It offers cards of more than two dozen Hall of Famers, but the 1934-36 Diamond Stars set is still regularly dismissed because it doesn't feature Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig.
"It has 32 different Hall of Famer cards, which is a lot," said Larry Mayer, who owns the No. 3 Current Finest Diamond Stars Master Set on the PSA Set Registry. "The reason this set is not as widely collected as the Goudey sets is because Ruth and Gehrig are absent. Obviously if you want to collect a set that represents the stars from that era, lacking those two is pretty significant, but that's too bad because this set has a lot of other virtues."
PSA President Joe Orlando agrees, adding that the set has been overshadowed by its Goudey contemporaries.
"The Diamond Stars issue has long been overlooked," said Orlando."The Goudey sets, particularly from 1933 and 1934, are clearly the most dominant in terms of popularity. Later in the decade, in 1939, Play Ball introduced their first set. That said, in the middle of the decade, the Diamond Stars issue took center stage. The 1935 and 1936 Goudey sets, while still collectible, are not nearly as well-received as their two previous releases. As a result, the Diamond Stars set has a solid following in the hobby."
Released over a three-year span by the National Chicle Company, the Diamond Stars set was not only one of the most colorful sets of its era, it was also one of the most confusing. The Basic Set consists of 108 cards, but because cards were released over multiple years, some cards were reproduced with updated statistics and different colored printing on their backs. (You can determine what year a card was manufactured by examining the player's stats.) As a result, some Diamond Stars cards have as many as three versions, making the total number of pasteboards required for the Master Set 170.
To add to the confusion, cards #97 to #108 are duplicate cards of players highlighted earlier in the set with statistical updates to their backs. Brian Karl, who owns the registry's No. 5 Current Finest Basic Diamond Stars set, says the high-number cards are much more difficult to uncover than the lower numbers.
The 1934-36 Diamond Stars cards were distributed in penny packs with a piece of gum. Their white-bordered fronts exhibit a picture against a colorful, Art Deco background. The player's name is also on the front.
"It's a really good set to look at," said Mayer. "The cards not only have cool looking painted photos of players, but they also have very colorful and interesting backgrounds, often of action on the baseball diamond, but sometimes [the backgrounds feature] different things like the flag behind Kiki Cuyler."
Card numbers are indicated at the top of the backs, generally followed by tips designed to educate kids about pitching, fielding, hitting or baserunning. The Lefty Grove card (#1), for example, advises boys under sixteen to "be careful not to overwork or strain their arms in trying for too much speed." Other cards offer biographical information in place of a tip or weave the tip in with biographical information. Austen Lake, of the Boston American, is credited with writing the tips and bios.
"The backs have a lot of text," noted Mayer. "They have the tips for the kids on good baseball technique, which is a great idea. It's fun to think of all the kids that went out to buy these packs and then headed home to practice their batting stances." And not only are the tips "enjoyable and nostalgic to look at," says Mayer, but they are also informative because they "tie those tips to the player on the card and give the player's statistics on the bottom."
Along with the stats, the player's vitals (e.g., birthplace, age, bats, throws, height, weight, etc.) are located near the bottom of the card backs, followed by a notation that the cards were: "One of 240 major league players with playing tips." This text implies that the company intended to produce a larger set. Marshall Fogel reported in his excellent 2003 article about the history of Goudey that National Chicle was bankrupt in 1937, so perhaps financial woes were the reason the company stopped at 108 Diamond Stars cards.
With cards of Ruth and Gehrig absent, reportedly due to exclusive agreements with Goudey, the Grove single, which leads off the set, is the most coveted card.
"Grove was a great player. He might be the greatest left-handed pitcher of all-time and he was the first card in the set," said Karl. "So his card would get damaged [being on top of collector piles]."
Two versions of the Grove were produced: one in 1934 (with his 1933 stats on the back) and one in 1935 (1934 stats). Both have green print on their backs. Mayer says the 1934 version is more elusive. There has yet to be an example of either version grade above PSA NM-MT 8. One PSA 8 fetched $19,730.20 in a Goodwin & Co. auction in July 2013.
Another sought-after single is the Jimmie Foxx (#64). The picture on this card showcases him in a catching pose. The legendary slugger was actually signed by the A's as a catcher before becoming their regular first baseman. There's just one version of the Foxx card (1935, green printing on the back). One PSA MINT 9 garnered $17,456.10 in a Goodwin & Co. auction in July 2013.
New York Yankees catching legend Bill Dickey is featured on cards #11 and #103. In his book, Collecting Sports Legends, Orlando identifies Dickey's high-number Diamond Stars card (#103) as one of the Hall of Fame catcher's most desirable pasteboards. Just six PSA 8s (no examples have graded higher) exist of this single, one of which sold for $6,551.80 in a Mile High Card Company auction in October 2009.
Â "There are several key cards in the set," said Orlando. "The #1 Lefty Grove card is, by far, the most valuable and certainly a condition rarity. There is also the Hank Greenberg error card (spelled 'Greenburg'), in addition to several key Hall of Famers like Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Jimmie Foxx and Rogers Hornsby. The high-number series (#97 to #108) is very tough, perhaps one of the more underrated series in the hobby in terms of difficulty, especially in top grades."
As noted, Greenberg's last name is spelled "Greenburg" on one version of his card (#54). The error version is more difficult to track down than the corrected version. There's just one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5 and five PSA 8s of the error (with no PSA 9s or PSA GEM-MT 10s). The PSA 8.5 fetched $4,920 in a Greg Bussineau Sports Rarities auction in April 2012.
Catching great Ernie Lombardi is featured on cards #36 and #105. One version of his #36 card has his name spelled "Earnie." Similarly, Earl Averill's first name is misspelled "Earle" on both of his cards (#35 and #100), but these cards weren't corrected.
Mayer points out that two additional cards have variations on the front. The 1934 version of the Roy Mahaffey card (#10) features the right-hander with an Athletics logo on his jersey, but this logo was erased from the 1936 version because he was no longer with the Athletics.
"Also, Heinie Manush (#30) had the Washington Senators' 'W' on his sleeve [on the 1935 version] and then it disappeared [on the 1936 version]," said Mayer.
Approaching 80 years old, these cards are understandably evasive in top condition.
"You tend to see many examples with subpar centering, as well as cards that exhibit varying degrees of eye-appeal loss," said Orlando. "In other words, you will see some Diamond Stars with booming color, while others have a rather bland look. This is similar to the variances seen in sets like 1909-11 T206 Baseball. The Diamond Stars also seem to occasionally suffer from different levels of toning along the edges and reverse. All of these things can impact the eye appeal of the cards. When the Diamond Stars exhibit a fresh look, they can be stunning."
And it's the challenge of uncovering these "stunning" examples, along with the set's strong player selection- despite not including cards of Ruth and Gehrig- that should draw more collectors to this underrated set in the future.
"Despite the absence of the two Yankee greats in Ruth and Gehrig, the set is still very appealing for all the reasons we've discussed," said Orlando. "As a result of their absence, the set is more affordable, relatively speaking. So, what may be initially thought of as a negative actually gives more collectors an opportunity to own the cards."
Mayer expresses similar thoughts.
"I think the 1933 Goudey set stands alone because it was the first [major set of the era]," he said. "But I think this one should be the second-most popular, even more popular than the 1934 Goudey that has the Gehrig cards in it. I don't know how many people collect the 1934 Goudey versus this set, but I would be surprised if the number was drastically different. I think there are a number of underappreciated vintage sets and I would consider this to be one of them. I think that it's the best designed major set of the 1930s period."
If you know of any other variations or if you feel there are corrections that need to be made to the variations chart in this article, please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected]. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of June 2014.
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