I know the historians among you are already protesting. “But the Bambino was never traded!” Details, details. You’re thinking of the real world, but I’m talking about the cardboard world.
The year was 1933, and a fourteen-year-old chewing gum company, having tucked its poisoning scandals safely in the past, was making its first foray into the baseball card world. The effort would be an ambitious one, promising young chewers a 240-card series of baseball stars.
This set, known as R319 or 1933 Goudey, was destined to become one of the most popular and iconic trading card sets of all time, to this day sharing headroom with 1909-11 T206, 1952 Topps, and (depending on your age) 1989 Upper Deck on our hobby’s Mt Rushmore of classic baseball card sets.
Before we can get to the Babe Ruth trade, it’s necessary to understand that the Goudey set was produced as ten sheets of 24 cards each. An uncut example of the fifth sheet is shown below. It includes card 53, the first of four Babe Ruth cards that would appear in the set.
Probably not, but perhaps you’ve just done the math and wondered how card 53 would have ended up on the fifth sheet, which ostensibly should have featured cards 97-120. In fact, the Goudey set used extensive skip numbering, instead filling the fifth sheet with card numbers 53-57, 68-74, and 80-91. (I also believe a second factor was at play and that this particular sheet was originally designed as the fourth sheet.)
Here is the state of the Goudey checklist following the release of the fifth sheet. Note the gaps from 97-99, 106-114, 121-129, and perhaps 142-144.
But now let’s talk about that sixth sheet in greater depth. In particular, we’ll focus on five cards from it for which early proof versions exist.
When you think of card 106 in the 1933 Goudey set, you most likely think of the famous Napoleon Lajoie card. What you may not know is that an early proof card of Leo Durocher first bore this card number before ultimately receiving card 147 in the set.
Likewise, four other cards from the sixth sheet have proof cards that are “misnumbered.”
- Eddie Farrell #107 (released as 148)
- Luke Sewell #123 (released as 163)
- Al Spohrer #124 (released as 161)
- Rube Walberg #128 (released as 145)
Returning to the set’s checklist, the proof (incorrect) numbers of each are shown in pink and the final (correct) numbers of each are shown in blue.
In all five cases, the numbers of the proof cards land within the checklist’s gaps whereas the final numbers assigned avoid the gaps entirely. Though it would require the discovery of many more proof cards to be certain, the numbering of the known proofs at least suggests that an early draft version of the sixth sheet might have filled all 24 gaps prior to renumbering.
Ir reality, the sixth sheet filled only two of the gaps, 143 and 144, while adding the next 21 consecutive numbers to 165.
If you’ve done the math again, you may be pondering how it is that a sheet of 24 cards might only check off 23 numbers. The answer is that the sixth sheet contains the only double-print of the set, Babe Ruth’s card 144, which can be found twice in the second row of the sheet. The sheet also includes Ruth’s red 149 card and the renumbered Farrell (148), Durocher (147), Walberg (145), Sewell (163), and Spohrer (161) cards.
To the extent the five proof cards identified thus far hint at a draft version of this sheet with different numbers, a second even more intriguing question is natural: did the draft version include both Ruth 144 cards, or was a second one added in some later stage of production?
Thickening the plot and potentially answering that question is the existence of a sixth proof card.
Like the other five proofs, its number 121 fits perfectly within the theorized numbering of the original sixth sheet.
However, this particular card did not end up on the set’s sixth sheet. It was bumped to the next one and assigned card number 167.
What this suggests to me is that there were at least two significant changes made to the 1933 Goudey set’s sixth sheet prior to final production.
- Cards were renumbered to continue the set’s skip counting scheme.
- Jack Russell was bumped to make room for a second Ruth 144 card.
So while I may never own the 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth card I’ve coveted since I was nine, I may well own the player he was traded for, and isn’t that almost as good?! 😀 (Spoiler alert: No.)
So that’s the story I intended to tell when I began work on this article. Unfortunately, facts have a way of ruining a good story, and that’s exactly what happened as I chased down some last-minute research on the topic.
While I am unable to find a photo of the reverse, I trust the Robert Edwards Action catalog enough to add this Al Thomas card to the list of numbering variations. While the true Thomas card (pictured at right) carries number 169 in the Goudey set, the proof card (pictured at left) is numbered 127.
On one hand, a proof card numbered 127 fits squarely within the numbering range of the other proof cards.
On the other hand, like the Russell, it bounced to the seventh sheet of the set.
Had Thomas remained on the sixth sheet along with Durocher, Walberg, et. al., his proof card would have fit my original thesis to a tee. However, with that not being the case, we are left with two possible conclusions.
- The whole theory was rubbish to begin with
- The theory was mostly right except that TWO Ruth cards were added at the end!
I find this second alternative the more attractive one, largely for self-serving reasons, but also because it begs the question: Which two?
I’ll close with a few quick notes on the proof cards discussed in this article.
- While the most evident differences between the proofs and their standard issues are the card numbers on the back, there are also differences on the fronts of the cards. The typesetting of the player name is a frequent difference. For example, the proof version of Al Thomas almost looks like ALTHOMAS (one word) while the standard version separates his first and last name with a period (AL. THOMAS) and crashes into his hat.
- While there is some mystery surrounding the precise timing of these proofs, a strong clue comes from the Durocher card. Because his proof has him with the Cardinals, a trade that occurred May 7, 1933, it is clear his proof card was produced after that date.
- Thus far each of the proof cards identified with the possible exception of the Durocher is a 1/1, at least as far as known copies are concerned.
- According to hobby lore, most or all of the proofs came from a single partial sheet obtained by hobby pioneer Woody Gelman directly from a source at Goudey. (An alternative explanation has been put forth with respect to the Durocher, claiming it was instead created by hobbyists post-1933 as a means of helping collectors complete their sets.)
Author’s note: If you are aware of other 1933 Goudey proofs with numbers that differed from their final printing, please let me know. Following the line of thought in this article, I imagine there might have been 20+ originally.