Those who didn't actually live through it have difficulty imagining the mood in America during the post-Depression era. The time of the flappers gave way to a period of bread lines. What must have been a giddy feeling of 1920s prosperity, transformed reluctantly into an atmosphere of worry and desperation. The populace, accustomed to immediate gratification accompanied by the prospect of more in the offing, was now more receptive to small doses of pleasure, and sought distraction, however fleeting, from the overriding concerns of the day.
Whether by coincidence or not, the early 1930s posed the ideal environment for a positive change in the established configuration of gum and candy trading cards. Gum cards of the 1920s generally emulated their tobacco counterparts in size and format. Discreet and unimposing, those items (known in the industry as the "E"-card genre) afforded a limited opportunity for creativity in design; thus, collectors were comfortable with, but rarely dazzled by, the offerings that accompanied the confections of the day.
Into this sedate and demonstrably precedentdriven marketing environment, Goudey Gum Company of Boston launched its revolutionary "Big League Gum." For the first time, a packaged product (supposedly having undergone significant improvements in its own right) was threatened with being overshadowed by the gimmick with which it was distributed. Goudey's 1933 baseball cards enjoyed a highly auspicious debut and for reasons that immediately become apparent to anyone viewing the items, initiated a Golden Age for collectibles of their kind.
The new gum cards' most immediately recognizable and eye-catching feature is their size. Enlarged to 2 3/8" by 2 7/8" (much bigger than their predecessors' considerably narrower dimensions) Goudeys come well-equipped to display the magnificently colorful, artistic illustrations of ballplayers that quickly set a modern standard in terms of eye-appeal. The cards' physical enlargement also enabled the presentation of much more information on the backs. Previously, size constraints allowed just one or two lines of descriptive text, a limitation reinforced by the necessity of leaving room for the requisite advertising.
Goudey's 1933 cards were printed on thicker cardboard stock, too. Where tobacco and candy cards of the past, with their thin cardstock canvases, carried a delicate feel, the gum cards introduced an intriguing mode of substance; the cards were somehow sturdier, with more heft, than those that had come before. A pack for a penny was now an investment in a viable and not-inconsequential bundle containing a high-quality picture card and a serious slab of chewing gum, both neatly packaged within an attention-grabbing wrapper. This was a great deal ... especially in the throes of tough economic times.
Composition - The 1933 issue, strictly speaking, accounted for 239 cards. (A 240th entry - #106, produced in 1934 in response to consumer outcries - is another story altogether!) Most prominent among the series' content is an abundance of Hall of Famers, with multiple depictions of key personnel. It must have been a no-brainer for those Goudey employees charged with selecting athletes for inclusion to go heavy on Babe Ruth. Sure enough, there are four different Ruth portrayals, and one of those (#144) was double-printed and therefore, found in packs at twice the rate of lesser figures. There are three cards of Joe Cronin (#s 63, 109 and 189) and two of Jimmy Foxx (#s 29 and 154), as well as two each of Hornsby, Hubbell and other luminaries.
Redundancy isn't always a bad thing. It should be pointed out that Goudey quite sincerely sought to "give the customers what they want." The result of this intent was not only numerous star cards, but different ones of the most desired figures. (In one pack, for example, a buyer might find a no-nonsense portrait of Mel Ott, and in another, there could be a view of Ott's fearsome batting posture.) In those years before the widespread distribution of color photographs, these highly visual morsels were certainly received with great enthusiasm!
Key Features and Rarities - The 1933 Goudey cards were printed on ten different press sheets containing 24 cards apiece, and the subjects found on the first two of those sheets (the "Low Numbers") are a bit scarcer than the issue's other entries. In practice (again, excepting the anomaly posed by #106 Lajoie), realities governing differences in the popularity levels among individual players brought about a previously unheard of circumstance - demand scarcity - that had nothing to do with production numbers. Collectors naturally hungered for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig portrayals; they were, and obviously still are, much more likely to pursue those depictions than ones featuring such athletes as George Uhle and Ed Brandt.
As an aside, it should be noted that 1933 Goudey included a number of minor leaguers too. We wonder how much success a New York youngster, seeking to obtain a Goudey card of Bill Dickey or Tony Lazzeri, would have had with only the likes of the New Orleans Pelicans' Eddie Moore and Dan Howley (the Toronto Maple Leafs' manager) in his for-trade portfolio.
Bottome Line - Sure, cards had been packaged with candy in the past. But, with its fabulous combination of larger size, creatively rendered and dramatically colorful images, and unbelievably powerful player selection, 1933 Goudey is almost indisputably acknowledged as the first meaningful gum card release. To many, on an emotional level, they're the first baseball cards, period.
Ironically, Goudey's subsequent products failed to fully capitalize on the groundwork laid by the spectacular and (apparently) inimitable 1933s. The concept's expression suffered abbreviation in 1934, and became distracted in 1935. The company's string of innovations had ceased altogether by the time the onset of World War II rendered such concerns frivolous. Nevertheless, the legacy of the 1933s remains intact, instantly recognizable to the viewer of almost any subsequent production.