Already established in the penny-gum market and the non-sport card segment of the industry with such legendary issues such as 1935’s “Mickey Mouse Gum” and 1938’s propaganda laden “Horrors of War,” Philadelphia based Gum, Inc. was coming off of a successful foray into the baseball card market following their inaugural issue in 1939.
1940 was a big year for Gum, Inc. In addition to releasing their second and largest of the Play Ball baseball series, the Woodland Avenue plant was also running the presses for non-sport legends Lone Ranger Gum, and would later print and release one of the greatest non-sport issues with Superman Gum. The 1940 Play Ball baseball card set, however, is the topic of our attention.
Following the successful debut of their 1939 Play Ball issue, Gum, Inc. ramped up the imagery and the expansiveness of the set in 1940. While the 1939 issue featured black and white photos of the players on the card fronts, there was little else to identify the player. Play Ball made it easier for youngsters and adults to identify their favorite players by adding the player’s names in a "name banner" at the bottom of each card in this 240 card set. Also, the cards feature a very delicate bordering pattern that unfortunately left very little room for centering shift and makes the issue very difficult to find well centered. The cards measured in at 2 1/2" x 3 1/8", and were printed and distributed in two series. The first series of cards were numbered from 1-180, with the latter series being numbered 181-240. Some cards in the high-number series also provided an advertising preview of the Superman Gum issue that was still to be released by the company.
The 1940 Play Ball set is subject to many condition obstacles. Like other pre-war releases, the Play Ball issue suffers from toning or variations in the consistency or color of the card stock. It is not uncommon to find ones that have varying degrees of this unpleasant yellowing or spotting on the borders or the reverse. Dependent upon the severity and location, toning may have a significant impact upon the presentation and accordingly, on the value of the individual card or the entire set.
The cardboard stock that the cards were printed on is rather stiff and over time has become even more brittle, making high grade examples very difficult to find. To exemplify the difficulty in finding these cards in top condition, Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA) has authenticated and graded in excess of 18,000 1940 Play Ball cards, and only 55 have garnered a grade of PSA 9 MINT, and one sole exemplar has achieved the lofty and virtually perfect grade of PSA 10 GEM MINT. Now that is truly condition sensitivity!
America’s entry into World War II was looming just around the corner, and the 1940 Play Ball baseball set was the penultimate baseball issue for Gum, Inc. as they would cease production after the 1941 Play Ball series. The 1940 set was also the last Gum, Inc. black and white production, although the company would be taken over by Bowman after the war and produce a black and white issue for Bowman’s inaugural release in 1948.
Sandwiched in the middle of the three Play Ball sets, the 1940 issue features the largest individual player selection in an issue since the T206 Set from 1909-1911. The 1933 Goudey Baseball Set also totaled 240 cards, but there were many players that had multiple cards in the issue, so there were far less total players depicted.
Many sets over the decades have been able to boast of some serious star talent, and such is true with the 1940 Play Ball set, as it contains 51 different Hall of Famers! That’s more than 20% of the set, and 25% more Hall of Famers than found in the T206 Set, which finds only 38 different Hall of Famers among the set (albeit, there are more Hall of Fame cards, but they are redundant players in various poses and/or backgrounds).
The 1940 Play Ball set is anchored by three memorable players with Joe DiMaggio batting leadoff as the very first card in the set. As a result of being the #1 card, finding a top grade DiMaggio is about as difficult as finding a Marilyn Monroe photo signed by Joe and Marilyn. To date, only twenty-four DiMaggio cards have graded above PSA 6 EX/MT. That’s one tough card in Near Mint or better! Joe’s contemporary and arguably one of the greatest hitters of all-time, Ted Williams, is also featured early in the set on card #27. Ted is a little easier to find in nice condition and is also the only card in the set to ever garner the elusive PSA 10 GEM MINT designation. The final of the three most distinguished cards in the set is #225 "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who rarely appeared in sets after Commissioner Landis issued Jackson’s suspension. Despite being banished from baseball for his participation in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, Play Ball opted to include him and this little nugget features the slim star batting, and is found in the scarcer high number series.
The power of the names in the set is only surpassed by the power supplied by the likes of Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenburg and Mel Ott. However, those bashers weren’t the only stars to find their way onto the checklist, as stalwarts Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Bobby Doerr, Carl Hubbell, Chuck Klein and managers Casey Stengel and Connie Mack grace the issue with their presence.
One of the unique characteristics of the 1940 Play Ball set is the inclusion of many of the game’s great players that had long retired. While players like Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig were conspicuously absent, other greats were featured despite their playing days being long passed. Such stars included Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Napoleon Lajoie, Johnny Evers, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Tris Speaker and the aforementioned “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
The 1940 Play Ball set affords collectors the opportunity to build a great set containing many of the greatest players to ever play, at relatively reasonable prices. And for those that are up for the challenge or who have deep pockets and serious amounts of patience, this set in top condition provides one of the greater challenges in the hobby.
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