David Burmon says his 1938 Goudey Baseball cards make him smile.
Showcasing disproportionately large heads superimposed on players' cartoon bodies, the fronts of these pasteboards tend to inspire this type of response.
"I think the set's design is pretty funky," said Burmon, who owns the No. 6 Current Finest 1938 Goudey Set on the PSA Set Registry. "You're dealing with basically cartoon images of players. And it's so unique. There's nothing else like it, in terms of the rest of the Goudey period where you had sort of unrealistic portraitures."
Rob Lifson, president of Robert Edward Auctions, has a similar reaction to these cards.
"The 1938 Goudey cards have a special place in collectors' hearts because they're fun," he said. "You can't help but look at them and smile. And that's what collecting is supposed to be about."
The distinctly big heads on these cards have earned this set its nickname as the "Heads-Up" set. Boasting only 48 cards, this offering was introduced when Goudey was struggling. As a result, it's believed that fewer 1938 cards were produced than earlier Goudey baseball issues.
"Goudey had its true heyday in 1933 and 1934," noted Lifson. "The reason there are fewer 1938 cards is probably just pure economics. The economics in the country were changing. The landscape for Goudey and other manufacturers got a lot sparser."
Though the 1938 offering is a separate set, its card numbering begins at #241. So it appears that Goudey was marketing this set as an extension of the 240-card, 1933 issue.
Two 24-card series were released. The first-series singles flaunt a picture on the front against a plain, off-white background. The player's name and team are highlighted on the bottom of the front.
The same 24 cards are repeated in the second series and fashion a similar design, but the background behind the pictures features words and etched cartoons. This series is sometimes referred to as the cartoon series.
"I don't think it's an accident that when it came time to release the next 24 cards, you got the same 24 players," noted Lifson.
Unlike some people, Lifson doesn't think that the decision process entailed the people at Goudey simply saying: "You know what kids want? They want the same darn 24 players, and they want them with cartoons in the background." On the contrary, Lifson states, "[Goudey] wanted to change things up and give kids something that would motivate them to continue buying the cards without incurring the expense of a creating a new set. And this was an easy way for them to do it. All they had to do was change the card number and add cartoons."
The second-series cards are generally more coveted than the first. As a result, most publications list cards from the second series for a premium. However, Burmon says that in his three years of assembling this issue, he has found first-series pasteboards more difficult to track down.
The backs of the cards in each series boast the card number, player name, player particulars (date of birth, height, weight, etc.), biographical information and statistics in green ink.
The bottoms of the first-series backs feature an advertisement for Big League Chewing Gum indicating that the card is "one of a series of 288 Baseball Stars." The second-series pasteboards boast a similar ad, but impart that the card is part of a series of "312 Baseball Stars."
The card numbers in this 48-card set range from #241 to #288. Therefore, the 312 cards alluded to on the back of the second-series singles seems to indicate that the company planned to create another series but just never got around to it.
Nine Hall of Famers are featured in this set, including Charlie Gehringer (#241, #265), Jimmie Foxx (#249, #273), Hank Greenberg (#253, #277), Al Lopez (#257, #281) and Joe Medwick (#262, #286).
"You have a slew of Hall of Fame players, one of which [Medwick] is the answer to a trivia question: who's the last National League player to win a Triple Crown?" noted Burmon.
Three Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio (#250, #274), Bobby Doerr (#258, #282) and Bob Feller (#264, #288) make their major issue debuts in this set.
"Certainly DiMaggio is the key to the set," said Burmon. "But Feller is the next most important card by a long shot."
Although the second-series DiMaggio (#274) tends to command more in auctions, Burmon sees the Yankee Clipper's first-series single (#250) less frequently. Like most cards from this issue, the DiMaggio singles are often hampered by toning on their borders.
Of the 214 first-series DiMaggios graded, there have been just two PSA MINT 9s, two PSA NM-MT+ 8.5s and ten PSA NM-MT 8s.
Just two of the 222 Joltin' Joe second-series cards have been graded PSA 9s. A second-series PSA 8 fetched $16,590 in a Robert Edward Auctions sale in May 2012.
Similarly, Feller's second-series card commands more than his first-series single. However, the second-series Feller is also the set's last card and thus typically found on the bottom of piles, making it vulnerable to condition woes.
Of the 152 second-series Fellers submitted, there have been nine PSA 8s (with no examples grading higher). A PSA 8 sold for $7,702.50 in a Robert Edward Auctions sale in May 2012.
Some interesting variations of the first-series Ernie Lombardi (#246) also exist. On the first-series print sheet, the Hall of Fame Cincinnati Reds catcher's card mistakenly identified him as a member of the Red Sox. To correct this error, Goudey printed a black baseball over the word "Sox." With just two PSA 8 copies of this single (and no cards grading higher), the first-series Lombardi is one of the most elusive cards to obtain in top condition. A PSA EX-MT 6 sold for $430 on eBay in March 2012.
A rarer version of the Lombardi card that lists his team as the Reds without the black baseball has also been uncovered. A PSA VG-EX 4 example sold for $169 on eBay in March 2011. And although photographic evidence wasn't uncovered during my research, some hobby publications list a third version that showcases Lombardi's team as the Red Sox (without the black baseball).
The second-series Lombardi (#270) correctly lists his team as the Reds.
Burmon says that the Van Lingle Mungo (#254) and Frank Pytlak (#269) cards are difficult to find in pristine condition. There are only three PSA 8 Mungo cards, and a PSA NM 7 fetched $390 on eBay in October 2011.
With just 46 copies evaluated, Marvin Owen's first-series pasteboard (#263) is the lowest population card in this set. The second least submitted card is Ervin Fox (#242), with only 52 submissions.
Toning on the borders is the most common condition flaw with these cards. This has inspired some collectors to bleach the borders.
Over the years, Lifson himself has seen examples from this set so excessively bleached that "they don't even look like the real cards anymore," he said.
It is also likely that kids played with these cards when they were first released.
"Due to the cartoon nature of the set," said Burmon, "these cards were probably treated more blithely than cards with more serious pictures [on them]."
You also have to watch out for counterfeits. In general, the fake cards will have black printing on their backs, while authentic examples flaunt green printing. Furthermore, on the counterfeits, the color of the border also generally differs from the color of the background; whereas on the authentic cards, these colors are the same shade of off-white.
The Dover Publishing Company also manufactured reprints of these cards in 1977, but these have perforated edges and are identified as reprints at the bottom of the backs.
In recent years, the original 1938 Goudey cards have become more popular.
"I think the 1938 Goudey set has always been popular, but if anything, it has grown in popularity in recent years," said Lifson. "It's a practical set. There are 48 cards in it, and even though some of them are rare, it's less intimidating than a larger set."
Burmon believes this set will spike in value in the future.
"I think it's going to increase in value tremendously because it has ties to so many historic figures in the game," he said.
But even if it doesn't, Burmon will most likely continue to smile whenever he looks at the cards.
"I think it is fun to collect a small vintage set, especially when the presentation is absolutely unique," he said. "I smile every time I look at these cards."
Added Lifson, "These are some of the most distinctive and fun cards ever issued. This is the kind of set that you can show anybody. You can show your neighbor and they'll smile. How can anyone not love the Heads-Up set?"