Signed Up for the Challenge
Collector Jason May is determined to do all he can to complete a full set of autographed 1933 Goudey cards
"For me, tracking down and collecting signed cards from the 1933 Goudey set is both an incredible challenge and a way to connect to the history of the game of baseball. I have a deep love for the game of baseball and for the chase of these cards that were produced a half a century before I was born."
- Jason May
An Oklahoman, criminal defense attorney, and longtime sports card collector (since 2010), Jason May's primary collecting focus has been on completing a set of 1933 Goudey cards each autographed by the featured player.
"I've always thought these cards are the most beautiful of all pre-war sets," says May. "And in terms of star power, it's hard to beat this set.
May recently sat down with Sports Market Report to talk about his desire to complete the set, the challenges he has faced in finding some of these cards, and the difficulties he still faces. We began our conversation by asking him about his background.
Jason May (JM): I grew up in a little town called Lone Grove, Oklahoma, which is just about eight miles from where I live now. I went to South Eastern Oklahoma State University, where I majored in journalism, and then went on to law school at the University of Oklahoma. I opened my practice in 2009, and today, I handle criminal defense cases.
Sports Market Report (SMR): Back when you were a kid growing up in Lone Grove, were you a card collector?
JM: I was. I began collecting baseball cards when I was about six. Then, when I was in my early teens, I also began collecting autographs.
SMR: So as a kid growing up in Oklahoma - a state without an official Major League baseball club - what team did you end up rooting for?
JM: Well, I grew up just about 30 miles from the Texas border, so we could get down to Arlington to see a Texas Rangers game in a little over an hour. We would go to two or three games a year. I was always a big fan of Cal Ripken Jr., so we would always try to go when the Rangers were playing the Orioles.
SMR: Was your early collecting spurred by being a fan of the Rangers or Ripken?
JM: Partly, but the reason I started collecting autographs was because of a guy named Gene Stephens, who used to play for the Boston Red Sox. My family had moved into a new house when I was 14 and Gene was our neighbor. As soon as I found out about this, I tracked down as many of his cards as I could find and got him to sign them. He was also instrumental in helping me get autographs of Ted Williams and some of his former teammates who he kept in touch with. That was what got me going down the path of collecting autographs and getting cards signed.
SMR: Beyond the help you were getting from Stephens, how were you building your collection - was it via the "in-person" route, writing to players, or another method?
JM: I tried to get in-person signatures as much as I could. During that time, there were a lot of card shows in the Arlington and Dallas area, so I would go down for those. But I also got a lot through the mail. I didn't have much of a budget to buy autographs, so going through the mail was working out better for me.
SMR: Every autograph collector knows that there is no bigger thrill than going out to your mailbox to find the item you mailed returned signed.
JM: Oh, no doubt. Because of my personal connection with Gene Stephens, who was featured in in the 1953 Topps Archive set, I became interested in those cards. I ended up buying that complete set and, of course, had Gene sign his. Then I mailed out the cards to every living player. I did this one big mailing, all at once. That was the start of what would become a very exciting few weeks for me. I got a lot of cards back - 25 responses in one day alone! It doesn't get better than that [laughs].
SMR: So along with collecting autographs, you were also collecting cards you would get at local stores. When did you transition into becoming more of a serious card collector and start amassing vintage cards?
JM: That came about when I was in law school - 2006 to 2009. That was when I started collecting signed rookie cards. My budget was fairly limited, but I was working, so I did have some disposable income for cards. During that time I also got some great cards signed through the mail - Harmon Killebrew and Sandy Koufax.
SMR: Koufax! Wow, that's impressive given that Koufax is known to be an elusive signer.
JM: I knew the odds were against him responding, so I will admit, I cheated a little bit. I had a friend who was in the Air Force and I thought if he mailed it from the base, with that as the return address, I may have a better chance of getting a response. And I did.
SMR: I guess we can't blame you for being resourceful! So, as you were becoming more of a serious card collector, at some point, you became enthralled with getting signed cards from the 1933 Goudey set.
JM: Yes. That set is the true centerpiece of my collection. It's a 239-card set (minus the Napoleon Lajoie) and I have 217 cards, all of which are signed.
SMR: Did you purchase that as a complete set or put it together yourself?
JM: I have compiled it myself.
SMR: Trying to collect signed cards from a set that was produced nine decades ago is clearly a challenge.
JM: It is. I believe the last living player who was featured in the set died in 2004, so obviously, what exists is it. And I would be shocked if anyone else has a collection of more signed 1933 Goudeys than the set I have put together. That would also come as a shock to PSA because I have close to 20 signed cards from the set listed on the Set Registry and they all have a PSA population of one.
SMR: Which card has been the biggest challenge to obtain?
JM: While it should not have been that hard to get, it took me a long time to find a signed Leo Durocher (#147) card. It's really not that difficult of a card, and he did live until 1991, so he did sign some of them. But for some reason, it took me about two years to find one.
SMR: Tell us about your experience putting this challenging set together.
JM: Well, I didn't start this collection until 2010, when I bought a Hack Wilson (#211) signed card. By that time, every player who is featured in the set had passed away, so I knew going into it that I would never get a card signed and the only way to put a set like this together was to buy cards and work with other collectors.
My quest to complete this set has been aided by countless individuals. It has taken me to Detroit to purchase the collection of a former Tigers' ball boy and has led me to become great friends with a guy named Sean Brennan. Sean provided me with invaluable advice about this set and has also sold me the majority of my signed 1933 Goudeys, which he had been collecting since he was a kid.
Sean had two cards I needed: the Frank Frisch (#49) and Eppa Rixey (#74) cards. I had been trying for years to pry those two away from him and then, one day, much to my surprise, he offered to sell me not only those two cards, but his entire collection. I realized that by buying those cards I would have over 200 of the 239 cards.
I drove to Kansas City in October of 2015 to purchase that collection and then, a short time after that, I had the opportunity to purchase a collection of around 90 signed 1933 Goudeys from the estate of a former Tigers ball boy. The cards were all signed between 1934 and 1935 and had been stored in a cigar box since that time. I flew up to Detroit to purchase those cards, which included pristine examples of some of the set's rarities, such as Moe Berg (#158), Tony Lazzeri (#31), Herb Pennock (#138), and Rogers Hornsby (#119 and #188).
SMR: You mentioned that some of the cards you have acquired are in pristine condition. With condition and grading being of such paramount importance to card collectors, is that also true for someone like yourself who collects cards that have been signed?
JM: As with any card collector, I have great respect for high-grade cards, but for me, when it comes to this particular set, card condition is not of the same importance that it would be for someone looking to collect a high-grade set. That said, I do want all of my cards to have good eye appeal.
But my collection is different. It focuses on the fact that the card is signed more than the condition of the card. So if I find an autographed card from the set that has rounded corners, creases, or scratches, that doesn't bother me because I'm not collecting for the grade. I'm collecting for the signature. For me, I am more concerned with the signature being clear and authentic than the grade of the card. And it's important to note that every card in my set has been authenticated and/or graded by PSA.
SMR: Every collector, no matter how large their collection may be, seems to have a card or two that they are most partial to. Is that true of you?
JM: I would say my favorite card in the collection is the Tris Speaker (#89) card. The card and the signature are both beautiful, and it is the only signed Speaker card from this set that has ever been authenticated. Of course, you never know for sure, but it is the only Speaker signed card from the set that has ever surfaced. And when you consider that he died in the late 1950s and no other card has shown up since then, I'm inclined to believe it might be the only one in existence.
SMR: Some collectors love to display and share their cards and collections while others keep them securely squirreled away. Are you the former or the latter?
JM: Definitely the latter. In fact, most of my friends, even people very close to me, don't even know that I collect cards. I keep them all in a safe-deposit box.
SMR: Outside of your signed 1933 Goudeys, do you collect other autographed material?
JM: I do. But it's sort of random. Most of what I have is sports related, but I also have a fairly large collection of signed books. I have a first edition book signed by Will Rogers who is a fellow Oklahoman, so that is a favorite. I am also currently working on a collection of signed Hall of Fame rookie cards. I have a complete run of Topps and Bowman signed Hall of Fame rookies, and I have a signed example of every Hall of Famer whose rookie card was produced post-1933.
I also like to pick up signed pre-war cards when the opportunity arises. I have a dozen signed T206s, including Ty Cobb, Frank Baker, Tris Speaker, Elmer Flick, and Sam Crawford. I also have the only known signed versions of Edd Roush's 1915 Cracker Jack card and Max Carey's T207 card.
But my main focus is still on the 1933 Goudey cards. My fascination with the set is not only that these old cards even exist, but that they have each, for some short period in time, been held by the player who is featured on the card. That little piece of cardboard was actually held in their hands and they took a brief moment out of their life to sign it. For me, that is what makes them so special.
SMR: Putting together a set like this represents a significant financial commitment. How does your wife feel about the amount you have spent on compiling this set?
JM: My wife, Heather, has always been very supportive. In fact, on a few occasions, there have been a few cards I found that I thought I would pass on because I felt they were too expensive. Whenever that has been the case, she has always encouraged me to buy them.
Just as an aside, a few months ago someone offered me an overwhelming amount of money for the set. The amount being offered did have me considering it, but my wife stepped in and talked me out of it. So she's a keeper [laughs].
But realistically, I know the day will come that I will sell it. I think I am like a lot of collectors who find the thrill of collecting to be in the chase. In fact, that is one thing I kind of love about the set. No matter how determined I may be to complete it, I am aware that the probability is high that I may never totally finish it.
I know that's a strange thing for a collector to say, that they love the fact that they may not be able to do the very thing they are determined to do, but that is what keeps it so thrilling for me - the chase - the wonderment if the cards I don't have are out there somewhere and will ever surface.
I would say that if I were to ever fully complete the set or if I went for an extended period of time - say five or six years - without find anything, the excitement of it would probably diminish to some extent and I may consider selling it.
SMR: Obviously, you would love to obtain all 22 cards that would finally complete your set. But if you were only able to find one of those cards, is there any specific card that has become your "holy grail"?
JM: There are four Babe Ruth cards in this set and I have three of them. What I don't have is the number 149 Ruth card with the red background. There are also two Lou Gehrig cards in the set that look identical but have different card numbers. I have the number 92 Gehrig card, but I still need number 160.
So those are the two for which I am always on the lookout. If I were to get those two cards, I would have every Hall of Famer in the set, so that in itself would be a tremendous sub-set: a collection that would represent such a high degree of difficulty that I don't believe it could ever be duplicated.
SMR: For anyone who decides to undertake this huge task of putting together a complete set of signed 1933 Goudeys, can you put the challenge of this endeavor into perspective?
JM: The truly scarce signed cards from this set are those of the common players, more specifically, the common players who retired shortly after the set was issued. Most of the players in the set passed away before it became popular to obtain autographs on trading cards, but fortunately, there were a few forward-thinking youngsters who did get their cards signed at the ballpark back when they were issued. But for the common players who retired shortly after the set was released, the odds of someone taking the time to track down an Earl Clark or a Cliff Heathcote to get them to sign a card seems unfathomable to me.
The real challenge in this set isn't the big names. The Hall of Famers like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, and Al Simmons were all targeted by autograph seekers during their careers, so it isn't surprising that signed cards by those players have surfaced. The real challenges come with the commons.
One of the pioneers of collecting signed 1933 Goudeys was a man named John Laity. He grew up in New York in the 1930s and he would have the players sign their cards when they exited subway trains at the ballpark stops. Cards from his collection are easily identifiable because he drew a red line on them to indicate to the players where he wanted them to sign. Unfortunately, he also trimmed off the "Big League Chewing Gum" banners from the bottoms of the cards. But, to me, that seems to be a small price to pay for such impeccable provenance.
I have three Babe Ruths (#53, #144, and #181), a Lou Gehrig (#92), Hack Wilson (#211), Dizzy Dean (#223), Arky Vaughan (#229), a Mel Ott (#207), and around a dozen other cards from Laity's collection. I'm always on the lookout for his "red line" cards when scouring auctions.
Signed cards of even the toughest players in this set do pop up from time to time, which gives me hope that I may, someday, be able to complete my set. However, while I am way ahead of anyone else, I am not the only person trying to complete this set, which has led to some unexpectedly high auction results.
In August of 2016, Huggins and Scott sold around 160 signed 1933 Goudeys. In that auction I was able to acquire the cards of Bill Walker (#94), Ernie Orsatti (#201), Alvin Crowder (#122), and Flint Rhem (#136), but I had to pay almost $15,000 for those cards. In that auction, the Bill Cissell (#26) card, which fortunately I already had, sold for almost $9,000, and a signed Earl Clark (#57) card, who, by the way, was the first player in the set to pass away, sold for over $16,000. That gives you a bit of an idea of just how challenging it is to put a set like this together.
SMR: When you take the cards from this collection out and look them over, what goes through your mind?
JM: Holding every one of those cards takes me back in time like nothing else. They are beautiful cards that depict legendary players who are now all gone - some of them for well over 60 years. So it's taking a historic look back at the game of baseball with cards that have each been touched by the hands of those legends who will forever be indelibly associated with the game and its history.
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Chime In On May's Challenge
Collector Jason May is a firm believer that the majority of great card collections and sets that have been compiled could have never been accomplished without the help of dealers, other collectors, and the PSA Set Registry. In an attempt to find the 22 cards he needs to complete his set of signed 1933 Goudey cards, he would love to communicate with other collectors. May can be reached via email at [email protected] or through his website (www.1933goudey.com) where you can also see every card in his collection.
If you or someone you know has a signed example of one of the following cards, May would love to hear from you.
- #32 Bud Clancy
- #38 Fred Brickell
- #54 Ray Kremer
- #57 Earl Clark
- #66 George Grantham
- #70 Pete Scott
- #78 Jack Quinn
- #83 Pete Jablonowski
- #85 Heinie Sand
- #86 Phil Todt
- #88 Russell Rollings
- #90 Jess Petty
- #105 Bernie Friberg
- #115 Cliff Heathcote
- #118 Val Picinich
- #149 Babe Ruth
- #160 Lou Gehrig
- #170 Harry McCurdy
- #172 Billy Hargrave
- #173 Roscoe Holm
- #175 Dan Howley
- #209 Adolfo Luque
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For more information on autographs, please visit http://www.psacard.com/autographfacts/.