am sharing something new and interesting to our readership, but feel free to let me know in the comments if this is more “knew” than “new!”

My previous Cardboard Crosswalk examined the 1941 Play Ball set’s connections to its 1940 predecessor. As I researched and wrote the piece, it was only a passing thought that the 1939 debut offering would contribute anything essential to the story, so I left it alone. It certainly didn’t occur to me that the connection between the 1939 and 1940 set might be the single most unusual and interesting connection between any two baseball card sets ever produced.

Here, then, is the story of an incredible secret, perfectly hidden in the one place nobody would ever think to look: in plain sight.

Williams and DiMaggio

We’ll start the story with the two top cards in the 1939 set, shown here with their 1940 follow-ups.

Williams and Joe D.jpg

There is a nice asymmetry to the four cards. As Williams moves from an action pose to a portrait, DiMaggio does just the opposite.

For collectors undecided as to whether they prefer portraits vs action poses, it might seem fortuitous to end up with one of each. The secret of the sets, however, is that there is no happy accident here. This asymmetry is THE defining feature of the 1939-40 Play Ball sets! Let’s take a closer look.

Repeated players

The 1939 Play Ball set consists of 161 cards. (The cards are numbered to 162, but there is no card 126.) Of the 161 subjects featured in the set, 137 are repeated in the larger 240-card 1940 release.

As the graph below shows, these repeated players (red) appear entirely within the first 176 cards of the 1940 set. Where we already saw that most repeats from 1940 to 1941 reused photos, colorizing them in the process, the opposite was true from 1939 to 1940. Of the 137 repeated subjects, only 11 (yellow) reused the previous year’s photos.

1940 art repeats

The other 126 used new photos. It is these 126 slots on the checklist that will be our main focus from this point forward.

Starting off 24 for 24

Here are the first six such cards on the 1940 checklist. (All are Yankees as the 1940 checklist was largely organized by team.) Beneath each card is its 1939 counterpart.

Batch 1rev

The three action poses from 1940 correspond to three portraits from 1939 and vice versa: Super Asymmetry nearly 80 years before Drs. Cooper and Fowler even proposed the idea on the Big Bang Theory!

Now let’s head to the next 6 cards: 7-11 and 13. And look at that! For every portrait in 1940 an action shot in 1939 and vice versa. Super Asymmetry again!

Batch 2

We’ll pause here, having examined the first 12 repeated players in the 1940 set, to consider the odds of such an outcome having happened by chance alone. While more complicated modeling leading to even lower probabilities is possible, the simplest and best case scenario would be (1/2)^12 = 1/4096 ≈ 0.00024.

And now, onto the next 6 cards: 14-19. Perhaps you’re not even surprised at this point. The probability of asymmetry through the first 18 cards? One in 262,144!

Batch 3.jpg

Now here are cards 20-25. The probability by chance now drops to around 1 in 17 million!

Batch 4

Definitely not random!

By now I hope I’ve convinced you that the swapping between portraits and action poses for each player is no accident but a very intentional design feature of the set. Though it’s not something I can confirm, my suspicion is that the 1939 Play Ball set’s photographer, George Burke, took multiple pictures and poses of each player. (Perhaps a reader will someday confirm or deny if the 1940 photos date to 1939 or earlier.)

Once the photos were taken, I believe one of two things happened.

  1. Burke provided one portrait and one action shot per player to Gum Inc, who used one in 1939 and the other in 1940.
  2. Burke provided a larger number of photos per player, and someone at Gum Inc. made the intentional design decision to toggle portrait/action.

Of these two possibilities, I regard the first as more likely for two reasons. One, it meant less work for Gum Inc. in preparing each set. Two, the heavy reuse of photos in 1941 would seem less likely if Gum Inc. still had unused photos available.

Either way, ready to see more cards?

Two dozen more for good measure

Here are the next 24 repeated players in the 1940 set, along with their 1939 counterparts.

Batch 5

Batch 6

Batch 7

Batch 8.jpg

Once again, each 1940 card shows the opposite pose of its predecessor from 1939. We are now a perfect 48 for 48. Perhaps you can predict the ending at this point.

Not so fast…

As the 1940-1941 crosswalk showed, a set can start out one way and finish another way. Indeed we will not go 126 for 126, which is why we are dealing with only Super Asymmetry rather than Perfect Asymmetry!

Before looking at the cards themselves, I’ll present an updated 1940 Play Ball checklist with nine new shaded cells corresponding to the set’s asymmetry exceptions, i.e., cards where either the 1939 and 1940 photos were both portraits or both action poses. I’ve used green for seven of these cells and blue for two of them.

1940 corrected grid.gif

The seven green cells

First up is Pete Appleton, card 128, who moves from the Senators to the White Sox. (As a side note useful to Appleton supercollectors, Pete Appleton began his big league career as Pete Jablonowski, the name used on his 1933 Goudey and 1934 Canadian Goudey cards.)


Lynn “Line Drive” Nelson, card 135, moves from the Athletics to the Tigers, where he certainly lived up to his nickname. Though his at bats were limited as a pitcher, he parlayed his famously low launch angle into a .348 batting average.


Beau Bell, card 138 and French for Beautiful Beautiful, moves from the Tigers to the Indians in his two portraits poses.


Joe Vosmik, card 144, moves from the Red Sox to the Dodgers, a transfer camouflaged by the matching hats but revealed by the differing jerseys.


Pinky Shoffner, card 149, moves from the Braves to the Reds just in time to win the pennant.


Ray Hayworth, card 155, changes sides in the Senior Circuit’s crosstown rivalry.


Finally, imminent batting champ Debs Garms, card 161, moves from the Bees to the Pirates.


What all seven of these “green cell” players have in common, then, is that they changed teams, essentially rendering any additional photos from the prior year obsolete. These exceptions make sense, in other words.

However, in keeping with the main storyline of this article, I’ll point out another commonality you may have already noticed. In each case, the 1939 and 1940 photos of these seven players are portraits. From what I can tell, all team changes in the 1940 set resulted in a portrait, whether the 1939 card was already a portrait (as above) or whether the 1939 card was an action shot (e.g., Elden Auker, Red Sox to Browns).

We might imagine then some “emergency” photo shoot where only a single quick portrait was taken, or we might surmise a second, more current source of photos where again only portraits were provided.

It is at this point that our analysis of the 1940 Play Ball set would be ready to tie a bow around if not for two inconvenient cards, the “blue cells” on our checklist.

The blue cells

Recall that the blue cells signified players in both sets who stayed on the same team but did not toggle between portrait and action. Our checklist showed two such examples, Cards 150 and 151. These cards belonged to Cincinnati players Whitey Moore and Eddie Joost. (Side note: Joost’s stat line upon moving to the A’s in 1947 makes it look like he might have!)

Blue Guys.jpg

Honestly, I have no explanation at all for why Moore has portraits in both sets. As for Joost, I wonder if the 1939 card image, which definitely has a different feel from the rest of the set, may have come from his 1938 season with the Kansas City Blues, in which case we might consider him yet another example of the seven portrait-portrait team change pairs we looked at earlier.

Appendix for the die-hards

Early in the article I mentioned that 11 of the repeated players in the 1940 set did not get new photos. For completeness, I wanted to at least show them. In some cases, cropping, exposure, or even tilt is a little different, but I believe the source photos to be the same.

1940  to 1941 same pics.jpg

For what it’s worth, I notice a heavy preponderance of Dodgers (5/11) and Pirates (4/11), whether or not there’s any significance to that.

Author: jasoncards

I mainly enjoy writing about baseball and baseball cards, but I've also dabbled in the sparsely populated Isaac Newton trading card humor genre. As of January 2019 I'm excited to be part of the SABR Baseball Cards blogging team, and as of May 2019 Co-Chair of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee.

8 thoughts on “Super Asymmetry meets Play Ball”

  1. I enjoyed the presentation you gave on this at the Chicago SABR meeting. I started to suspect, from your Williams and Dimaggio pictures example, that maybe both were taken at the same time, and your first-24 example brought confidence to that. I figure, baseball cards were probably not big business then, and corralling all those players for another set of pictures made no sense, just so much more effort than necessary. So it makes sense, except … why did they mix them up? Were they choosing which pic looked better for each player in the first series, and then you got the worse one next year? Or was it more about creating visual balance in each set, and they’d planned this all along? Hmm.


    1. Thanks, Tom! Great to have you on hand. Right, makes sense to grab both photos at once. As for which of the pair to use in 1939, could have been random, could have been balance as you suggest, or could have even been someone picking his favorite since there wouldn’t have yet been any guarantee of a next set.


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