My Mount Rushmore of Vintage Sets

As collectors we all have our favorite sets—the sets that stood out and caught our attention the second we laid our eyes on them. In this article I’m going to be discussing the four sets that are at the top of my list and form my personal Mount Rushmore of vintage baseball sets.

1933 DeLong

First up we have my all-time favorite set, 1933 DeLong gum cards. These cards never fail to amaze me. From the first time I laid my eyes on the set, I fell in love. This 24-card set featuring 15 Hall of Famers is brought to life by a bright and colorful background. The players appear to be larger than life as they stand or slide (i.e., Pepper Martin) on the diamond.

One very unique part about these cards is that the players are printed in black and white but certain parts of their uniforms like their hats, socks and jersey-lettering show some color. One more small detail that I’ve always loved is the much smaller ball players that appear behind the main player pictured on the card.

Going beyond the front of the card, the backs are also perfectly done, each card eloquently offering tips on fielding, throwing, hitting, running, etc., written by Austen Lake, a columnist for the Boston Transcript. Lake was no stranger to the game of baseball, having tried out for the Yankees before going overseas to serve in World War I.


The uniqueness of these cards, front and back, are what gives this set a slight edge over the next set that I will discuss.

1934-36 Diamond Stars

Second on my Mount Rushmore—my Thomas Jefferson—is the Diamond Stars set produced between 1934 through 1936. This entire set is nothing short of a work of art, the Salvador Dali of baseball cards, if you will. This set is truly one of a kind, it will catch your eye instantly, and will keep your attention the more you look through each and every card.

This set produced 108 beautiful cards, with the final twelve repeated players from earlier in the set. The first 96 cards are all unique in their own way. You can look through all 96 and you won’t find any card quite like another, which is what makes this set so fun.

This may be the only set where the background of the card, using its Art Deco style, can often be every bit as captivating as the player the card features. From the wide use of colors from purple, to red, to blue, to yellow, to green, this set was truly the first of its kind and maybe the last of its kind.

One of a few things this set has in common with the previously discussed 1933 DeLong set is that the backs of the cards are also written by Austen Lake, who again does an incredible job. Not only does Lake add tips on fielding, batting and pitching in this set but certain cards also feature a player bio.

T206

Next up we have what can arguably be considered the most popular baseball set of all time. This set is massive, especially for its time, consisting of 524 cards including over 100 minor league ball players. Numerous players have multiple cards in the set, often a combination of portraits and “action shots”.

This set from start to finish is absolutely stunning. Every single card in this set could be blown up and hung in an art museum and would not look out of place in the slightest. Though the player images are incredibly well done, the backgrounds of the cards are what captivates me the most.

Not only do the bright blue skies suck you in, but the spectacular blend of orange and yellow skies truly capture the essence of a time period when the most honest form of work was working in mines, in a factory, or some sort of construction or road work, when smoke filled the sky in almost every city in America at the turn of the century.

Going beyond the front of the cards, another special feature of the set is the 16 different variations of the backs of the cards, from the simplicity of the Piedmont and Sweet Corporal backs to the more elegant and rare backs like Carolina Brights, Cycle Cigarettes, and my personal favorite, Polar Bear.

1952 Topps

To wrap up my Mount Rushmore I’m going with an iconic set that features some truly iconic cards, most notably the legendary Mickey Mantle card, Eddie Mathews’ rookie card, and Willie Mays’ second year card.

It was a close call between this set and the 1953 Topps set that from the following year. I’m not sure there’s exactly a wrong answer between the two but I personally have always loved the 1952 set since I was first introduced to it.

This set does an incredible job of mixing simplicity with outstanding photography. The legendary stadiums that appear in the background of the cards and the various colors used as the backdrops for some of my personal favorites (Clem Labine, Roy Campanella, Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson, Johnny Sain) are nothing short of mesmerizing.

Going beyond the players on the card and the backgrounds, the star studded borders that go around the nameplate with the player’s facsimile autograph and the old time team logos add the perfect touch on the perfect set to summarize 1950’s baseball.

Ten quirks of the 1934-36 Diamond Stars set

The 1934-36 Diamond Stars set from National Chicle is a personal favorite thanks to its bright colors, its creative backgrounds, and the overall personality of its artwork. It’s also a set that makes for interesting study due to a variety of quirks and even a possible mystery.

10. NO Ruth or Gehrig

Though the Diamond Stars checklist is stacked with Hall of Fame talent, the set does not include the era’s two biggest stars, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Other notable absences include Dizzy Dean and Chuck Klein. While the omissions detract from the set in the eyes of many collectors, they may prove a blessing in disguise to set collectors on more modest budgets.

The standard theory, which I subscribe to, on why these players are missing is that they were locked into contracts with Goudey and/or mega-agent Christy Walsh. However, Ron Rembert offers an alternate explanation in his article, “Idols and the 1934-36 Diamond Stars Set.”

9. AUSTEN LAKE BIOS

The back of each Diamond Stars card features a novel biographical format that doubles as a baseball instruction manual and scouting report tailored to the featured player. The byline on this content is Austen Lake of the Boston American.

1934-36 Diamond Stars Lefty Grove with Austen Lake bio

Lake himself has an interesting bio, having at one time tried out as a catcher with the Yankees, played football professionally, and rose to prominence as a war correspondent during World War II. Of course, some vintage collectors might know the name (and even most of the bio!) from another set of 1930s trading cards.

1933 DeLong Lefty Grove with Austen Lake bio

8. what year are the cards?

As the name suggests, the 1934-36 Diamond Stars were indeed released over a three year period. However, that is not to say that each of the cards was available all three years. More detail is provided in an excellent article Kevin Glew wrote for PSA, but a basic summary of the 108-card release is as follows.

  • 1934: Cards 1-24
  • 1935: Cards 1-84
  • 1936: Cards 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16, 22, 26, 30, 31, and 73-108

For example, this Luke Appling card (#95) would have only been available to collectors in 1936 whereas the Lefty Grove card (#1) shown earlier would have been available in 1934 or 1935. (As you’ll see in the next section, this isn’t 100% true, but we’ll call it “true for now.”)

7. what year are the cards…really?

For cards spanning more than one year, such as the Lefty Grove, a different version of the card was issued each year. The most telltale feature for distinguishing the variations is the line of stats at the bottom of each card back. If you scroll up a bit, you’ll see the Grove card that led off this article featured stats for 1933, hence was part of the 1934 series, whereas this Grove card features stats for 1934, hence was part of the 1935 series.

6. color change

Card backs featured green ink in 1934, blue ink in 1936, and a mix of the tw0—at least for cards 73-86—in 1935. As such, a set collector hoping to collect all possible variations would need three of each card from 73-86: a green 1935, a blue 1935, and a blue 1936.

5. other variations

Two well front variations in the set are the Hank Greenberg and Ernie Lombardi cards, originally misspelled as Hank Greenburg and Earnie Lombardi. Less known are five cards in the set where the player uniform changes due to a transaction between one series and another. I have a more comprehensive article on this subject here that even (sort of) includes a bonus sixth card, but for now here are images of the five.

In other cases, such as with Johnny Vergez, card fronts stay the same but card backs note team changes.

4. more ambitious set planned?

Similar to the 1933 Goudey set, the bottom of each card back advertised a set of “240 major league players.” Despite that, the set included only 108 cards and only 96 different players.

One explanation for the smaller set is that player contracts with Goudey greatly reduced the number of players available. Another explanation is the 1937 bankruptcy of National Chicle. That said, at the established pace of only 32 new players (or 36 new cards) per year, it would have taken a good 7+ years to make it to 240.

3. DOUBLED dozen

While the first 96 cards in the checklist represent 96 distinct players, the final 12 cards in the set are all repeats. For example, Bill Dickey has card 11 (1934, 1935) and card 103 (1936) in the set. A possible explanation for the repeated twelve cards will come at the end of this article.

2. mystery uncut sheet

An uncut sheet of Diamond Stars was discovered in the 1980s by the family member of a former National Chicle printer. While other uncut Diamond Stars sheets are known to exist, what made this one particularly unique was that none of its 12 cards appear anywhere on the Diamond Stars checklist! (See Ryan Cracknell article for more info.)

In addition to blank-backed cards of Hall of Famers Goose Goslin and Lefty Gomez, the sheet also includes a particularly noteworthy card pairing Browns teammates Jim Bottomley and Rogers Hornsby.

Original artwork for the Bottomley/Hornsby card sold at auction in 2012, and good news…the owner is evidently actively entertaining offers!

In addition, the press photo, taken at 1936 Spring Training, that the artwork and card were based on has also made the rounds.

1. connection between uncut sheet and doubled dozen?

Some hobbyists have speculated a connection between the two quirks just discussed. Specifically there is some belief that the cards on the uncut sheet might have been the original plan for cards 97-108, only to be replaced by renumbered repeats of earlier cards in the set. Attached to that belief is the thought that maybe the set’s decision makers disliked the zanier, more geometric backgrounds of the new cards.

I have also seen speculation that the cards on the uncut sheet were to be part of an unrealized 1937 extension to the original set, something that Den’s Collectors Den actually followed through on 1981, complete with backs.

As with most 80+ year old mysteries, any definitive answer is likely lost to history. At least some clues suggesting that the sheet was produced in 1936 are the cards for Jim Bottomley, Roger Cramer, and Gene Moore, all of which show teams they joined in early 1936, and Benny Frey, Rip Collins, Linus Frey, and Lon Warneke, still shown on teams they were no longer with in 1937.

This leads me to believe that neither of the above theories are quite right and that these cards may have simply been “on deck” in late 1936, only to be scrapped for business reasons.

Learning to hit from a baseball card

Not all of us are lucky enough to get personalized batting tips from Jesse Barfield or have worked on our swing with these guys.

gurus

Fortunately, there is no shortage of cardboard we can turn to when our hitting falls below the Mendoza line. Here are a nice assortment of cards and sets to get you through your batting slump. And of course we begin with “the greatest [insert optional expletive] hitter who ever lived!”

1978 Post Cereal Steve Garvey Baseball Tips

What? You were expecting Ted Williams? No worries, we’ll get to him soon enough. But first the face of Dodger baseball in Los Angeles when I first fell in love with the game. Show me a single kid in L.A. who would have said no to Raisin Bran the year these box panels were out. There were twelve in all, with four addressing hitting. (Note to younger fans. Though they are no longer used at the Major League level, “bunting” and “hitting to the opposite field” used to be essential parts of the game.)

1979 post steve garvey 2 bunting.jpg

1962-1963 Sugardale Weiners

A regional food release spanning two years, the 1962 release included 19 players on the Indians or Pirates while the 1963 release included 31. Star power was not immense, but sometimes all it takes is one!

Clemente.jpg

1959 Fleer Ted Williams

If only all you had to do was read the backs of four baseball cards to hit like the Splinter! Still, any advice from Teddy Ballgame is welcome. While the other 76 cards in the set provide information about Ted’s life and playing career, cards 71-74 provide advice for collectors to bring with them to the batter’s box.

Ted.jpg

1952 Coca Cola Playing Tips

This ten-player set hearkens back to the days when six packs came in cardboard carrying cases rather than the plastic rings now filling up our oceans. The front of each six-pack insert featured a player from a New York team (sorry, no Mantle), along with that team’s schedule, while the back featured tips to help aspiring ballplayers.

Bobby Thomson front.jpg

1939 Goudey Premiums

This 48-card set known as R303-A (or 24-card set known as R303-B) is the first of several 1930s sets to include batting tips. There is a simplicity to the instructions on the back of the Foxx card that almost makes you forget this is the hardest thing in all of sports.

1939 Goudey.jpg

Canadian collectors will also find these same cards and tips as part of the parallel 1939 World Wide Gum (V351) release.

1936 National Chicle Rabbit Maranville “How To”

In case hitting advice from the Beast is too daunting, this 1936 set provides a full array of baseball tips (including how to umpire!) all from a decidedly less intimidating player, Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville. Card 11 (How to Bat) and card 13 (How to Bunt) address the offensive parts of the game.

Maranville.jpg

1935-1941 Wheaties

The backs of Wheaties boxes during this period featured a multitude of designs across a number of different years and series. Really, any box of Wheaties will help a young hitter on nutrition alone, but Series 5 (1936), Series 6 (1937), and Series 12 (1939) would have provided an extra boost.

Wheaties 5.jpg

1935 Schutter-Johnson

This 50-card set resides beneath the radar of many collectors; however, it is an outstanding set for aspiring ballplayers. Each card features one of baseball’s biggest stars sharing a “Major League Secret.” While the tip is alluded to on the card front, the card back supplies significant detail and makes it clear that the advice is directly from the player.

1935.jpg

Modern fans of launch angle may cringe at the Frisch card until they learn he is instructing kids on the chop bunt. Then again, fans of launch angle probably aren’t fans of bunting either and may prefer simply to collect 49 of the 50 cards.

A final interesting tidbit about this set comes from the artist signature on the cards. This is the same Al Demaree who pitched from 1912 and 1919, winning 80 games (combined) for four different National League teams.

demaree.jpg

1934-1936 Diamond Stars

The mid-1930s were a magical year when it came to cardboard-based batting instruction. As part of the multi-year Diamond Stars release, Al Simmons and Joe Vosmik explain the importance of a good follow-through, Max Bishop warns against hitting bad balls (and has the .423 career OBP to prove it!), and Dixie Walker urges hitters to be relaxed at the plate–and that’s all from the first twelve cards in this 108-card set!

In case you struggle to picture all these players sending their tips to National Chicle, they were in fact written by Austen Lake, whose signature appears in the credits at the bottom of the card back. The level of detail in the tips is impressive, as illustrated by the Pie Traynor card’s advice on where to stand.

diamond stars

“…Study your needs and find the spot that best suits your style. Long armed boys should stand back farther than those with short arms, because of the difference in reach. In recent years, since free swinging from the end of the handle has become usual, major leaguers have tended to stand well in the rear of the box and back from the plate. Remember, the ball must cross some of the plate to be a strike. Hence stand where you can stretch your bat at arm’s length and cover the plate. Study “Pie” Traynor, Pirate manager for the correct batting style.”

1933 DeLong

I don’t want to typecast the anything-but-one-dimensional Austen Lake, but maybe you can guess what he contributed to the 1933 DeLong set. You guessed it…baseball tips! Here is some advice on batting stance courtesy of Mr. Lake and the set’s Al Simmons card.

Simmons

1928 Fro-Joy Ice Cream

Card number 5 in this six-card set, no longer authenticated by PSA or SGC due to prevalent forgeries, provides collectors with an up-close look at how the Bambino gripped his bat. Just as Hack Wilson let us know in 1935, long-ball hitters do not choke up!

babe

Though his career turned out just fine, it’s too bad a young Henry Aaron didn’t own this card as he was figuring out his own grip!

Q.

Is it true that at first you batted cross-handed, holding your left hand over your right on the bat handle?

A.

Yes. One day, I batted that way during batting practice before a game in Buffalo, and the Braves had sent a scout to watch me. The scout walked over to me, told me to take my right hand and put it over my left. I did it and hit two home runs that day and I never looked back.

Source: New York Times interview with Henry Aaron, published March 19, 2011.

1909 Nadja Caramels

I always like to close with the really old stuff, so here goes. Hitting a baseball is a VERY difficult act to master. We can’t all be .400 hitters or even .100 hitters, but no matter. I think this Al Bridwell (of Merkle Boner fame) card offers the best advice of all. Find yourself a beautiful day and a nice patch of grass, play ball, and eat caramels! A bad day doing that is better than a good day doing just about anything else.

Caramel.png

Author’s note: These same sets (exception Fro-Joy, Ted Williams) provide tips on other parts of the game as well: pitching, fielding, running, umping, and even setting up the field! I just chose batting so I could focus and cut down on distraction, another great batting tip by the way!