I enjoy picking apart unexplained details of vintage sets to see where that journey leads. This article puts 1935’s Big League Gum baseball set, often shortened to “1935 Goudey,” under a microscope with similar aims. It looks at what’s in the set, obsesses over missing details, and considers how it fits into an important decade for baseball and our hobby.
1935 Goudey Big League Gum (Ruth at upper-left)
This set exists thanks to work by two seminal companies from Boston, Goudey Gum and National Chicle. The former ran parallel US and Canadian operations that reflected its founder’s Nova Scotia heritage. Chicle itself emerged from 1933’s trading cards explosion and lasted just long enough to give Goudey real competition. Much of what that era faced echoes in today’s hobby, including a gambling mindset among potential buyers and baseball’s push to raise fan interest during hard financial times.
Goudey Gum’s Hollywood beginnings
Our 1920s produced, for the most part, small trading cards sets with low print quality. “Bubblegum cards” didn’t exist yet because our Federal Trade Commission blocked marketing gimmicks like packing cards with candy as anti-competitive (and thus illegal). Many lawmakers believed that selling penny gum with unknown contents would start kids down the road to compulsive gambling and objected to its use, with success, on moral grounds.
Sports like baseball also shut down for several months at a time and those lengthy off-seasons made it challenging to sell product tie-ins on a consistent basis. That led Goudey to Hollywood as something more predictable. Their first set appears to be western movie postcards linked to the popular brand Oh Boy Gum.
1929 Oh Boy Gum movie cards (cataloged E282)
This made their first “sports card” a candid of western movie star Tom Mix working out with his friend (and boxing champ) Jack Dempsey. The text variation that lacks Goudey’s name implies they integrated an existing Mix/Dempsey card into this larger Oh Boy Gum set.
Goudey’s next set told “the story of chewing gum” and trumpeted their production process during 1930 sponsorship of a kid’s radio show, Big Brother’s Radio Rascals.
1930 Goudey “Story of Chewing Gum” (uncataloged)
I bet kids obtained Rainbow cards from local stores or by mail-in request to its home station, WEEI. Every Goudey marketing effort from this era pushed hard against the perception that penny gum meant “low quality.”
In January 1933, a majority decision in R.F. Keppel Brothers vs. FTC overturned the ban that applied to bubblegum cards as marketing gimmicks and freed companies to sell them. Goudey was ready for that change of fortune and launched Indian Gum in February, followed by the debut of Big League Gum cards around Opening Day.
The first Big League Gum set sold so well during 1933 that Jason Schwartz argues Goudey may have squeezed a multi-year plan into one season. I think they also tried to use Ruth’s stardom as a solution to the “off-season problem” by adding him to the multi-subject Sport Kings Gum in December. Given its comparative scarcity today, even The Babe failed to keep kids buying baseball during wintertime.
1933 Goudey Sport Kings Gum #2, Babe Ruth
In the end, Goudey made six different Babe Ruth cards in 1933 alone! Four in Big League Gum, one in Sport Kings Gum, and another from this wrapper mail-in.
Goudey ex-treasurer, Harold DeLong, offered some candy store competition in 1933 with a set made by his eponymous gum company. Lou Gehrig stands out as its best player (full checklist and gallery).
The set’s back text shared playing tips by Austen Lake, a Boston sportswriter, who also wrote bios for National Chicle’s Diamond Stars Gum cards. SABR profiled DeLong and said more about Lake himself in 2019.
DeLong’s 1933 Play Ball Gum set, not to be confused with Gum, Inc.’s 1939-41 sets, stopped at one series of 24 players. We might attribute its modern scarcity to one of baseball’s first agents, Christy Walsh, and the need to pay his clients or face legal trouble. See SABR’s Death and Taxes and Baseball Card Litigation series for several tales of legal wrangling over player images. (Jimmie Foxx’s 1941 case happened to go up against Harold DeLong’s next company, who produced the Double Play set.)
Sports promoter Christy Walsh (center) negotiated endorsements for Gehrig (left), Ruth (right), and several other MLB stars around this time. I suspect he turned 1933’s card boom into higher endorsement fees for each player in 1934, forcing companies to choose who they could afford.
New Yorker writer Louis Menand cited Lou’s new wife Eleanor as working with Walsh to create a pitchman persona for her husband. Goudey bet on Lou alone for 1934, linking this Big League Gum card set and their Knot Hole League customer loyalty club to his smiling mug. Walsh, always the promoter, even worked his own name onto each card with a “by arrangement with Christy Walsh” byline.
Sometime in 1933, a group of Goudey executives led by Alvin Livingstone left the company to start crosstown rival National Chicle. I think much of its creative talent followed them, based on how good their Art Deco Diamond Stars Gum (left) and die-cut Batter-Up Gum (right) sets looked in 1934.
Whether you blame competition or changing consumer tastes, later court filings show Goudey’s baseball card business suffered after 1933, dropping by 50% in 1934 and another 50% the year after, even as gum itself continued to sell well.
Goudey sales data, via SCD editor Bob Lemke
Goudey’s dropping card revenue and the exit of key staff to competitors reflects America’s wider business landscape for fans and collectors.
Depression impacts on Goudey and baseball
The mid-1930s proved a tough time for our pastime itself. America’s depression squeezed every entertainment dollar and attendance slacked to under 5,000 per game by 1933. Team owners threw new stuff at the wall each year to see what stuck and we can thank this era for, among other things…
1935 wrappers evoke Babe Ruth, now in his final season, and I suspect they added a date because 1934 Big League Gum’s entire first series reused images from 1933 and left a poor taste in buyer’s mouths. (“This time it’s different,” implied Goudey, before reusing many player pictures once again.)
This Ruth batting pose seems based on several lookalikes published in that decade, including an earlier Sanella Margarine card.
1932 Sanella Margarine, one of many cards with this swinging pose
Goudey’s set of 36 cards and three loose ends
1935 Big League Gum put four players on each card and its selection bridged eras, from Babe Ruth to rookie phenom Cy Blanton, who led the NL in shutouts and garnered his own 2021 SABR card profile.
Collectors used the literal flip side to build six-card puzzles for individual stars like Mickey Cochrane…
…and twelve cards each for three team photos (Tigers, Indians, Senators).
Big League Gum’s 36 arrangements of four players each should equal 144, except they printed six twice (Bottomley, Brandt, Cochrane, Comorosky, Kamm, and Mancuso), for 138 different faces.
1935 Goudey Big League Gum’s two Mickey Cochrane fronts
Other hobby writers already addressed some of 1935’s puzzles and peccadilloes. I know of three more loose ends that might connect with a single thread.
First loose end: Player selection left out many big names. Even if you accept choosing between Ruth or Gehrig as your biggest star, where’s Yankees Ace Lefty Gomez? He appears on a Goudey 1935 photo premium, yet none of their Big League Gum cards.
1935 Goudey Big League Gum premium (R309-2)
Many big names went missing, like New York ace Carl Hubbell and St. Louis stars Joe Medwick, Ripper Collins, and Daffy Dean. Future HOFers Gabby Hartnett and Billy Herman led the Cubs to an NL pennant in 1935, so were also missed by Chicago fans.
At least one prominent 1935 rookie (Cy Blanton) appeared in Big League Gum, so I mocked up a card for three that didn’t, Phil Cavarretta, Rip Radcliff, and Lew Riggs. Frenchy Bordagaray gets in on the strength of his facial hair alone. Goudey’s many omissions loom large over such a small set. And speaking of things left out…
Second loose end: Goudey’s name and Big League Gum appear nowhere on the card itself. This represents a big change to their earlier, text-heavy sets. Compare 1934 bios (left) to 1935 puzzle pieces (right).
You might already know Goudey licensed portions of 1933 and 1934 Big League Gum sets to their Quebec partner, World Wide Gum, for Canadian printing and distribution. Each of those cards proclaimed its Montreal origins, just as American sets came from Boston. (I wrote more about these cross-border sets in 2019.)
1934 Big League Gum card backs, Canada (left) and USA (right)
So why leave out all this info for 1935 cards? I think the reason Goudey omitted it will sound outlandish, yet serves their goal of making money during a tough financial era. They wanted to hide the set’s country of origin and sell to fans on each side of our northern border without paying import costs.
1934-36 National Chicle Batter-Up Gum (blank back)
If this seems like a reach, remember that National Chicle published two sets in 1934 and one of them, Batter-Up Gum, also lacked attribution. Did Goudey follow their competition’s lead selling these cards in multiple countries?
Excerpt from The Story of the Great Lakes in 8 Maps
American Prohibition, an era rife with border smuggling, ended in late 1933 and some no doubt continued moving other goods by land, boat, or air across our Great Lakes. MLB towns Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland all offer land or waterway routes to Canada, as do International League baseball cities Toronto and Buffalo. Obscuring a set’s origin would enable Goudey or National Chicle to print cards wherever proved cheapest and evade import costs at their eventual point of sale. (Canada’s higher dependence on exports could also be why this made sense.)
Big League Gum wrappers, 1934 Goudey (left) and
undated World Wide Gum (right)
While there are no World Wide Gum wrappers dated as 1935, this design echoes Goudey’s 1934 look without specifying a year, so could be from later. Did they wrap them around 1935 Big League Gum cards up north?
1936 Big League Gum (cataloged R322) also omits company name and country of origin, so perhaps Goudey succeeded in cutting costs and decided to keep their scheme running for another year.
To add more spice to our soup, recall that O-Pee-Chee released their debut Canadian baseball set in spring 1937, just as National Chicle declared bankruptcy.
1937 O-Pee-Chee baseball (cataloged V300)
These cards use die-cut folds along each player profile, making them close cousins to 1934-36 Batter-Up Gum. Perhaps OPC printed it first for National Chicle and then sold the set themselves when their American partner folded.
Believing that cross-border smuggling could be done differs from proving it happened. Each company would work to hide contemporary evidence of their trickiness, let alone leave a trail to follow 90 years later. These card and wrapper designs allow for intriguing monkey business, if Goudey and National Chicle wanted to reduce costs with clandestine assistance from Canadian partners.
Would you believe another mystery remains for 1935 Big League Gum?
Third loose end: These six cards, and these six alone, come with blue borders, while the remaining 30 feature red borders.
1935 Goudey Big League Gum blue border cards (uncut panel)
Advanced collectors might remember Goudey printed a second baseball-related set in 1935, tied to their Knot Hole League collector club you saw earlier. Candy stores who stocked Big League Gum boxes received a stack of these flip game cards featuring 1934’s World Series opponents (St. Louis & Detroit) with instructions to share them with buyers of Big League Gum. Fronts show game rules below a scoreboard and backs introduced the game situations also seen on black-and-white 1936 cards.
1935 Goudey Knot Hole League (front and back)
Despite its promised “series of 100,” this set stopped at #24, equal to one 4×6 print sheet of cards. Having two groups of 1935 cards with a shared border color recalls a situation two years earlier, as one series of Indian Gum used blue name banners about when Goudey’s Boston facility also produced the first sheet of their pirate-themed Sea Raider Gum.
Hobby legend says these series shared ink across two sheets. (See PSA’s set profile for details.) If Goudey printed this way again in 1935, then the existence of blue-bordered Knot Hole League could explain how six Big League Gum cards ended up the same way: it was more efficient to share colors across similar work.
If that scenario fails to convince you, how about printing cards with regional appeal? Master set collectors will know those six blue fronts come with three back puzzle variations, all of future Hall of Fame players from Great Lakes cities Chicago and Detroit. (As before, complete player puzzles require six fronts and I show uncut versions for image clarity.)
Puzzle 2, Chuck Klein, 1933 NL triple crown winner who joined the Cubs in 1934.
Puzzle 4, Mickey “Black Mike” Cochrane, traded to Detroit after 1933.
Puzzle 7, Al “Bucketfoot” Simmons, sold to the White Sox after 1932.
Perhaps Goudey produced blue Big League Gum cards with Chicago and Detroit in mind, knowing these three stars held extra appeal. Specific border color would make it easy to target their distribution.
A third scenario for these borders recalls that Goudey printed 30 different red border cards with four players each, 120 total, half the size of 1933 Big League Gum. An equal number of blue cards, another 120, would give us 240 players. If they intended to make an equal quantity of each, this implies a halt to production soon after changing ink colors.
That gives us three scenarios for 1935 Big League Gum blue borders, based on what we see today.
- Efficient printing alongside Knot Hole League
- Great Lakes “subset” of Chicago and Detroit star puzzles
- Printing stopped before Goudey reached their planned 30 blue borders
That last option makes the most sense in retrospect. Goudey shortened sets from other years when cards stopped selling and 1935’s falling baseball revenue shows that happening.
This scuttling of additional series also answers our question about missing players, since a full complement of 30 blue border cards would add many more names to its checklist. Multiple scenarios might work together. For example, an attempt to promote stars in Chicago and Detroit could fail to meet Goudey sales expectations, so they stopped spending money on that year’s set.
Summary of what we covered
Just a few years after kids could start buying cards and gum together, these intriguing baseball sets omitted basic info about their origins during an era when people with flexible morals could profit from hiding that kind of information. One of them, 1935 Big League Gum, took the mystery further with a subset of blue borders in search of explanation. I proposed a handful of explanations, some worthy of being in a police report for smuggling to either side of America’s northern border.
Baseball sets from our past can seem prosaic now, as if printed in similar circumstances to today’s more predictable hobby. I think Goudey and National Chicle, like many Great Depression businesses, stood willing to try almost anything to stay afloat, even dodging government regulations when it helped them keep money coming in. Perhaps 1930s card creators were their company’s edgy marketers who ran hot and fizzled out fast. However things worked behind the scenes, they left intriguing puzzles to work out a century later.