PSA Set Registry
Collecting the 1938 W.A. & A.C. Churchman Boxing Personalities Trading Card Set
A Vintage Issue that Packs a Punch
by Kevin Glew
With 71 sets registered, the 1938 W.A. & A.C. Churchman Boxing Personalities set is the most collected boxing offering on the PSA Set Registry.
The number of hobbyists pursuing this set is a testament to the appeal of the wide selection of legendary fighters it features. It also doesn't hurt that it remains an attainable and affordable, 50-card series.
"Some of my favorite fighters are in this set like Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, and Max Baer," said Michael Rabanne, who owns the No. 3 Current Finest set on the PSA Set Registry. "I had been collecting certain boxers, but then when I realized that a lot of the fighters that I like are in this set, I started to collect it."
Ken Shemanske, who has assembled 11, 1938 Churchman Boxing Personalities sets over the years and owns the No. 4 Current Finest set on the Registry, was drawn to it for similar reasons.
"There are 18 Hall of Famers in this set," he noted. "Another thing is that the cards are available. You don't have to search six months for a card. The cards are available, but what people are finding out is that the high grades are very, very hard to find."
Gary Curtis, who owns the No. 2 Current Finest Registry set, agrees.
"The set is very accessible to collectors," he said. "It's a good set if you want to get into boxing cards and there's some decent star power [in it]."
One of these 1-1/2" by 2-3/4" cards was issued in each pack of Churchman cigarettes, which were made in England. Shemanske says there were 10 cigarettes in a pack.
"There were two rows of five cigarettes and they slid the cards in between them to keep the cigarettes from breaking," he explained. "The card was just a stiff barrier."
The cards generally flaunt sepia photos of esteemed boxers, referees, managers, and promoters, although some photos can be found in black and white. The large photo - which most often highlights the subject in a posed action shot or head-and-shoulder image - is the centerpiece of the front. The photo is surrounded by a thin black frame and white borders. The product name (Churchman's Cigarettes) is indicated at the top, while the boxer's name is at the bottom.
The first 39 cards are of active or retired boxers, while cards #40 to #43 are referees, #44 to #47 are managers, and #48 to #50 are promoters. All the subjects within each subseries are sequenced alphabetically by last name.
The detailed backs are one of the strengths of these cards. The top informs collectors that for a penny they can purchase an album from their local tobacconist. The album fits five cards on each page and there's a slot for each card to slide into.
Â "When you slide the card in [the sleeve], you can actually see the face of the card through the front of the page, and when you turn the page, you can see the back of the card," explained Rabanne.
The set title (Boxing Personalities) is also at the top of the back followed by a statement that this is a series of 50 cards, the card number, and the boxer's name. The subject's bio, which generally details the boxer's accomplishments or discusses their best assets in the ring, takes up the bulk of the reverse. In several cases, the text reveals the boxer's nickname. For example, Max Baer (#3) is dubbed "Playboy of the Ring," Jack (Kid) Berg (#4) is sometimes called "Yiddle," and Frank Hough (#19) is coined "The Fighting Hussar." Boxers' real names are also revealed on a few of the other cards. Al Delaney (#11), for instance, is really Alexander Borchuk and Jake Kilrain (#22) was born Harry Owens.
Occasionally we also learn about the boxer away from the ring. Dave Crowley (#9), for example, is an "expert water-skier, swimmer and dancer," while Jack Doyle (#13) has been a "crooner, film-actor and variety star." And sadly, one of the boxers, Jim Driscoll (#14), died in January 1925, more than 13 years before this set was released.
The bottom of the backs includes the company name and a statement about its affiliation with the Imperial Tobacco Company of Great Britain and Ireland.
These cards were not released until after October 10, 1938. This can be safely concluded because the last sentence on the back of Delaney's card (#11) shares that on that date, he beat Merlo Preciso in a nine-round bout. This is the latest date mentioned on the card backs.
Shemanske has also learned that these cards were distributed over more than one year.
"They kept producing them in 1939 and actually went into two months in 1940," he said. "They ran them for over two years. And Churchman was a leading cigarette manufacturer in England, so a lot of people that smoked in England smoked Churchman cigarettes. There were tons of them around."
This helps to explain why so many of 1938 Churchman Boxing Personalities cards are available today.
Of the 50 personalities in this set, 18 have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The boxers hail from numerous countries - including the U.S., England, Canada, Germany, Italy, France, Wales, and South Africa - and most of them were active at the time of the set's release.
The Joe Louis card (#26) is the most coveted single. This card was released early in his career and it features the trailblazing champ in the ring with his left arm extended and his right hand poised to strike. Of the 637 submitted, there have been seven PSA MINT 9s, five PSA NM-MT+ 8.5s, and 83 PSA NM-MT 8s.
Shemanske says the Jack Johnson card (#20) has become more desirable in recent years. Johnson was the first African-American World Heavyweight boxing champ. His card features him in a posed profile shot in the ring. There have been five PSA 9s, five PSA 8.5s, and 75 PSA 8s.
Another sought-after single is the Jack Dempsey (#12). Some say Dempsey is the only athlete whose popularity rivaled Babe Ruth's in the United States during the 1920s. Dempsey looks like he's bobbing to avoid a punch in his photo. There have been seven PSA 9s, five PSA 8.5s, and 90 PSA 8s.
Gene Tunney, one of Dempsey's biggest rivals, is also featured on a very desirable single (#35). The back of his card mentions two of his epic bouts with Dempsey. Of the 304 submitted, there have been nine PSA 9s, six PSA 8.5s, and 65 PSA 8s.
Rabanne adds that the Max Schmeling card (#34) is also in high demand. Schmeling is the German pugilist who most famously fought Louis in 1936 and 1938 in two heavily publicized bouts that were considered clashes between nations.
"You have to remember it was Max Schmeling versus America at that time," said Rabanne.
Rabanne owns the sole PSA 9 Schmeling card. There are also four PSA 8.5s and 41 PSA 8s.
Curtis cites Max Baer (#3) as another key card. This card features a close-up photo of Baer in the ring.
"Most people today have never heard of Max Baer, and we're even getting to a point where most people haven't heard of Max Baer Jr.," explained Curtis. "But you mention the name Jethro Bodine and they know who you're talking about."
Baer Jr. played the dimwitted Jethro Bodine character on the hit television show The Beverly Hillbillies. Shemanske says the Baer card is evasive in flawless form.
"That card has a [left-to-right] centering problem," he noted. "Out of 223 graded Max Baer cards, there's only one PSA 9."
The other Hall of Famers in this set include Lou Ambers (#1), Henry Armstrong (#2), Jack (Kid) Berg (#4), James J. Braddock (#6), Georges Carpentier (#8), Jim Driscoll (#14), Len Harvey (#18), Jake Kilrain (#22), John Henry Lewis (#24), Ted (Kid) Lewis (#25), Benny Lynch (#27), and Jimmy Wilde (#39).
Of these additional Hall of Famers, the Ambers is the most elusive in PSA 8 or better.
"It took me a couple of years to find that card in an [PSA] 8," said Curtis.
The Ambers was the first card in the set and often suffered additional wear and tear being on top of collector piles. Of the 115 submitted, there have been 15 PSA 8s (with no examples grading higher).
Not surprisingly, the last card in the series, John E. Harding (#50), is the second-most difficult to uncover in flawless form. This card was frequently damaged being on the bottom of collector piles. There has been one PSA 9, two PSA 8.5s, and 17 PSA 8s.
As noted earlier, the 1938 Churchman Boxing Personalities cards were printed in hefty quantities, but they are tough to uncover in pristine form. Of the 7,349 submitted, there is only one PSA GEM-MT 10 and 174 PSA 9s.
"The cards are not quite 'a dime a dozen,' but you can go on eBay and buy a set pretty easily," said Shemanske. "The key is condition. It's very hard to put together a high-grade set. [Keep in mind] there is only one PSA 10 out of more than 7,000 cards graded."
Rabanne offers a similar assessment.
Â "It took me about three years to upgrade two of my cards from a [PSA NM] 7 to a [PSA] 8," he said.
Raw cards are sometimes hampered by the toning, corner wear, and creases that you'd expect on cards nearly eight decades old. Curtis says these cards are also regularly uncovered with poor left-to-right centering. Shemanske adds that the fact that many of these cards were inserted into the albums also hurt their condition.
"Once they're mounted into the albums, you get little indentation [marks] on two corners," explained Shemanske.
But the challenge of tracking down high-grade examples is what motivates some of the set's most ardent collectors, and it's also what has attracted several new hobbyists to this issue in recent years.
"I'm amazed that there are 71 registered sets. I'd say that four years ago there were about 25 sets registered," said Shemanske. "I think availability is the main reason that so many people are putting the set together."
Rabanne has had a similar experience.
"I've definitely noticed an increase [in interest in this set] in the past three years," he said, adding that the popularity of MMA has likely inspired some to revisit vintage boxing sets. "It seems like more people are starting to collect boxing cards now more than they were before."
But compared to baseball cards from the same era, these cards remain very affordable.
"I think these cards are really undervalued," said Shemanske.
For more information on the 1938 W.A. & A.C. Churchman Boxing Personalities trading card set, please visit https://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/boxing-cards/1938-churchman-boxing-personalities-w-c/32362.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thank you to Kenneth Shemanske for providing the cards that were featured in this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of November 2017.
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