1948 Swell Sports Thrills: Big Stars and Big Moments

By Doug Koztoski

It was Game 6 of the 1947 World Series, and the Brooklyn Dodgers led the N.Y. Yankees 8-5 late in the contest. With two runners on, Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio slammed a pitch that looked to be at least a double, maybe a home run.

Brooklyn left fielder Al Gionfriddo quickly backpedaled toward where Joe D’s smash might arrive. At the last instant, Gionfriddo cradled the liner in leather a handful of steps, at most, from the 415-foot mark at the Yankee Stadium fence. In a rare show of any real emotion on the ball field, DiMaggio kicked the dirt in disgust at the Dodger outfielder’s stellar snag.

Brooklyn won that game but lost the Series, yet Gionfriddo’s catch has gone down in Fall Classic history as one of the most memorable. And, ultimately, it took place in Gionfriddo’s last big league game. A stylish exit, for sure.

sporthrillsThe “modern” era of sports cards began in 1948. For many baseball collectors, that meant ripping open packs of cards from companies such as Bowman and Leaf to see players of the day.

Another more obscure set also vied for kid’s pocket change that season. Although made via the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Co., the Sport Thrills set is known by the bubble gum it was packaged with, Swell. And there on card No. 9 is Gionfriddo, seconds after the famous play, with the caption “Greatest Catch!” Yes, a stylish exit indeed!

A few “in-action” photos in the 20-piece, black-and-white Swell baseball set show some of the first “modern” regular issue card samples of MLB game coverage.

The collection ranges mostly from the 1930s through 1947, and other game images include: No. 4, “Greatest Pitcher,” with Walter Johnson; No. 12, “Most Dramatic Home Run,” with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth at home plate after The Babe’s famous “Called Shot” homer in the 1932 Series; No. 16, “Three Run Homer in Ninth,” where Joe DiMaggio and others congratulate Ted Williams just after Teddy Ballgame “went yard” with his classic game-winning hit in the 1941 All-Star game.

jackierobinsonPortraits of legends
Posed shots also bring collectors some gems in the offering: No. 3, “Dramatic Debut,” with Jackie Robinson, on one of his rookie cards; No. 14, “Greatest Slugging,” focusing on Gehrig’s home run hitting exploits; and Bob Feller on No. 19, “Strikeout Record,” to name a few.

On the card backs, by the way, in addition to giving details of the event pictured on the flip side, there was a mail-in offer where collectors were asked to send in five Swell wrappers and a nickel to receive a Bob Feller button. The backs also mention Feller’s new book at the time, How to Pitch. By chance, that same year the fireballer’s Cleveland Indians won the World Series.

In general terms, the 1948 Swell offering is tough to wrangle, much like it was to snare a clutch DiMaggio drive. As sports card dealer Kevin Savage said, “I buy about seven or eight 1948 Bowman baseball sets a year and maybe one a year of the (’48) Swell Sport Thrills sets.” PSA Population numbers indicate a big difference in 1948 Bowman and Leaf cards versus the Swell set, by at least about a 20-to-1 margin in each case.

Three years ago this June, a collector known as “Swell King,” an avid pursuer of the 1948 issue, wrote on one of his PSA Set Registry pages that there were only about 600 “PSA graded examples of the entire set” and noted “there is only one (PSA) 8 and 32 (PSA) 7s.”

Fast-forward almost three years to the day of that entry and the numbers are not much different on the high end: about 775 graded examples, but still just one “8” and 33 “7”s (not including those with qualifiers). To date, there are no PSA 9s or PSA 10s from this set.

Although SCD reached out to Swell King for an interview, he had not responded back before publication. Even so, we can mine additional important information from his PSA page: “The paper stock is terrible, so finding them in nice condition is impossible,” he wrote. “Typically flawed with paper wrinkles and creases” was also noted. He ought to know, as he possesses seven of the eight top-ranked sets of these on the PSA Registry; Swell King has earned his crown.

You won’t find many Swell Sport Thrills cards in top condition. Poor quality paper stock and centering issues lend to grades topping out at the “8” level.

You won’t find many Swell Sport Thrills cards in top condition. Poor quality paper stock and centering issues lend to grades topping out at the “8” level.

While the “King” has his place on the throne, Mark Hellman is more of “The Prince of Swell Ville,” coming in at No. 2 for the issue on the Registry.

Among Hellman’s favorites from this set are Ruth, Robinson and No. 11, “Bases Loaded!” where Tony Lazzeri struck out against Grover Cleveland Alexander at a crucial point in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series, helping the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Yankees.

The hobbyist said that Lazzeri/Alexander card is among the more challenging to track down in the offering, along with No. 4 (Johnson), No. 16 (Williams/DiMaggio) and the set starter, “Greatest Single Inning,” a 1929 World Series-related card picturing five posed Philadelphia Athletics, including three Hall of Famers led by Jimmy (sic) Foxx.

“That first card is very difficult to find in high grade,” said Hellman. “You usually are not going to find anything better than a PSA 4 or 5, at best.”

Combining relatively low production numbers, paper stock problems and nearly seven decades of potential wear and tear, the chances of finding 1948 Swell cards in swell condition remain slimmer than knowing your favorite snack is within arm’s length and it staying untouched for any amount of time.

Savage added there is another factor, too, regarding the condition of these cards.

“They have a lot of centering issues, and five to six out of 10, when we get them in, are off-center,” said the owner of Kevin Savage Cards.

Looking at several eBay auctions, for instance, many of the ’48s from this set are commonly off-center with a thin right border.

tedwilliamsStill a Thrill after all these years
Savage sees the ’48 Swell set keeping a decent spot in the hobby. “It’s interesting and a bit different for that time period,” he said.

Perhaps Hellman characterized the issue best: “It’s a vintage set, it has some great key cards and it is nice looking.” He noted that the Ruth card came out the year the slugger died, at 53. Hellman added he felt the set’s popularity is “on the rise, slightly, and it has always been a solid item.”

Who knows, if you have not already done so, maybe sticking out your “hobby glove” for some of these 1948 cards will result in a few 1947 World Series Gionfriddo-like moments, and then you can exclaim you’ve made some of your “Greatest” catches!

That’s just Swell, as well
The Philly Chewing Gum Co. put out a second baseball set under the Swell name in 1948.

The 28-card collection revolves around the 1948 film The Babe Ruth Story starring William Bendix. Five cards show “The Bambino” himself. Card No. 15 pictures Bendix in Yankee garb; the pasteboard highlights the famous “Called Shot” 1932 World Series homer.

Prices for cards from this set commonly range from $10-$15 for lower grade, raw samples not showing Ruth, to slabbed, mid-grade examples highlighting the slugger going for $100-$125.

Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to SCD. He welcomes comments and questions related to this article at kozpro20@hotmail.com.

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