Author’s note: This is the first in a series of pieces that will offer a mix of facts, unknowns, and speculation on one of the Hobby’s most iconic brands. This installment looks primarily at the inaugural set’s unusual numbering scheme.
Founded in 1919, the Goudey Gum Company produced baseball cards from 1933 to 1941. Much like the Wallflowers, Counting Crows, and N.W.A., nearly all their greatest hits were packed into their debut offering. For those who not only collect cards but research them and write about them as well, the 1933 Goudey set provides near endless opportunity for inspiration, speculation, and frustration, much of which I intend to share in what is about to become a very long series of very long posts, even by Jason standards.
Before plunging into the deep end, I’ll start with some basics about the 1933 Goudey set, designated as R319 in Jefferson Burdick’s American Card Catalog.
- The set officially includes 240 cards. Of these, 239 were produced and distributed in packs in 1933. The set’s final card, a very scarce Napoleon Lajoie, was produced in late 1934.
- The set includes four cards of Babe Ruth, along with multiple cards of Gehrig, Foxx, and many other Hall of Famers.
- The majority of the cards in the set are instantly recognizable from the red “Big League Chewing Gum” banner along the bottom of the card fronts. However, nearly a third of the set omits the banner, in my opinion yielding some of the most attractive trading cards ever made.
the missing banners
The banner-less cards in the set stirred my initial interest in 1933 Goudey as an object of research. It felt odd to me that Goudey would arbitrarily omit their advertising banner at all, let alone across a random (so I thought) scattering of cards across their checklist, indicated by the yellow cells below. (The blue cell is the Lajoie card, which lives in a category all its own.)
Were the only cards missing a banner to be found at the very end of the checklist, I might have supposed Goudey simply forgot (!) the banner, ran low on red ink, or made an intentional decision that the cards looked better without a banner. But then what of these oddball occurrences like 97-99 or 142? Was I asking too much that there be some rhyme or reason to the approach?
I should emphasize here that for serious students of the Goudey set there never was a mystery. They already knew what I did not. Namely, the set was produced on printing sheets of 24 cards each, numbered rather haphazardly. (Source: Kevin Glew/PSA.)
For example, here is the set’s fifth production sheet, with card numbers 53-57, 68-74, and 80-91.
Those random yellow cells of banner-less cards in my table then? They simply reflect Sheets 8-10!
While we still don’t know the why we at least have a better understanding of the which.
much, much, much, much more on the sheets
If you’ve been reading my posts for long, you know there is little I love more than wholly frivolous analyses of checklist patterns. Imposing order, however forced, on randomness is kind of my thing, at least when it comes to baseball cards. (As for the rest of my life, I’m more inclined to the opposite.) Therefore, is it any surprise that the oddball numbering patterns of the Goudey sheets captured my attention immensely?
In the eleven sections that follow, I’ll offer a description of each sheet (one of them twice!), along with a mini-analysis of numbering.
For veteran Goudey collectors, the first sheet is quickly identified by “leadoff man” Benny Bengough in the top left position. Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and several other Hall of Famers are easy to spot as well. The sheet also features an orderly background progression from red to yellow to green to blue, a feature that will characterize early sheets in the set but not later ones.
The chart below shows the card numbers for the 24 cards on the sheet.
About the most notable feature of the numbering here is that it’s not 1-24. The cards themselves cluster into three separate streaks of 5, 11, and 8 while leaving two sizeable gaps: one from 6-24 and one from 36-44.
My personal theory, based on separate research, is that these 24 cards were not released as a single series but released concurrently with the second sheet.
The second sheet is a little lighter in star power but still pretty loaded. This is 1933 Goudey after all! Aesthetically, I particularly like the purple-brown backgrounds in the sheet’s third row.
The card numbers on the second sheet (yellow cells) completely fill one of the major gaps from the first sheet and partially fill the other gap.
Compulsive set collectors of the era, who likely had no idea the cards were produced in sheets of 24, might have found themselves buying more and more packs in hopes of landing the elusive run of cards from 41-44. And if so, they would have been disappointed, just not for long.
The third sheet introduces the set’s first landscape card (top left) but more importantly includes Lou Gehrig. Retired great Eddie Collins, in the set as an executive, seems a mysterious choice for inclusion, but he will soon enough be joined by another retired great, not even counting the Nap Lajoie card that will complete the set the following year. We also have some rich dark blue backgrounds to add to our growing color palette.
Numerically, that eyesore of a gap from 41-44 is finally closed, but four new gaps are created.
Yes, I skipped Sheet 4, though we will come to it soon. Sheet 5, which I wanted to show first, includes the yellow Ruth (card 53) as well as the second retired great (Tris Speaker). Perhaps surprisingly, nine minor leaguers (counting Speaker, who appears with the Kansas City Blues) are included as well.
The reason I bumped this sheet ahead of Sheet 4 is the numbering of its 24 cards. Here’s how they fall in the checklist.
Sure enough, the addition of Sheet 5 to Sheets 1-3 provides for a clean run of cards, 1-96, uninterrupted. It would be possible (and perhaps even correct!) to read nothing of significance into this fact, but I prefer to believe that this collection of cards represented a possible stopping point in the set.
Yes, the card backs from the very beginning promised 240 cards, but it was not uncommon at that time for a large set to span multiple years. Goudey’s 216-card Indian Gum set that debuted the very same year was such an example, though in fairness its card backs did not initially promise all 216 cards.
Could there have been a “Plan A” to cap the initial release at 96 cards, or was this a “Plan B” to invoke only if sales proved low? Or is the way the numbering of the fifth sheet fills the holes from the first three sheets merely interesting but insignificant? Either way, “merely interesting” is still interesting.
Instead, Sheets 1-3 were followed by (of course!) Sheet 4. Whatever good news this sheet brought to young collectors was probably overshadowed by the fact that they’d now been buying gum cards for months and still hadn’t pulled a Bambino. “Could it be he wasn’t even in the set,” they might have wondered.
As preposterous a proposition that might have seemed, it applied perfectly well to several other sets of the period including 1933 DeLong, 1933 George Miller, 1934 Goudey, and 1934-36 Diamond Stars.
Still, at least for the collectors keeping count, the numbering of these new cards offered comfort that there were still more cards to come. Just look at all these gaps!
Sheet 5 (again)
I’ve already introduced this sheet once, but now I can give you its actual impact on the Goudey checklist.
I’ll also show what might have been an explicit attempt to offset collecting mutiny. “Kids, we promise! Babe Ruth is in the set. We repeat: Babe Ruth is in the set.”
Finally, I’ll point out a somewhat overlooked feature of the set’s first 120 cards (i.e., Sheets 1-5). All 120 subjects to this point are different. Though a hallmark feature of the 1933 Goudey set is its multiple cards of top stars, they would all come in the set’s second half.
If Sheet 5, particularly if issued out of sequence, would have tidied up the release, Sheet 6 is the one that blew it up. Still, if there was a time to buy Goudey cards, this was sure it! Just look at the sheet’s last column: Ruth, Ruth, Foxx, and Gehrig. You’ve also no doubt spotted a third Ruth on the sheet, and perhaps you even spied that Moe Berg!
Now let’s see where these 24 cards fell on the checklist.
Much like Sheet 4, this sheet filled none of the gaps left by prior releases. The numbering for this sheet is consecutive (143-165), something we had not seen earlier though we will see it again with Sheets 7 and 8. Most notably, however, the sheet includes only 23 card numbers. The two Ruth cards in the second row are both numbered 144 and represent the set’s only double-print. Much more on this later.
As the Ruth cards make immediately evident, the Goudey set now includes multiple cards of select players.
- Lou Gehrig – Card 160 identical to card 92 (Sheet 3)
- Jimmie Foxx – Card 154 identical to card 29 (Sheet 1)
- Babe Ruth – Cards 144 and 149 both different from card 53 (Sheet 5), though all three came from the same Charles Conlon image
Feel free to read a much earlier post on 1933 Canadian Goudey for more detail, but this is as good a time as any to note that its crazy hodgepodge of a checklist corresponds exactly to Sheets 1, 2, 3, and 6 from the U.S. set.
It wouldn’t. Yes, there is a fourth Ruth, card 181, and yes, that is the great Charlie Berry in the lower left hand corner. And yes, we even get the set’s first “traded card” in the person of Rogers Hornsby (Cardinals infielder to Browns manager) along with new poses of star players Joe Cronin and Heinie Manush…
But we also get six cards of minor leaguers and a (barely) image variation of a player I can’t imagine kids really wanted or needed. On the left I present George Walberg’s card 145 from Sheet 6; on the right, his card 183 from Sheet 7. “Why two,” you might wonder. Fair question. (Also see Al Corwin, 1953 Bowman.)
My own guess is it was a mistake, plain and simple. The cards are similar enough to constitute an image variation of the dullest degree but different enough to require actual work. I’d even hazard a guess that the cards were made by two different artists. Plus, if this was just Goudey being lazy, why go with two different bios!
Now truth be told, Walberg was hardly the only non-superstar to earn two cards in the set. However, as we’ll see on Sheet 10, the other ones all had a very logical explanation.
As for the checklist, Sheet 7 simply picked up where Sheet 6 left off, annoying any set collectors hoping to finally rubber band the set’s first 100. Goshdarnit, Goudey! Where the heck are cards 97-99?!
Unlike Sheet 6, in which the numbering of the cards within the sheet was a bit haphazard, Sheet 7 is numbered in perfect sequence.
Sheet 7 also marked the end of one of the set’s most defining features, the Big League Chewing Gum banner. As such, the remaining cards in the set are less iconic but more attractive.
Mel Ott’s first (but not lowest numbered) card in the set appears in this release, also highlighted by Hall of Famers Gabby Hartnett, Hack Wilson, Earl Averill, and Rick Ferrell. I’m a particular fan of the card of Tigers ace Tommy Bridges, which itself is part of a Goudey mini-mystery I will return to later in this series of articles.
The Ott card, among other cards on this and later sheets, should also put to rest any theory that the “Big League Chewing Gum” banner was omitted to save on red ink.
While the new card design is easy to spot, a more overlooked property of the sheet is that all 24 players are brand new additions to the set, reversing a trend toward duplication in the prior two sheets.
Rather than fill any checklist gaps, Sheet 8 kept the foot on the gas and brought the checklist well into the 200s.
The next sheet in the set brought 24 more beauties–again all new players–and the end of the regular season releases. If I had to guess, I’d also assign the lowest production run of the set to these 24 cards. Too bad.
There was still room on the checklist for this sheet to rattle off the next 24 slots. However, for the first time in a while, some early gaps were at least partially filled. For the set collectors out there, it must have been particularly satisfying to finally kill off cards 97-99 and 142.
The final release of the 1933 Goudey set is known as the “World Series sheet” and features the top stars from that year’s Fall Classic between the Giants and Senators. Note that I didn’t say the previous year’s Fall Classic. This was a real-time, ToppsNow-like look at the World Series that just happened.
I can’t say I like these cards as much as the previous 48, possibly the result of some “hurry up” to get the cards out before the interests of kids moved on from baseball to other things. Though the sheet included several players already featured earlier in the set, Goudey nonetheless went the extra mile by producing genuinely new artwork for 23 of the players. The only duplication came with Joe Cronin, whose card 109 (Sheet 10) was very similar to his earlier card 189 (Sheet 7).
This final collection of 24 cards not only added new art to the set but new bios as well, updated to reflect the results of the World Series.
“Led the Senators to the American League championship in his first season as manager of the club, although his club was beaten in the World Series with the Giants…”
At this point there is little suspense as to how the final 24 cards filled the checklist. Still, here it is for completeness. Only one hole remained, card 106, along with the question of why.
Conventional Hobby wisdom tells us that the omission of card 106, later filled by Napoleon Lajoie, was intentional, a tactic designed to keep youngsters buying gum in their futile pursuit of a complete set. In modern parlance, card 106 was a chase card.
My own take differs.
For one thing, the Goudey set was very large. Completing the set, even assuming no duplicates, would require averaging a pack a day from Opening Day through Christmas. I’m not sure how many kids could manage this level of collecting in Depression-era America, even ignoring the competition from other gum cards on the market. True, the more compulsive collectors out there could augment their sets by cajoling or pilfering away the cards of their friends, but I still don’t see too many able to go 240 or bust.
Second, at what point in the set’s release would collectors even notice that card 106 was missing? Had the cards been released in numerical order, the missing card would have been evident mid-release–i.e., when the most complete collections out there looked like this.
Instead, set numbering was so haphazard that the hole at 106 was largely undetectable* until the release of Sheet 10, a good month or so after the World Series ended. By then, even if collectors wanted to embark upon buying sprees, it’s unclear how much longer fresh packs would keep hitting shelves.
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe the haphazard numbering and gaps in the set, evident from the very first release, were an intentional tactic to boost sales. I just don’t believe card 106 itself played any outsized role.
*Clarifying a point above, I say “largely undetectable until the release of Sheet 10″ since the omission could have been spotted as early as Sheet 6. Potentially, the most diligent collectors might have noticed that all prior releases contained 24 or 48 cards while the latest one only included 23. If so, their chase would have commenced that much sooner. Then again, maybe they weren’t the suckers Goudey was counting on. Here is Elwood Scharf, who we will hear more from in part three, remembering what it was like to collect these cards in his youth:
They were packaged in a semi-transparent wapper and, by holding this wrapper tight, we could make out the name of the players on the face of the card… Eager hands would then go through the packs of cards, selecting only those that were needed.“The Ballcard Collector” (November 1970)
In the body of the article, I presented the card-by-card numbering of Sheets 6 and 7. In case it’s useful, here are all ten sheets.
Subject to the skips in the checklist, numbering is perfectly sequential.
Total chaos! (And this is from a guy that LOVES bizarre numbering schemes.)
A little less random than Sheet 2 but no discernible pattern.
Similar to Sheet 3. Some clustering of neighboring/nearby numbers, but no evident pattern.
Another random one!
Not much* would have to change for the numbers to be in order here. Provided you’re okay with right to left (or flipping the sheet over), there is already a perfectly sequential run from 152-165.
*The only changes needed to produce a fully sequential sheet (143-165) would involve “rotating” the upper right trio of cards and eliminating the the Ruth between 151 and 152..
Hallelujah! A completely sequential sheet!
Nice! Another one in perfect sequence! How long can our luck continue?
Don’t let the skips in the top row fool you. It’s another sequential sheet.
And once again, sequential numbering from start to finish!
In the next installment of the series, I’ll offer a similar sheet-by-sheet analysis of the 1934 Goudey set (thankfully much smaller!) and highlight an easily overlooked connection between the 1933 and 1934 issues.