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 However, any record of it seems to have gone unpublished.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 was happy to save the 10+ hours of work any deeper look would provide. 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) came entirely from the first two-thirds of the set. Whereas most repeats from 1940 to 1941 reused photos, 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 (92%) 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. I imagine there are two ways this arrangement could have come about.

  1. The photographer, George Burke, could have provided Gum Inc with two images of each player: a portrait and an action pose. Once one was chosen for the 1939 set, the other then became the default photo for the 1940 set.
  2. Alternately, Gum Inc could have been more intentional by either drawing an opposite pose from some larger collection of player photos or asking Burke to provide the opposite of whatever he’d provided the year before.

Either one of these approaches seems to require more planning, consideration, and expense than anything I would have thought possible at the time. It’s really quite remarkable. (And if you are dying to know which of these explanations is more likely, read on till the end. I have a good guess till someone debunks it in the comments!)

Before continuing through the set, I’ll also pause to comment on the connection (so far) between Super Asymmetry and the 1941 set. Granted there were not many players who made the checklists of all three Play Ball sets, but let’s consider those who did (e.g,. Williams, DiMaggio). Gum Inc had already provided both a portrait and an action pose. Were they to provide another portrait of Teddy Ballgame, they’d be copying 1940, and were they to provide an action pose, they at least broadly be copying 1939. The strategy they had employed to make 1940 as different as possible from 1939 had led them to a no-win situation for 1941.

Rather than accept defeat and go with one or the other, Gum Inc pulled the first (and perhaps only!) Kobayashi Maru of the trading card world. By moving to color, they ensured the 1941 series would look completely different from either of its predecessors regardless of whether portraits or posed action was used.

Two dozen more for good measure

Here are the next 24 repeated players, 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.

1940 corrected grid.gif

The seven green cells

First up is Pete Appleton, card 128, who moves from the Senators to the White Sox. (All seven green cell card will involve team changes.) 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.

Appleton

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.

Nelson

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

Bell.jpg

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.

Vosmik.jpg

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

Shoffner

Ray Hayworth, card 155, changes sides in the Big Apple’s crosstown rivalry.

Hayworth.jpg

Finally, imminent batting champ Debs Garms, card 161 and a featured player in the 1940-41 crosswalk, moves from the Bees to the Pirates.

Garms2.jpg

Our analysis of the 1940 Play Ball set would be ready to tie a bow around if not for two inconvenient cards, highlighted in blue on our checklist.

The two blue cells

Cards 150 and 151 in the 1940 set belong to Cincinnati players Whitey Moore and Eddie Joost, whose stat line upon moving to the A’s makes it look like he might have!

Blue Guys.jpg

As often happens in the research I do, I have no explanation at all for why these two players had portraits in each set. Looking back at the checklist, I suppose it’s possible that whoever was responsible for cards 143-151 simply didn’t get the memo, and I suppose it’s also possible that Gum Inc simply had no action shots available. At any rate, two is not a big number.

Final thoughts

I speculated earlier as to the two most likely explanations for this near-perfect pairing of portraits and action poses. I am ready now to narrow this down to the first of the two.

Let’s assume that the photographer, George Burke, initially took a portrait and action shot of each of the players in the 1939 set, that Gum Inc simply slotted one for 1939 and the other for 1940 as needed.

The one place this approach would fail to provide for the 1940 release would be if a player changed teams. In these cases the leftover photos would no longer be current enough to use. As we have just seen, eight of the ten exceptions to portrait-action pairs occur with players who did exactly that.

The next clue actually came at the very start of this article. (I know it’s bad form to end a Super Asymmetry article with this kind of symmetry, but sometimes it just happens.)

Williams and Joe D2.jpg

Folks I know who are good at such things tell me these photos of the Splendid Splinter and Yankee Clipper were taken in 1939. (Among the “evidence” presented: “Williams didn’t smile for the camera after 1939.”) If so then it’s easy to imagine a similar story for the other 135 repeated players in the 1940 set.

However, this is a case where the how and the why are less notable than the what. The near-perfect pairing of portraits and action poses is the main headline here as such a connection between the 1939 and 1940 Play Ball sets is something unseen before or after in the long history of the hobby. That this pairing could go unnoticed (or at least unpublished) all this time makes it that much more remarkable.

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. The first two, Chuck Klein and Gene Moore, appeared in the 1941 set with colorized versions (and uniform updates) of their 1939-40 photos. The other nine players were not part of the 1941 set at all, hence any variety in their cards was limited to black/white vs sepia, slight differences in zoom, and an occasional tilt.

1940  to 1941 same pics.jpg

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.

6 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.

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    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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