PSA Set Registry
Collecting the 1940 Play Ball Baseball Card Set
An Underrated Pre-War Issue
by Kevin Glew
Baseball nicknames sure aren't as colorful as they used to be.
For evidence of this, all you have to do is review the cards in the 1940 Play Ball set to discover players like "Twinkletoes" Selkirk (#8), "Hot Potato" Hamlin (#70), "High Pockets" Kelly (#142) and Hugh "Eee-Yah" Jennings (#223).
Hobbyists say these creative nicknames add character to this 75-year-old issue.
"It's amusing to see some of the nicknames on these cards," said Erik Varon, a long-time 1940 Play Ball set collector. "It makes you wonder how these players ever got these nicknames."
Steve Charendoff, who owns the registry's No. 4 Current Finest set, also enjoys the nicknames.
"I love the fact that the nicknames of the players are very prominently indicated on many of the cards," he said "You look up and down the set and there are all sorts of cool nicknames. It's just a fun set. Whoever put this set together had a good sense of humor and was having fun with it.
This 240-card issue is Philadelphia-based Gum Inc.'s second and largest baseball offering.
Measuring 2-1/2" by 3-1/8", cards in this set were the same size as the 1939 Play Ball pasteboards. And for the second consecutive year, they offered black-and-white photos snapped by former White Sox and Cubs photographer George Burke. A small pennant adorns the photos of those on the respective 1939 American League (New York Yankees) and National League (Cincinnati Reds) pennant-winning squads, and unlike the 1939 singles, these cards feature a name banner at the bottom.
"To me, this was the first really expansive, visually appealing baseball set," said Charendoff. "I've always thought the design of the 1940 set was pretty cool with that [name] banner at the bottom."
Larry Mayer, who's working on the No. 7 Current Finest set, concurs.
"The 1940 set expands and improves on the 1939 set," he said. "I'm from the camp [of collectors] who likes a really plain front on the card, one that focuses on the player's picture. I think that the name plate is great, the pictures are pretty good and the framing of the pictures with the double lines is nice."
The vertical backs flaunt the card number, player name, position, team and vitals at the top, followed by biographical information that often provides fascinating insight into the player. For example, Moe Berg (#30), who was later acknowledged to be a U.S. spy, is described as a "lawyer, globe-trotter and lecturer" that "speaks eight languages fluently." Pete Appleton (#128) is revealed to be "an accomplished pianist" and Joe Kuhel (#185) is an "amateur magician."
The biographies also highlight the player's accomplishments and, in some cases, provide scouting reports. The text on future Cooperstowner Bobby Doerr's card (#38), for example, is particularly prophetic. "There's no telling how far this youngster, who has only six seasons of professional baseball behind him, will go in baseball. That he'll go far is a certainty," reads one portion of Doerr's card.
Below the bios on most of the backs is an ad encouraging youngsters to collect the series, heralding it as "a pictorial news record of America's favorite sport." But ads trumpeting the company's Superman series can also be found on the backs of some examples of cards #121 to #180. There are several versions of this Superman ad, and though these backs are more difficult to find, they have yet to garner significant premiums.
Active players, coaches and managers are grouped by teams and the teams generally follow (though some teams are skipped) the same sequence in three different segments in the set. Interrupting these team segments are cards of retired baseball legends, as well as singles of Al Schacht - "The Clown Prince of Baseball" - (#116) and umpire Dolly Stark (#117).
A set-high 23 cards are devoted to active New York Giants players, while New York Yankees are highlighted on 20. Despite the fact that the photographer was from Chicago, the Cubs are the only team with no active players featured, although coach George Uhle is highlighted on card #239.
These cards were distributed in penny packs with gum. By reading the card backs, it can be concluded that at least some of these cards were produced after the season had already begun. For example, we can say definitively that the Gene Moore card (#143) was not produced until after May 29, 1940. That was the day he was sold by the Brooklyn Dodgers to the Boston Bees and the back of his card reflects this transaction.
The Joe DiMaggio card is the first card in this set, which adds to its appeal, but also makes it more challenging to find in pristine grade. Subjected to additional wear and tear being on top of collector piles, there have been just two PSA MINT 9s and eight PSA NM-MT 8s.
"The DiMaggio cards don't enter the market too often, and when they do, they're usually pretty pricey," said Charendoff.
Another highly coveted card is the second-year Ted Williams (#27). Of the 539 submitted, there has been one PSA GEM-MT 10 and four PSA 9s.
"The DiMaggio and the Williams are definitely the top-tier active players in this set," said Varon.
Among the other Hall of Famers active at the time that are featured are Lefty Gomez (#6), Bill Dickey (#7), Red Ruffing (#10), Hank Greenberg (#40), Charlie Gehringer (#41), Carl Hubbell (#87), Mel Ott (#88), Chuck Klein (#102), "Big Poison" Waner (#104), "Little Poison" Waner (#105) and Jimmie Foxx (#133).
But although its roster of Cooperstowners is impressive, this set does not boast cards of several other active stars, including Bob Feller, Ernie Lombardi, Lefty Grove, Luke Appling and Enos Slaughter. No one seems to be certain why these players were not included, but it likely came down to Gum Inc. not being able to secure the rights to feature them.
As noted earlier, the 1940 set also houses 31 cards of retired baseball greats (not including active managers and coaches like Frankie Frisch (#167) and Honus Wagner (#168)). The "Shoeless Joe" Jackson single (#225) is the most sought after.
"There weren't too many Joe Jackson cards [in other sets] period and that's part of the appeal of the card," said Charendoff.
Of the 304 graded, there have been 15 PSA 8s (and nothing higher).
Among the other most coveted cards of retired legends are Walter Johnson (#120), Tris Speaker (#170), Nap Lajoie (#173), Christy Mathewson (#175), John McGraw (#235) and Wee Willie Keeler (#237).
"I like the diversity of this set," said Varon. "They had the current players, and then towards the tail end of the set, there were quite a few retired Hall of Fame players."
But just as you might question why some elite "active" players were omitted, you might wonder why cards of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Cy Young and Rogers Hornsby were not included?
"They had almost all of the great players from teams from the 1920s, but they didn't have Rogers Hornsby," noted Mayer. "And I would say that all of the important players from the Ty Cobb era are in there other than Ty Cobb."
This, again, likely came down to Gum, Inc. not being able to secure the rights to feature these legends.
The set's last card, Bill Atwood, is one of the most difficult commons to locate in top shape. The Atwood was subjected to additional wear and tear being on the bottom of collector piles. There's just one PSA 9 and two PSA 8s.
Dolf Luque (#231) is the only card that has yet to have an example grade above PSA NM 7. This particular card suffers from poor left-to-right centering.
Mayer notes, however, that the Spud Chandler card (#181) is the most elusive single to obtain in grades higher than PSA EX-MT 6.
"The Spud Chandler has the fewest graded examples period and it only has four examples graded above a PSA 6," he added.
The Chandler and Luque cards are in the high-number series (#181 to #240).
"Basically all of the high series is really tough," said Mayer. "There's only a small number of examples graded PSA 6 and above for most of the cards in that series."
Centering issues are a common problem on the 1940 Play Ball cards.
"The fact that they had double-line borders makes it so that if you measure from the outer line then there is very little space between the outer line and the edge of the card," said Mayer. "So if you're off by a millimeter, then you have a centering issue."
Toning is another frequent flaw.
"The cards are very, very susceptible to toning," said Mayer, adding that it's unusual to find these cards with pure white borders.
These condition issues have made this set the most difficult of the three Play Ball sets to assemble in high grade (see accompanying chart).
The challenge of finding these cards in high grade, combined with its large selection of stars - both active and retired - and the colorful nicknames on the card fronts, combine to make this a desirable, if not unheralded, set.
"It's a fabulous set," said Charendoff. "It's one of the all-time great issues. I consider the 1940 set to be more significant than the 1941 [Play Ball] set. It's such an expansive set. I think the only set that comes close to it in an entire generation is the 1933 Goudey set."
Varon is hopeful that more collectors will pursue this set in the future.
"Last year was the 75th anniversary of this set, and I'm hopeful that at some point collectors will appreciate it for what it is," he said. "There's a pretty wide array of active and retired players that really make the set appealing in a lot of ways. I would really like to see this set break out and be embraced by collectors more than it has in the past 75 years."
For more information on the 1940 Play Ball baseball card set, please visit http://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/baseball-cards/1940-play-ball/141.