As Jeffrey Gitomer points out, 1939 was a pivotal year for baseball.
"It was the 100th anniversary of baseball," he noted. "It was the opening of the Hall of Fame. It was Ted Williams' rookie year, and it was arguably Joe DiMaggio's best year. It was also the last year, Lou Gehrig played and the first year of Little League."
This combination of events in the same year inspired Gitomer to assemble the top 1939 Play Ball set on the PSA Set Registry. His set, which boasts an incredible 8.65 GPA, was inducted into the PSA Set Registry Hall of Fame in 2009.
The 1939 Play Ball set was groundbreaking and revolutionary in its own right. Showcasing crisp, black and white photos and detailed player biographies, the 1939 Play Ball cards ushered in a new era of baseball cards.
"I think the design is obviously a timeless classic," said Gitomer. "The bottom line is, the set is beautiful."
Larry Mayer, who owns the registry's No. 8 Current Finest set, expresses similar sentiments.
"I think it's a very nice set," he said. "The photos are high quality. The front design couldn't be any simpler. There's actually no text whatsoever, just a white border around the photo. So, for people that like the very pure designs without a lot of frills, you can't get any better than the 1939 Play Ball set."
But not everyone shares Gitomer's and Mayer's enthusiasm. For a combination of reasons, this Play Ball set is the least sought-after of the three Play Ball sets unveiled from 1939 to 1941.
"The black and white photos don't make for a pretty set," said Levi Bleam, owner of 707 Sportscards, when asked why the 1939 Play Ball cards aren't more popular.
Bleam adds that the fact that there's no name on the front of the cards may also make them less desirable. It's safe to say that most collectors would rather not flip over a card to find out the name of a player.
With this said, however, there are collectors – like Gitomer and Mayer – that savor the simple design of the 1939 set. Measuring 2-1/2" by 3-1/8" each, these pasteboards were produced by Gum Inc., the forerunner of Bowman, and were larger than virtually all of the baseball cards produced to that point. Sure, the photos were in black and white, but they were the crispest photos ever seen on baseball cards upon their release.
The backs featured the player's full name, card number and detailed biographical information. Text on the bottom of the backs indicates that each card "is one of 250 pictures of leading baseball players." Collectors would later discover that this was not the case. Two series (#1 to #115, #116 to #162) of these cards were produced, it's believed that a third series was planned (#163 to #250), but never completed.
Gitomer, Bleam and Mayer have not heard a definitive explanation as to why the third series was never distributed. With this being Gum Inc.'s first stab at baseball cards, the company may have underestimated the time it would take to produce them, and they simply didn't have time to manufacture and release the cards before the end of the baseball season.
Another mystery of this set is that there's no card #126. As a result, while there are only 161 cards in this set, the last card (Whitey Moore) is actually #162. Most believe that #126 was deliberately withheld to trick collectors into buying more packs in a futile attempt to complete their sets.
Mayer notes that the high number cards (#115 to #162) in this set are much more difficult to track down than the low numbers.
"The high numbers are pretty tough," he said.
These cards were reportedly distributed in three-card, penny packs with gum. A number of back variations can also be found on cards in the low-number series (#1 to #115). On many of these cards, the player's name can be found either in all capital letters or in a combination of lower and uppercase letters. Other small differences can be also uncovered in the text, but these variations don't generally command premiums.
Former White Sox and Cubs photographer, George Burke, was enlisted to take the photos for this series. Though Burke was reportedly based out of Chicago, no Cubs players were included in this set and just two White Sox players appear.
"I'm assuming that there were contractual reasons," said Mayer. "It's a peculiar distribution of teams."
The set is heavy on players from New York-based teams. For example, there are 19 Brooklyn Dodgers, 16 New York Giants and 11 New York Yankees players featured. There are also 15 Red Sox players showcased, including the Ted Williams rookie card (#92).
Bleam points out that this is the true rookie card of the Splendid Splinter. The card features a full-length photo of Teddy Ballgame that captures him at the end of a swing. Of 646 examples submitted, there has been one PSA GEM-MT 10 and 11 PSA MINT 9s. One PSA MINT 9 sold for $31,719.60 in an August 2007 auction.
Another key card is the Joe DiMaggio (#26). Although not a rookie card (he had a 1938 Goudey Heads-Up issue), this card remains highly coveted by collectors.
"The 1939 Play Ball card is much more accessible than the (1938 Goudey) Heads-Up and if you want a key Joe DiMaggio card, that's a good place to start," said Mayer.
Sometimes hampered by poor centering and print marks, the Play Ball DiMaggio is difficult to uncover in flawless form. There has yet to be a PSA 10 copy, but there are 13 PSA 9s. A PSA 9 sold for $9,595.05 in a Goodwin & Co. auction in November 2009.
A number of other Hall of Famers are showcased in this set, including Bill Dickey (#30), Lefty Gomez (#48), Charlie Gehringer (#50), Mel Ott (#51), Carl Hubbell (#53), Hank Greenberg (#56), Chuck Klein (#82), Lloyd Waner (#89) and Paul Waner (#112). Earl Averill (#143) is one of the most coveted high number cards.
The Moe Berg (#103) is another sought-after single, not because of his baseball career, but because of his turn as a U.S. spy. Of the 137 submitted, there have been just five PSA 9s (with nothing grading higher). One PSA 9 fetched $2,132.62 in a Memory Lane auction in August 2009.
This set also boasts pasteboards of umpire Dolly Stark (#106) and Al Schacht, The Clown Prince of Baseball (#113).
"Certainly the Al Schacht photo is a fun one and, I had never heard of him until I began collecting the set," said Mayer. "His card definitely goes for a significant premium."
One PSA NM-MT 8.5 Schacht sold for $367.85 on eBay in September 2008.
The first (Jake Powell) and last cards (Whitey Moore) are also elusive in flawless form and often fetch decent money. A PSA 8 Powell, for example, sold for $835.43 in a Goodwin & Co. auction in February 2010.
But, while this set contains numerous Cooperstowners, some hobbyists lament the fact that it doesn't include cards of Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Ernie Lombardi, Johnny Mize, Joe Cronin, Luke Appling and Bob Feller.
The 1939 Play Ball cards are generally easier to find in high-grade than the 1940 cards, but still present some condition issues.
"There is some toning and some staining issues. Additionally, as with all the cards that have photographs, there are a reasonable number of print lines and roller marks that show up on the cards," said Mayer.
Gitomer adds that there are also centering issues with many of these cards.
Samples of cards #1 to #115 were also issued for this series. These are easily differentiated from the regular cards by the red stamp on the back that clearly indicates that they are samples. These were reportedly distributed in packs of other Gum Inc. products to promote this debut baseball series. To complete the Master Set on the PSA Set Registry, collectors have to track down these samples.
"The samples were produced in smaller quantities and obviously as you would expect, fewer pristine examples have survived. They're pretty much impossible to find," said Mayer.
"The samples are way harder to find because they didn't make a lot of them," he said. "There are very few of them that are even graded."
Despite their scarcity, however, the sample cards generally only command a small premium over the regular issues.
As Gitomer points out, 1939 was a pivotal year for baseball. With that in mind, it seems fitting that the 1939 Play Ball set would usher in a new era of larger cards with crisper photos and detailed player bios. It also introduced hobbyists to Ted Williams. And, though the number of collectors pursuing the 1939 Play Ball set is surprisingly small, those that are attempting to complete it are very passionate about it.
"There may be someone who knows more, as a historian, about the set, but there's no one who appreciates the set more than I do," said Gitomer.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Larry Mayer provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of press time.