During the first administration of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Goudey Gum Company of Boston completely remodeled the nation's baseball cards. Larger, bearing fuller illustrations and a relative wealth of player information, those 1930s classics had been enthusiastically received by the gum-buying, card-collecting public.
The industry's fortunes shifted somewhat quickly though, and by the time of FDR's third term in office, the direction established by Goudey was in the hands of a new caretaker.
Gum, Incorporated, of Philadelphia, maker of some of the period's finest nonsports, entertainment-themed card sets under the leadership of chewing gum entrepreneur Warren Bowman, had become the reigning baseball card manufacturer by 1941. Gum, Inc.'s "Play Ball" brand effectively seized the market in 1939 from a staggering Goudey, and handled it adroitly from the start.
Bowman's approach was safe, predictable and successful. Rather than re-invent the wheel, he presided over a maturation of the theme initiated by Goudey. For 1939's Play Ball release, a 2 ½" by 3 1/8" approximation of the size pioneered by Goudey was retained, with large images and in-depth descriptions of the athletes' careers also present as noteworthy features. However, the similarities to earlier products ended there, as the Play Ball brand was clearly given the latitude to develop its own identity. And, as would be demonstrated, the new leading name in baseball cards was prepared to grow and evolve in the quest to hold its customers' interest.
The first Play Ball cards may have been seen as rather austere when they emerged in 1939. Each collectible's obverse side revealed a black and white, photographic image of the subject player. That's it. No elaborate logos or slogans, no dancing graphics or radiant colors - not even a caption! The effect was such that the buyer was encouraged to turn over the card and read about the ballplayer's accomplishments. (Perhaps, in the cases of lesser figures like Vito Samulis or Tom Sunkel, the turnover was mandatory if the holder wanted to know who the player was!) Whatever the precise motive leading to their design, the 1939s were enjoyed in their time - either because or in spite of their lack of visual histrionics - and the production provided an array of superb images to commemorate the 162 players who had been selected for inclusion.
For 1940, Play Ball stuck with the previous year's cardback style and modified the fronts in just one respect; name captions, along with unassuming borders capped by tiny bat, glove and ball graphics were added to its still all black and white frontal motif. The set was expanded to 240 players (including some tougher "High Numbers," distinguished by numerous retired Hall of Famers plus a conversation-inspiring depiction of "Shoeless Joe" Jackson) and Gum, Inc. had another winner.
Who knows where Play Ball's discreet, thoughtful progression of style would have led, given a number of years in succession to enable blossoming to its fullest. Regrettably, the exigencies of global conflict dictated limitations, and the hobby was only allowed to experience the brand in one more stage.
The 1941 Play Ball cards showcased the most dramatic new facet seen in the brand to that point. Yes, for 1941, color was added to the cards' fronts. It would be a joy to recapture some of the expressions on the faces of those first Play Ball buyers in that season! Those people must have been transfixed, as the pastel colors bestowed upon the new cards' obverse sides are unbelievably graceful and elegant complements to their respective players' likenesses.
The players' poses were now accented by appropriate, flattering hues, and their backgrounds were lent glamorous touches of aesthetically-pleasing single shades or lushly artistic and geometrically derived "Deco-style" treatments. With its lovely, polychromatic new look, the third Play Ball issue easily joined the ranks of the future's "all-time" contenders!
Composition - Although just 72 cards in length, 1941 Play Ball provides a surprisingly satisfying record of a great time in the game. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx headlined a roster that also boasted the likes of Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Bill Dickey, Chuck Klein and Lefty Gomez. Most of the issue's entries were granted to the day's established, regular players, but one eventual Hall of Famer, Brooklyn's "Pee Wee" Reese, was shown in his debut-year, rookie card appearance. And as an aspect that must have been a bit of an attention-grabber among fans at the time, the three ballplaying DiMaggio brothers - Joe, Dom, and Vince ... all active Major Leaguers during the 1941 campaign - made their only simultaneous showing in the same trading card production.
Key Features and Rarities - No rarities or significant variations distract enthusiasts from the straightforward enjoyment of 1941 Play Ball's stellar content. The release was printed on six 12-card sheets; the latter two of these holding #s 49 through 72, inclusive, yielded high number cards that are slightly scarcer than their lower-number counterparts, but not prohibitively so. Aside from an understandable and obvious preoccupation toward obtaining the set's marvelous depictions of DiMaggio, Williams and their Cooperstown-enshrined contemporaries, hobbyists are free to focus on completing a set that's wholly reasonable in number while reveling in its short-but-sweet character!
Bottom Line - Although it couldn't have been forecast with certainty as the collectibles rolled off Gum, Inc.'s presses, the 1941 Play Ball series led the gum card industry into a time of forced hiatus. As they say, sometimes things happen for a reason, and maybe that was the case here. If military people set out on their overseas travels with baseball cards on their minds, 1941 Play Ball's well-selected group of color-tinted star cards must have made for servicemen's fond memories. The last major prewar issue marked an appealing conclusion to one generation's hobby, and doubtless ensured that cards would return to the scene after the crisis passed.