A Blast From the Past: The 1940 Play Ball Baseball Card Set and its Retro Stars

Joe Orlando

The 1940 Play Ball Joe Jackson was made after his playing days but is still extremely valuable.

The 1940 Play Ball set is one of the most overlooked vintage issues in the hobby today. No, it doesn't have the flair that the 1941 Play Ball set has or the flair of most colorful issues produced during the pre-war or post-war era but it does have an array of key legends in baseball history, coupled with a true difficulty rating.

After launching their initial effort in 1939, Gum Inc. offered a larger set in 1940 that had a slightly different flavor. The frame of each card image was a bit more elaborate in 1940 but the reverse style is basically identical to the 1939 issue. One major difference, a difference that makes the 1940 set very compelling, is the fact that this set included several former major league stars. In most cases, cards produced after a star's playing days are valued significantly lower than cards produced during a player's career. In this case, the cards are not viewed as "commemorative" examples. While their value may not be quite as strong as the earlier issues, these cards are given serious weight by collectors.

This 240-card set is subject to a host of condition obstacles as most pre-war issues are. The one obstacle that seems to plague this particular Play Ball set more so than either the 1939 or 1941 sets is the variance of border toning. You can find some examples that have a light sepia tone while others almost appear yellowish/brown along the edges. The key here is to make sure that the toning is even and not an eyesore. Having a card with toned blotches throughout the card is viewed as significantly worse than heavier but even toning along the balance of the card. It's the contrast that provides the main distraction.

Other notable condition problems range from poor centering, as a result of the design on the front (very little room for error) to general wear from age and handling. One interesting note to the overall difficulty of the set is that these cards are generally more difficult to find than the 1941 Play Balls (which are generally valued higher) and the earlier 1939 set. Just check your PSA Population Reports at home; many of the cards in this set are simply tougher to find in high-grade -- or at all -- than the other Play Ball issues. The examples that come to mind are the Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams cards. You rarely see quality examples offered of either of these two superstars.

When it comes to the keys to the set, of course there are the big three -- Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Shoeless Joe Jackson. These three cards are, by far, the most valuable cards in the entire set. The Jackson card was produced after his banishment from the game but, due to the fact that there are so few original Jackson cards to collect, this card is considered highly desirable. The DiMaggio is also one to note. As the number one card in the set, subject to abuse from handling, this is a major condition rarity that gets a ton of attention from collectors. Much like the 1948 Leaf DiMaggio card, this card has taken center stage -- desired by set and non-set collectors.

Other major stars and legends of note in the set include active cards of super sluggers Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Mel Ott. All three cards appear to be very reasonably priced in the current market considering how tough the cards are and the fact that they are cards from their playing days. Some major post-playing days keys include Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie and Christy Mathewson. All tolled, there are literally dozens of Hall of Famers in this overlooked set.

I would highly suggest giving this set a second look if you are considering collecting a set and competing on the PSA Set Registry. This set offers the chance to acquire many Hall of Famers at a fairly reasonable price in comparison to the more valuable, early tobacco cards. For instance, not everyone can afford a PSA NM-MT 8 T205 Walter Johnson at $15,000-$20,000 but you can obtain a fully original vintage Play Ball example at a fraction of the cost. This set also offers a very strong challenge as perhaps the most difficult of the three major Play Ball sets. The size of the set (240 cards), while not extremely small, provides an attainable goal. The bottom line is that this blast from the past deserves a closer look.

Are you up to the challenge?

The 1941 Play Balls are more visually attractive because of the use of color, but the 1940 issue is still regarded as the tougher of the two.