Héroes de Cartón: When is a Card not a Card?

A few months ago I attended the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Conference at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Fred is my favorite of all of the SABR conferences because of the intimacy, the subject, the location and the camaraderie. One of the presentations that weekend was entitled “The Birth of Baseball Cards.” The panel was moderated by MLB historian John Thorn and featured the SABR Baseball Card blog’s very own Jeff Katz, Hall of Fame curator Tom Shieber and author Peter Devereuax. Devereaux’s book, Game Faces, is an inside look at many of the early baseball cards that constitute the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection at the Library of Congress and served as a jumping off point for the panel. Game Faces should be on the reading list of everyone in this group.

Over the course of the panel the question was brought up of just what it is that defines a “card.” It is a question that is often addressed in the hobby; has, in fact, been addressed in this blog by Mr. Katz. It is also a question with no definitive answers, although Shieber, who was one of the driving forces behind the Hall’s new permanent baseball card exhibit entitled “Shoebox Treasures,” listed a few personal criteria. To be clear, Tom does not espouse to be the final voice on this subject, but much of what he said rang true to me. To him, the item in question should be: intended as a collectible, part of a set, directly related to baseball, and there should be a “cardyness” about it. That last one is admittedly vague, though for most of the folks reading this, the idea is likely akin to the old adage coined by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography. We know it when we see it.

My paper-thin 1946/47 Propagandas Montiel Los Reyes del Deporte card for Nap Reyes, purchased on a visit to Cuba. Reyes has an earlier card, a 1945/46 Caramelo Deportivo, but it was only issued to collectors who had completed the rest of the set, thus making it rare and one of the most expensive cards of a Cuban ever issued.

This panel was the highlight of the weekend for me, not just because it was dedicated to one of my favorite subjects, but more so because I have wrestled recently with this very question. As I mentioned in my last post, in my quest to complete a collection of the rookie cards of every Cuban who has appeared in a major league game, I have had to stretch certain standardly-accepted definitions, beginning with the idea of a what constitutes a “rookie card.” In the interest of finding at least one card for every player, I have had to not only step outside of some of the accepted definitions within the hobby, but I have been confronted numerous times with the issue of whether or not an item I am looking at even counts as a “card.”

Such is the case with the 1943 set issued by the Havana-based, cracker, candy and chocolate manufacturer, La Ambrosia. As with major league baseball, the arrival of World War II created a vacuum of talent in the Cuban professional league. The league had already been struggling financially since the political upheaval of the overthrow of President Gerardo Machado, in the early 1930s. When the war began, it stemmed the flow of top-tier American talent, the quality of play suffered, and the league found itself at a low point. The silver lining of this nadir was the maturation of the Cuban amateur leagues.

The La Ambrosia card for Rogelio “Roy” Valdés. He had a single plate appearance with the Senators in 1944, although Valdés stuck around in the Washington minor league system for another four years after that.

With no minor league system in place, Cuban clubs would find their promising young talent on the sugarmill teams that dotted the countryside. Similar to the American company teams that would produce exciting local baseball that filled the void before the advent of radio and television broadcasts, the sugarmill teams were a loose collection of business-based semi-pro clubs. One of those clubs was sponsored by La Ambrosia, and would feature the likes of such luminaries as future Cuban batting champ Claro Duany and Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso.

The candy giant capitalized on their sponsorship of the club by publishing a set of 240 images that were released as “stamps.” Collectors were encouraged to get all of the stamps and then stick them inside an album, similar to the more ubiquitous Cuban release issued by Caramelo Deportivo during the 1945/46 and 1946/47 seasons. Printed on thin paper that most closely resembles magazine stock, the La Ambrosia stamps featured the largest single published collection of Cuban amateurs that I have found.

The album that La Ambrosia issued, with the intention of the stamps being pasted inside. The cross promotion with the Wilson sporting goods company is an interesting insight into how intrinsically American business was intertwined with Cuban interests at the time.

Unlike the Deportivos, in which the images are black and white and often grainy, the La Ambrosias are in color. They have the distinctive look of the tones being both vibrant and muted, as though the photos had been tinted with watercolors. The images look especially bright when mounted on the yellowed pages of their original album. It is those albums which resulted in the Deportivos and the La Ambrosias sharing another unfortunate trait. There are few remaining of either issue that do not have serious flaws, including backs that were damaged by adhesives.

For many, including the auction houses that sell these sets, the descriptions of these issues have evolved from “stamps” to “cards.” They certainly fit with Shieber’s first three criteria. But what about “cardyness?” They are not published on what we think of as a card stock. But does that matter? What is that quintessential piece that makes a card a card? Does an item need ALL of Shieber’s (self-proclaimed arbitrary) criteria? Are three sufficient? What about two? Or one?

The La Ambrosia cards feature a large number of pencil-thin mustaches, a popular fashion choice in Cuba at the time. Rogelio Martinez, who would not make his lone appearance with the Senators until 1950, sports a rather thick example of the style.

The “cards” I have included in the collection for the Aragóns, Ángel and his son Jack, are a perfect example of this latter question. Their short major league careers, as well as the fact that they played during war years (Ángel appeared in 32 games with the Yankees during World War I and Jack’s lone major league appearance was in 1941), led to neither of them having what would be thought of, traditionally, as a card. I have not even had any luck by expanding my search to include cards that portray them in foreign leagues, although Jack’s extensive minor league career gives me hope that I may discover him in an obscure set someday. At the moment, though, they just don’t seem to exist.

However, while trolling through ebay, I came across a seller who was offering images of both Ángel and Jack. He had come into possession of a number of old periodicals, including a 1914 Spalding Guide and a 1949 publication called, “Historia del Base Ball Profesional de Cuba,” written by Raul Diez Muro. The seller, scissors in hand, cut up both periodicals into a series of head shots for the players that appeared in the two collections. The Spalding Guide offered a number of publicity photos of minor league players, including Ángel. Jack appeared in the book by Muro.

Ángel played for the minor league Long Branch Cubans in 1913 and 1914 before being called up to the Yankees. Unlike some other teams named “Cuban,” the Long Branch squad was made up almost entirely of actual island-born ballplayers.

I have decided to include these hand cut bits of newsprint in lieu of “cards” because there aren’t any other options for these players and they do have the advantage of originally being printed concurrent with the player’s career. They pass virtually none of Shieber’s criteria. While the publications themselves could be considered collectible, they certainly became less desirable after the scissors were taken to them. The subjects are definitely baseball related, but they are not part of an intended set, nor do they feel very “cardy” to me. I have blurred the line considerably in the interest of completing my checklist.

I am now at the point where I need to decide if, since I have expanded my definitions for the Aragóns, do I do the same with the remaining Cubans who were never issued a card? Are pictures cut from newspapers enough to check that box, especially if I hold true to the criteria of the images being published during their careers? I know it’s my set, and I can do with it as I damn well please, but I’m not a fan of cheating. I suppose the best answer would be for me to wait to make a similar discovery of a player who is cardless, and decide when I see the actual item. Because, like Stewart’s porn, I believe I’ll know it when I see it.

Author’s note: I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the collection as it develops. I have created a flickr album that you can access here. The cards appear in the album not by the year in which they were issued, but rather in the order in which the player made their major league debut. Thus, even though the card for Esteban Bellán wasn’t produced until 2014, he is the first one in the set.

The 1954 Topps Guide to Life

How many times have you heard someone say, “Hey, life doesn’t come with an instruction manual?” Well, imagine my surprise when I actually found one last week! And not just any instruction manual but one with a vintage baseball card theme!

I’m referring of course to “The 1954 Topps Guide to Life: Beating the Odds, Getting the Girl, and Making the Team.” (Order here.)

As advertised the book was filled with great advice for ball-playing youngsters, and—even better—illustrated the various tips with baseball cards from the 1954 Topps set.

According to the book, 27 of the 250 cards in the 1954 Topps set have cartoons about players bouncing back from tough injuries. These cards offer a lesson in resilience.

For best results read these on a big screen rather than a teeny tiny phone.

Closely related to bouncing back from injury is bouncing back from failure. The trick, the book suggests, is to have a backup plan.

Though some of it might feel old fashioned to the modern reader, the book also offered advice on love and marriage.

There were also tips on dealing with rejection, which was the theme of six cards in the set.

Fittingly for a book that centered around advice, there is a section on accepting help from others.

Building a positive work ethic was the focus of 11 cards in the 1954 Topps set.

Coming off two recent wars there was of course a chapter on our men in uniform.

Alright, by now you’ve probably figured out there is no book. At the same time, there could have been. The 1954 Topps set was one where nearly every card seemed to moralize, educate, or motivate. Just do what your baseball cards tell you, son, and you’ll turn out just fine.

Oh, wait a minute. A reader has just stopped by, and he doesn’t look happy.

“Not a real book?!?!? NOT A REAL BOOK?!? Are you freaking kidding me, Jason?”

“Hey now, take it easy. It was all in good fun here. Put the bat down. No need for this to escalate…uh oh…this is getting serious. Okay, think, Jason, think. WWPMD? What would Paul Minner do?

Jerry Morales: Fashion Pioneer?

Jerry Morales was—at least anecdotally—a slick-fielding outfielder known for his unorthodox habit of catching routine fly balls below his waist and out in front of him. He led PCL outfielders in fielding percentage in 1970 and 1971 and was a top defensive NL outfielder in 1975 and 1976 by standard metrics – including assists, range factor, double plays, and fielding percentage. Morales was also known for his sweet mustache, ranked here as the 12th best in Cubs history.

In his 15-year Major League career, Morales amassed nearly 5000 plate appearances and displayed decent power, belting double-digit home runs in five seasons. Morales was an All-Star in 1977 with the Chicago Cubs and was hit by a Sparky Lyle pitch in his only All-Star plate appearance. He would end the regular season .290/.348/.447, with 11 home runs and 69 knocked in. Advanced metrics have not been kind to Morales as a defensive outfielder, however. According to Baseball-Reference, Morales was worth -0.7 WAR in his 1977 All-Star season and finished his career with a -2.0 WAR, including a lifetime dWAR of -12.4.

On the other hand, center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. was a perennial Gold Glove recipient, winning ten consecutive awards from 1990-99 with the Seattle Mariners. Although the second half of his career, mostly with Cincinnati, was marred by injuries and declining defensive value, Griffey finished his Hall of Fame career with a lifetime 2.2 dWAR, upstaged by his offensive prowess and a trophy case overstuffed with Gold Gloves. Griffey appeared in 13 All-Star Games and compiled a .440/.464/.640 slash line in 25 at-bats, with a home run and seven driven in.

95 Pinnacle Griffey 128
1995 Pinnacle #128

Junior was also known for wearing his baseball cap backwards, although his reason for doing so began of necessity, not style. “My dad had a ‘fro, and I didn’t, so I wore his hat and it always hit me in the face, so I just turned it around and it just stuck. It wasn’t like I was trying to be a tough guy or change the way that baseball is played. It was just that my dad wore a size 7 1/2, and I had a 6 1/4. It was just too big.” Griffey participated in 1993 Home Run Derby with his cap on backwards and concluded his 2016 Hall of Fame induction speech by donning his hat in that oh-so-familiar way.

So why all the fuss about Jerry Morales?  Well, as it turns out, he was the first non-catcher to ever appear on a Topps baseball card with his hat on backwards, years before Ken Griffey Jr. became associated with the style. On his 1981 Topps card, Morales is pictured hanging out at the batting cage with his New York Mets cap on backwards.

81 Topps Mets Morales 377
1981 Topps #377

Sure, catchers were often depicted on cards with their caps on backwards, but mainly because they wore them that way under their masks.

The last catcher to be pictured on a card with his hat on backwards was Rick Dempsey in this 1991 Score edition.

91 Score Rick Dempsey 816
1991 Score #816

But Jerry Morales will always be a fashion pioneer.

Sources:

Héroes de Cartón: A Cuban Collection

When I first traveled to Cuba in 2015, I had hoped to bring home some cards of the stars I would be seeing while I was on my baseball tour. Still naive about the differences between Cuban baseball and the major leagues, I believed that there would be such a thing. I knew the stadium amenities weren’t going to be luxurious (they weren’t) and the food at the park was bound to be lousy (it often was, though the pulled pork sliders I bought outside of Estadio 26 de Julio in Aretmisa remain vividly delicious in my memory). Still, surely an enterprising soul, or the government, had managed to publish a few sets of baseball cards. I was quickly corrected by none other than fellow traveler and Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman. He informed me there were no modern cards in Cuba. There was one set published in 1994 which included pre-MLB cards for the Hernández brothers, Liván and Orlando. The one before that was sold in the 1950s.

I had never given much thought of what it would be like to be a youthful fan who could not regularly experience baseball cards. I loved the cards long before I truly loved the game. In the days before the internet and daily airings on team-owned networks, they were my most direct connection. I thrilled with each new pack and the treasures I found inside.

That same passion, this time on the faces of a gaggle of Cuban children, was on display whenever a member of our group pulled out a pack of Topps at one of the five Serie Nacional contests I attended. They would swarm, a collective that would consume any gleaming picture of a hero-in-action they could get their hands on. Bonus points if it was Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman. At one point I pulled out a business card to give to a local sportswriter and a child’s eager hands immediately reached out to me. Just the image of a baseball on my card was enough to ignite their imaginations.

Jorge Soler’s rookie card appears in the Topps 2015 set, the year I began the collection.

All of this got me thinking about the Cuban stars of the past, and whether they had baseball cards. I had learned that generations of Serie Nacional heroes have never had one. But, what about the hundreds of Cubans who played in the major leagues? Surely many of them must have cards. I first considered starting a collection of all of the cards featuring Cuban-born players. I quickly realized that a complete collection of Cubans was going to necessitate far too much energy and money pursuing just José Canseco. There are roughly 3000 distinct cards of the tainted slugger. I decided that maybe the best way to approach this new whim would be to just get the rookie cards. The set would become relatively finite and definitely more achievable.

Many of them have rookie cards, but certainly not all. Some never had a card issued at all, at least none that my current research has revealed. Others have cards, but not ones that modern collectors consider “rookies.” Cards from a player’s minor league days do not qualify. Neither do cards from foreign leagues, such as the pre-revolution Cuban Winter League.

Tony Taylor’s 1958 Topps rookie card. Taylor is tied with Bert Campaneris for career triples by a Cuban-born player.

Such is the case of the Acosta brothers, José and Merito. The two appeared on Clark Griffith’s Cuban-laden Washington Senators of the 1910s and 20s. However, neither made enough of a mark to appear on a card during World War I and the lean years of the hobby that followed. Cards were produced in smaller sets, thus players like Merito, who appeared in 180 games in the outfield over five seasons, and José, who pitched in 55 games over three years, often fell through the cracks.

However, while playing for the 1923/24 Marianao squad of the Cuban League, they both appeared in a set that was issued in their homeland by Billiken. Like their American counterpart, these cards could be found in packs of cigarettes. In addition to Cubans, they also featured American Negro League legends like Oscar Charleston and Andy Cooper. Per the definitions set by modern collectors, these do not qualify as “rookie cards.” I decided that because so many of the pre-revolution members of the fraternity fell into this category, I was expanding my criteria to include first-known cards, as well.

The most respected Cuban-born player in his homeland is Martín Dihigo, whose 1945/6 Caramelo Deportivo is not a part of the collection because the color line kept him out of the majors.

As of this writing, there have been 208 Cuban-born men who have played or managed in the majors. So far, and research is ongoing, there appear to be 194 cards in the set I have designed. I had four at the outset, just by culling from my own collection: a 1990 issue of Tony Fossas, a 1989 Orestes Destrade, a 1987 Rafael Palmeiro and, from a pack bought in the interest of the project, a 2015 Jorge Soler. All of them happened to be Topps. There are numerous other publishers in this set, including Bowman, Upper Deck and Fleer. Going back before World War II, there are Zeenuts, T207s, an E135, and multiple cards from the candy manufacturer Caramelo Deportivo.

Palmeiro holds most of the offensive records for Cuban-born players, even outshining Hall of Famer Tony Perez. If not for his involvement with PEDs, he’d likely be a Hall of Famer, himself.

The day after I finished the first draft of the checklist for the set, I paid a visit to a comic book store in New Paltz, New York. My ex-wife and I meet there sometimes when we exchange our daughter. B is a fan of comics and I like to encourage my kid to become a nerd, just like her old man. While not a large shop, the collection is extensive and a fan of the genre is certain to leave satisfied.

What it does not have, however, is very many baseball cards for sale. The two collectibles will often appear together at small retail shops like this, though such stores usually lean more heavily in one direction. No one would ever think of this place as a local card shop. But, it does sell packs of the current sets and that day had about 50 individual cards up for grabs. Of those singles, the inventory was split between medium value cards of current players, a sprinkling of stars from 1970s, 80s and 90s, and a few lesser known players from the 60s.

One of those latter cards was from the Topps 1965 set, number 201. Minnesota Twins rookie stars César Tovar and Sandy Valdespino share the honors. Tovar, a native of Venezuela, had a fine twelve-year career with the Twins, Phillies, Rangers, A’s and Yankees. He finished in the top twenty-five in MVP voting every year from 1967-1971 and led the league in doubles and triples in 1970. The Trading Card Database has identified 56 unique cards manufactured for Tovar.

Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino lasted for seven seasons with the Twins, Braves, Astros, Pilots, Brewers and Royals. He did not share the same success as his card-mate, though he did get eleven at bats in the 1965 World Series, contributing a double and a run. Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas in Mayabeque and became the 106th Cuban to appear in the majors when he made his debut on April 12, 1965. Number 201 is his official rookie card, one of only nineteen different identified cards of the outfielder ever produced.

A cardboard miracle.

The odds of finding that card, in that place, just days after I decided to pursue this quest, cannot be calculated. It was a divine intervention, a gift sent by the baseball gods in the form of a fifty-year-old piece of cardboard.

Today I have 115 of the cards from the set. The latest pickup, a W514 of Dolf Luque, is a real beauty. The corners are a little rounded and there are some minor markings on the surface, but it is crease free and remarkably sturdy for something that was printed a century ago. Luque, the first Cuban superstar, is an underappreciated name from yesteryear and a personal favorite. Finally acquiring his card inspired me to tell this story.

Among Cubans, only Luis Tiant put up better career pitching numbers than Dolf Luque. The W514s began production in 1919, the year Luque’s Cincinnati Reds defeated the Black Stockings in the World Series.

As always, the final cards of this set are the most challenging and, of course, the most expensive. It is also a set that is always expanding. Despite the recent short-sighted pronouncements of the current presidential administration, Cubans will continue to find a way to travel those ninety miles to American shores to play the game. Last year, six more made their major league debut. Three of them have rookie cards, so far, and the recent call up by the Yankees of Nestor Cortes, Jr., who had a less-than-impressive debut with Baltimore last March, increases the chances of him getting one at some point this season. When he does, I’ll be there.

There is only one Willie Mays

Here is a card, like most cards, with a story to it. You might expect it’s a story about Willie Mays. In fact, it’s a story about everyone not Willie Mays.

43-464Fr.jpg
1959 Topps “Baseball Thrills” #464

At least a few of us remember the play like it was yesterday. The hitter has some power, but the centerfielder chooses to play him shallow. Even before bat meets ball, the fielder knows one of two things is about to happen: extra bases or the greatest catch of his life.

9106-427Fr.jpg
1961 Nu-Card Scoops #427

He quickly turns and by the time the crack of the bat is heard he is in a dead sprint only stealing a quick glance back to ensure the ball’s trajectory matches the path in his head.

318-579530RepFr
1993 Upper Deck “Baseball Heroes” #47

Winning a race of man against ball is not an easy thing—the laws of physics might even suggest it’s impossible—but after what feels like he’s run a city block the fielder reaches up with his glove, still with his back to the plate, and somehow snatches the bullet of a baseball from the air. They say seeing is believing, but almost nobody watching even believes what they just witnessed. Of course, the play was not even over.

9072-17Fr
1994 Upper Deck “All-Time Heroes” #17

Still in full stride, the fielder brings his glove arm down toward his body where in an event nearly as improbable as the grab itself his right knee hits his right elbow full force and pops the ball from glove to ground.

Snodgrass

I was 16 and had been planning, waiting, and training years for the perfect fly ball—playing everyone shallow to up the odds—and it finally came, for the last and only time of my life. My friend Robert and fate itself had gotten the better of me.

Some of our cards are just cards, but others are memories. This past week I finally picked up a card I’d always wanted. When I opened the envelope I was no longer in my office at my desk. I was at Palisades Park young, fast, free, and for a brief 6-7 seconds the great Willie Howard Mays, that instant before I learned for damn sure there could be only one.

with card

P.S. In a bit of cardboard clairvoyance, THREE of Willie’s 1954 baseball cards (Bowman, Red Man, Topps) referenced a web gem nearly identical to “The Catch!”

mays-1954.jpg

P.P.S. Fans of the “Say Hey Kid” will also enjoy this set of posts from SABR President Mark Armour.

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

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1940-41 Play Ball

A colorized version of 1940?

If you’ve collected or window shopped the colorful 1941 Play Ball set and it’s comparatively drab predecessor, I’m about to start with something you already know.

Here are the 15 Hall of Famers in the 1941 set.

1941 HOF.jpg

And here are their cards in the 1940 Play Ball set, minus Pee Wee Reese who did not crack the checklist. You may notice some similarities.

1940 PB

Aside from the color, some added background elements, and a different tilt to Lefty Gomez’s head, the images are identical. For this reason, the 1941 set is sometimes regarded as a colorization of the 1940 set. (Side note: I had a lot of fun making these!)

Foxx Hubbell.jpg

Not so fast!

Precisely because the only images from these sets truly burned in my retina are those of the Hall of Famers I was caught by surprise a couple weeks back when I saw these two cards of Babe Dahlgren. (Pro tip: His grandson is a great follow on Twitter.)

Dahlgren

Was a different picture really needed just to capture the Babe’s move from the Yankees to the Braves? That would have been odd since numerous contemporary sets managed to update a player’s team without need for a new photo. (See this article for a ton of examples or this article for the set I think did it best.) Or was it the case that I simply didn’t know the 1941 set as well as I thought I did? (Spoiler alert: Bingo!)

Detour

Before developing the answer further, I’ll take a quick detour to two famous sets from the previous decade. Here are the first 24 cards in the 1934 Goudey set.

1934 24.jpg

And here are the same players from the 1933 set. They should look very familiar.

1933 24.jpg

Were one to generalize from the first 24 cards in the set, one would suppose a great many of the remaining 72 cards in the 1934 set would reuse art from the prior year. Instead, zero did. Cards 1-24 were all repeats. Cards 25-96 were all new.

I can imagine the brain trust at Goudey thinking, “Hey, an all new set would be terrific, but it’d sure be nice to get something onto the shelves early…💡” (My longest–and some would say most heretical if not crackpot–article ever offers a more complicated theory on this.)

Returning to Play Ball, I wondered to what extent a similar rush-to-market image reuse strategy would characterize the first series and whether image reuse would all but disappear in the latter parts of the set. Sixteen and a half hours later…

Cards 1-24

The first 24 cards in the 1941 Play Ball set feature players from the 1940 set. In each case, the player image is derived from the 1940 Play Ball photo. In that respect, the set—at least so far—follows the precedent of the 1933-34 Goudey sets. None of the 24 players even change teams from one set to the other. The single biggest variation is with card 12, Jimmy Brown, who thanks to a zoom-out manages to (wait for it) regain his footing.

Brown.jpg

Another similarity to the 1934 Goudey first series is that the first 24 Play Ball cards are disproportionately packed with stars. Nine of the 15 Hall of Famer cards shown at the beginning of this post come from the set’s first quartile, including Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, and Hank Greenberg. (The corresponding count for 1934 Goudey series one is 13 out of 19.)

As Play Ball faced competition from both Goudey and National Chicle (Double Play) that year, it makes sense that they would want to front-load stars as a means of establishing early dominance. Then again, had they known the 1941 Goudey checklist in advance, they might have realized how little they needed to worry.

Cards 25-48

The first card in the middle third of the set introduced a bigger change than the previous 24 cards combined. Though both card backs put Gene Moore with the Boston National League squad (Bees in 1940, Braves in 1941), his 1940 card front has him in his old Brooklyn Dodgers uniform.

Moore

I’ll use the Gene Moore card to illustrate two quick points. For reference, his move from Brooklyn to Boston came on May 29, 1940.

  • The 1941 Moore card clearly shows that Gum Inc had the “technology” to update a guy’s team without taking a new picture. As such, the team change alone does not fully explain the reason a new Dahlgren photo was used.
  • The 1940 Moore card is a reminder that procuring updated photos (or manipulating photos) was harder back then than it is now. Even as the back of the card has Moore with Boston, the most recent photo available was a Brooklyn one. Meanwhile, the sets based on artistic renderings were much more able of adjusting player images on the fly.

Where the set really starts to change is at card 27, which starts a streak of 10 of 11 cards that use entirely new player photos. The graph below shows green for players with reused images, yellow for players with new images, and red for players altogether new to the set. Notice that cards 1-24 were all green (i.e., reused images).

1-48 analysis.JPG

As the graph shows, 11 repeated players scored brand new art. The first two of these, cards 27 and 28, along with their 1940 counterparts, are shown below.

Young.jpg

This middle third of the set also included two brand new players: Al Brancato (43) and Sid Hudson (46). As with cards 1-24, not a single player in 25-48 changes teams from his previous Play Ball card.

One player whose card may require a double-take is Buddy Lewis of the Washington Senators. Stare at his 1940 and 1941 Play Ball cards long enough, and you may just notice a subtle difference.

Lewis.jpg

Lest you wonder how the artist screwed up so bad in 1941, Lewis was a left-handed hitter, so the 1941 card is actually the correct one. The symmetry of the “W” logo on the hat and sleeve make this error more difficult to detect than most reversed negatives (e.g., 1957 Topps Hank Aaron, 1989 Upper Deck Dale Murphy)—so difficult that I was unable to find reference to it anywhere online or in the Standard Catalog. Could this be a SABR Baseball Cards blog scoop?! 📰 [UPDATE: Trading Card DB has now updated their 1940 Play Ball Buddy Lewis listing to include this UER. Thanks, guys!]

There are no Hall of Famers (unless you pronounce Jack Wilson with a Spanish accent) in this middle third of the set, though there were some players who were at the time considered stars. Still, whatever your metric for star power, cards 25-48 paled in comparison to cards 1-24.

Before proceeding to the final third of the 1941 set, I’ll note here that we may have already covered the entirety of the 1941 release. According to a Rich Mueller article in Sports Collectors Daily, only cards 1-48 were issued in 1941, with cards 49-72 added in 1942. (I struggle to wrap my head around this, particularly as it robs the 1941 issue of its most iconic card, but I’ve been wrong many times before!)

Cards 49-72

The final 24 cards in the set introduced significantly more new players than did the first 48. Most famous among the 8 new players was card 54, the rookie card of Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, but close behind Pee Wee are cards of the lesser two DiMaggio brothers: Vince (#61) and Dom (#63). As brother Joe was card 71 in the set, one-fourth of the final dozen cards in the set were DiMaggio cards!

49-72.JPG

This final series also introduced the only team changes (shown in blue) between 1940 and 1941—

  • Babe Dahlgren (49) – Yankees to Braves
  • Morrie Arnovich (57) – Phillies to Giants
  • Frank Demaree (58) – Giants to Braves
  • Jack Knott (68) – White Sox to Athletics

Interestingly, Dahlgren and Arnovich got new photos while Demaree and Knott did not. Aside from the Dahlgren/Arnovich cards, only one other player, Elbie Fletcher, received a total makeover.

Fletcher.jpg

By the end of this article, I hope to offer a credible explanation for what at the moment may present as two oddities of series three:

  • Why did two traded guys get new photos while two traded guys didn’t?
  • Why did Fletcher get a new photo?

Wish me luck!

An even closer look

Of the 72 cards in the 1941 Play Ball set, 10 are of brand new players, 48 repeat a 1940 player and his image, and 14 repeat a 1940 player but swap in a new image. Though it’s not immediately evident what it all means, an unexpected pattern emerges when the 48 photo repeats (blue) and 14 photo swaps (yellow) are plotted against the 1940 checklist.

1940 CHECKLIST.JPG

With only three exceptions, all the yellows are at the end of the set, and all the blues are at the beginning of the set. (Blue card 161 may be considered slightly out of place, and I’ll return to it later.) The three yellow exceptions are…wouldn’t you know it!…Dahlgren (3), Arnovich (97), and Fletcher (103)!

Traitors

The other 11 yellow cells, all of which sit neatly within a run of 32 cards near the end of the 1940 checklist, are pictured below, alongside their 1941 counterparts.

series two art swaps

Is there any pattern or common denominator behind these cards that suggests why these 11 (or 14 counting the oddball three) players were singled out for new photos? I will share a few things I don’t think it can be and then wrap up with my leading theory at the moment.

  • Rights and permissions to images – One reason to find a new photo would be if the permission to use certain photos did not extend into 1941. Perhaps Gum Inc never got around to securing rights to the photos in the final series of the 1940 set, hence was unable to use them in 1941. However, with the exception of certain retired stars, my belief is that all photos in the two sets came from the same photographer, George Burke. While this doesn’t completely preclude rights issues, it makes them less likely.
  • Damaged photos/negatives – Is it possible the original photographic sources that would supported image reuse in 1941 were somehow lost or destroyed? It’s always possible, but I would think the Plan B for that would be to choose different players rather than take new pictures of the impacted players.
  • No reason, just random – The non-random distribution of the blue vs yellow cells on the checklist convince me that randomness was not at play.

My best guess

Author’s note: What follows is largely speculative and quite long. It’s okay to skip it you came to SABR for Research with a capital R!

Following the mammoth 240-card release of 1940, I suspect Gum Inc saw little need to push out anything comparable in 1941. The 1940 cards had largely scratched the collecting itch of most young gum chewers, who might now rather spend their hard-earned pennies on cards of airplanes or Superman. Even with a colorful new design, ripping a 1941 Joe Krakauskas when you already had his 1940 card might feel like a penny wasted. As such, a much more modest offering would have felt more appropriate.

Naturally, selecting 72 random players from the 1940 checklist would have done little to boost the appeal of the new set. I believe the plan was to start with 48 cards (two series) reflecting the “best of” the 1940 set. These cards would constitute the core of the new set and be tolerated if not welcomed by collectors due to the colorized images and preponderance of top stars.

Selecting these 48 cards would be easy. Aside from retired greats, all the top players of the 1940 set could be found among the set’s low numbers (1-144). Selecting one third of those cards to reprise in 1941 was all that was needed to arrive at 48. There was only one small rub to the approach, which is that it would leave out the reigning National League batting champion.

“What the hell! No Debs Garms? You’ve gotta be kidding me! Stop what you’re doing and find a way to get a Garms into the set.”

That’s exactly what I picture some guy’s boss yelling upon seeing an early draft of the 1941 checklist. After all, how do you leave out a guy who just hit .355? And what do you do when your boss yells at you and you know he’s right? You go and get the Garms.

And this is how the 48 blue cells in the checklist came to include one lone high number, card 161, among them. Of course, adding Garms also meant subtracting someone else. I know it’s a convenient theory on my part, but I honestly believe THE thing you’d do is swap out a Pirates teammate. Get ready to be outraged, sabermetricians, but I would bet a lot that this is exactly how it went!

Sabermetric Heresy.jpg

We now have the core of the set, 48 players from the previous issue, colorized but otherwise unchanged in any significant way. Perhaps not to a man but at least broadly, these 48 could be construed as a “best of” or “top stars” reissue of the 1940 series. Maybe nobody wanted that second Joe Krakauskas, but they’d be okay with most of these guys.

From there, the brain trust at Gum Inc could take the set in a couple of different directions. Extending the same formula for another one or two series was certainly possible, but the talent pool would now be far thinner. The other approach would be to abandon the 1940 blueprint entirely and offer collectors something they didn’t already have.

First and foremost, that second strategy led to the introduction of ten brand new players who had not appeared at all in the 1940 set.

Rookies.JPG

Bronk, who had taken over shortstop duties for the A’s, was probably not a player kids would have killed for, but the other nine players were pretty legit at the time: all-stars, MVP vote getters, popular young rookies, brothers of the Yankee Clipper, etc. Without a doubt these players brought more star power than your average ten leftovers from the 1940 checklist, and of course there was the added bonus that these were good players kids didn’t already have from the year before.

The inclusion of these 10 newcomers left the set only 14 cards shy of completion. The 1940 low numbers had been cleaned out, top newcomers had been added, and there was only one reservoir of talent yet to be tapped: the largely low wattage 1940 high numbers. Retired immortals aside, pickings were somewhat slim, but on the bright side only 14 players were still needed, and really not even 14.

Here is what I believe went down in some Philly boardroom circa spring 1941.

  • Fletcher, fresh off his unceremonious dumping, was the first to make the cut.
  • Dahlgren and Arnovich, whose team changes offered an added jolt, joined the party.
  • And finally, the dreaded high numbers were scoured for another eleven players.

Realizing this last group brought the least sizzle on its own, a decision was made to spruce up this final fourteen with all new photos. And from there, the rest is history! (UPDATE: See Epilogue for an alternate theory that probably has this one beat.)

I can’t say I’d bet a million dollars that what I’ve just described is a 100% accurate depiction of how the 1941 Play Ball set was designed. It’s possible it’s not even 10% accurate. Either way, I will make sure you don’t regret reading all the way to the end of this post by rewarding you with perhaps the tastiest eye candy in the universe.

Williams and Joe D

Epilogue

Well this was unexpected. As it turns out, the follow-up article I wrote after this one helped me understand the 1941 set even better. If you don’t care to read the article, the short version is this:

  • The 1939 Play Ball set included a mix of portraits and action poses. Ditto for 1940.
  • Where a player had a portrait in 1939 he got an action pose in 1940 and vice versa.
  • The result was across the two sets nearly every player got a portrait and an action pose.
  • For each of these players, I suspect both photos were taken in 1939, with the one not used on the 1939 card set aside for the following year.

Back to the article at hand, you’ll recall this graphic from near the end. These were the 11 players from the 1940 high numbers who ended up with new photos in the 1941 set. However, there is another thing these 11 players have in common.

Rollie Marty.jpg

Of all the players in the 1940 high numbers and the 1941 set, these are the only players who are not in the 1939 set. That by itself is kind of neat. But of course there’s more. Take notice of how many of these players have both a portrait and an action shot across the two sets.

Just as (I speculate) George Burke shot portraits and action shots in 1939 for each player in the 1939 checklist, I suspect he did the same in 1940 for any newcomers to the 1940 checklist. If so, what we are seeing in nine of these eleven cards from 1941 is the leftover shot not used in 1940.

So perhaps the reason for the new photos on these 11 cards is what I initially proposed in this article—i.e., that Gum Inc wanted to spruce up what might otherwise be the most boring cards in the whole set. I am now more inclined to believe that the use of the new photos was simply because Gum Inc had the photos and hadn’t already used them anywhere else.

I’ll close the epilogue with a few notables that come only from looking at all three sets together. First, here are the only two players (of 45 total) appearing in all three sets who ended up with the same photo every time. The first is a familiar name, and the second was introduced in the “Cards 25-48” section of this post.

Klein Moore.jpg

And on the flip side, here are the only players with three different photos across the three sets, referred to earlier in this article as the “yellow exceptions.”

1939-41 three guys.jpg

I’d better stop now before the epilogue grows even longer than the post!