Collecting prewar issues from 1933-41

DSCF1099.jpg181 Sets issued
There have been several thousand baseball card sets issued in the years since 1981. From 1933-41, there were 181 sets issued. Not all of the 181 issues are cards, since “The Big Book” includes pins, matchbooks, pennants, wrappers, stamps, coasters, ice cream lids and cereal boxes in their listings, all of which are nice but just don’t fit very well into our shoe or cigar boxes.

Of the actual card sets, some of them were issues of just one or two players (Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth, Ducky Medwick, the Deans). While it is great to have a 1939 African Tobacco card of Babe Ruth, if you still need one, it is a bit hard to find these advertised in SCD, at a card show or on eBay.

Then there were the team-issued picture packs (Cubs, Tigers, A’s, Reds, White Sox). Again, these are great to have but were only distributed locally and don’t really look like baseball “cards.” At the risk of insulting advocates of Dixie Lids and Mrs. Sherlock’s Bread Pins, I’ll suggest that there really are not that many card sets to collect. So the good news is that we are looking at collecting a few thousand cards from this prewar era versus jillions from the modern era. The bad news is that it costs you a little more.

After eliminating issues that aren’t “cards” or were only issued locally or only of a player or two, we can take a harder look at the major sets from the era. Without looking in a book, you know that Goudeys, Diamond Stars and Play Balls have to be in this group. There are other sets like Batter-Up, Fine and Wide Pens, Tattoo Orbit and DeLong that you may know something about but appear to be difficult to collect. After this bunch you may have to consult the catalogs to know much about Butterfinger, Butter Cream, Al DeMaree, Eclipse Import, Rittenhouse or Schutter & Johnson.

Again, the good news is that you are about done thinking about sets from this era.

I’m going to start with the proposition that to generate much interest in collecting, a set has to be: attractive, available, not too easy to complete and it needs some historical hobby popularity. Let’s also look at what it will cost to collect a set. Looking at the price guides for sets in near-mint condition, a reader may quickly conclude that collecting sets from 1933-41 is an academic discussion – particularly given the big jump in prices lately as reflected in the 2006 Standard Catalog. When the kids need shoes or a college education, it is hard to justify popping for a near-mint 1933 Goudey set at maybe $90,000.

As an investment, a near-mint Goudey set would have done better than the S&P index over the past five years, but then the owner might have to peel off a Ruth or two to send the kids to college – for a few months. Plus, it wouldn’t be much of a collecting quest to simply buy a complete set. But what would it cost to chip away at the sets from 1933-41?

To answer that question, we need to consider condition. When I came across 1933 Goudey cards in the mid-1950s, I thought the cards were made with rounded corners. The ones I picked up from a kid in the neighborhood had been his father’s collection and the corners were pretty round. The kids in my neighborhood had not been flippers like the kids from the 1930s; we just put the cards carefully in shoeboxes, protected them with rubber bands, and played dice games with them. We may have also trimmed 1952 Topps to the size of the Bowmans and changed the names of the players or their teams on a card. The 1953 Bowmans were ideal for such alterations.

The point is that I don’t think the manufacturers of Goudey cards intended that the cards be kept in mint condition. Rather than paying good money for great cards, why not pay less money for “good” cards that were actually out there in circulation in the 1930s, banging around in pockets, school bags and cigar boxes? The VG or worse cards are easier to find than the mint ones anyway and we don’t have forever to put these sets together. Hail to the VG or worse card.

It probably should be noted, however, that buying lower-grade cards can diminish the “investment” prognosis, making reselling them a bit more problematic.

Ruth & Co.
The next thing that drives up the price of a set are those darned superstars like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

Forty years ago, the disparity between superstars and commons was infinitely smaller than it is today, but what if you held off on Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, DiMaggio and maybe just a few others? Now, if you look at the Goudey set and forget about Ruth and Gehrig for awhile and target collecting the other 233 cards in VG condition, you are looking at a lousy $11,500 (plus future inflation) to collect the near set, or a $49 per-card average. If a collector lowered his sights a bit more to somewhat bent and bruised cards, it would be proportionately less.

If the royal 1933 Goudeys, the premier cards from the 1930s, can be (mostly) collected for $11,500, what would it cost to collect the other near-sets in such a way? Even if you conclude that my version of collecting logic is warped, you can adjust my information to draw your own conclusions about the economics of collecting sets in better (or worse) condition and with or without superstars.

However, we must keep in mind that you can’t actually buy from the catalogs or price guides. You have to deal with real, live people, some of whom are interested in selling VG cards at near-mint prices. These sellers are more like museum curators who really don’t want to part with their cards. You’ll get satisfaction overcoming this obstacle as well. Of the major issues (as arbitrarily defined) in the 1933 to 1941 era, there are only about 2,000 cards. If you hold off until a rich uncle dies to buy just 31 cards of Ruth, Gehrig and the boys, you can conceivably collect many of the sets.

Set size
Let’s look at the number of cards in each of the major sets:
Group 1 The “Long” Sets:
1940 Playball (240 cards), 1933 Goudey (239 cards without Lajoie)
Group 2 Big Sets:
1934-36 Batter-Up R318 (192 cards), 1936 Goudey R314 Wide Pen Premiums (178 cards), Al DeMaree R304 (173 cards – maybe), 1939 Play Ball (162 cards)
Group 3 Average Sets:
1936 National Chicle Fine Pen Premiums R313 (120 cards), Diamond Stars (108 cards), 1934 Goudey (96 cards), 1941 Double Play R330 (150 players on 75 cards), 1941 Playball (72 cards)
Group 4 Modest Sets:
1934 Butterfinger R310 (65 cards), 1933 Tattoo Orbit R305 (60 cards), 1936 S&S Game (52 cards), 1933 Rittenhouse Candy E285 (52 cards), 1935 Schutter & Johnson R332 (50 cards), 1938 Goudey R323 (48 cards)
Group 5 Small sets:
1935 Goudey Puzzles (36 cards, not counting variations), 1941 Goudey R324 (33 cards), 1933 Butter Cream R306 (30 cards), 1936 Goudey Game R322 (25 cards), 1933 DeLong R333 (24 cards), 1933 George C. Miller R300 (24 cards), 1933 Eclipse Import R337 (24 cards)

There are pros and cons to working on large and small sets. As the number of cards in a set declines, completing the set may be less time consuming and may not produce quite the same sense of accomplishment. The larger (or “long sets” as they used to call them) also included more stars and represented more teams. While veteran collectors like Lionel Carter played baseball dice games as a kid with the 24-card DeLong set, it would seem to be more fun to have all 239 of the 1933 Goudeys available to make up your fantasy teams. In fact, four different people could have a Babe Ruth on their team in that Ruth appears four times in the set. The excess cards of Ruth were actually an annoyance to Carter as a collector in 1933 – the card numbers could have been used to produce more complete team rosters.
One factor in analyzing what to collect should involve the number of cards in the set. Too few cards reduces the challenge; too many cards may create too much of a challenge and expense.

Historic Popularity< br />What did collectors in the 1930s think of sets from the era? There aren’t too many collectors to poll who collected cards as kids in the 1930s. I asked two of them: Lionel Carter and Bob Solon. Both men, now in their 80s, collected cards in sets and were very interested in card numbers (e.g. No. 106 in 1933 Goudey) and the appearance of new or obscure players on cards.

Solon collected most of these sets in the 1930s and has always had an ability to look at the business side of the hobby. Solon points out that manufacturers weren’t chasing around a lot of excess disposable income during the Great Depression. Heads of families were out of work and baseball cards weren’t of great importance in the big picture.

Competition among card distributors seemed to heat up in 1933 when there was a certain optimism that the economy was going to get better. However, the economy continued to lag and the card competitors seemed to peter out. Set sizes dwindled to about nothing by 1937. Finally the economy started to recover in 1939 as the popular Play Balls arrived. 

Solon thought the Goudeys got less inspiring each year. He thought the four-player 1935 puzzle cards “bombed,” saying the best thing you could do with such cards at the time was to cut them into four. The 1941 Double Plays frequently suffered a similar fate. I recall the same personal reaction to the 1955 Topps Doubleheaders, although at least we couldn’t rationalize cutting them in two.  Subsequent Goudey sets were not as widely distributed or sought after as the 1933 and 1934 sets according to both Solon’s and Carter’s recollections.

Carter liked the DeLongs, Batter-Ups, Diamond Stars and Play Balls. He viewed the Wide Pens, Fine Pens, puzzles, exhibits and game cards as not quite “baseball cards” in that they weren’t cards of one player with stats on the back. Solon felt the Wide and Fine pens were geared to an adult market interested in nice photos rather than cards. He appreciated the variety of players between the two sets and the inclusion of obscure players. Many of the other sets just weren’t available to collect.

Carter had the DeLongs as a kid but not many others did. Solon felt the DeLongs were more available in St. Louis and rural areas, which was quite unusual at the time since cards tended to come from the East where the big cities and major league teams could be found. If you were in California, you got Zeenuts. Jefferson Burdick’s collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has many rare cards, including the Al DeMarees and Eclipse Imports, but even Burdick only had a few George C. Miller cards. Looking at sets from the perspective of collectors from the era, I have grouped the cards into the following categories:

Popular: 1933 Goudey, 1934 Goudey, Batter-Up, Diamond Stars, 1938 Goudey, 1939 Playball, 1940 Playball, 1941 Playball

Not as Popular:
DeLong, Fine Pen, Wide Pen, Tattoo Orbit, 1935 Goudey, 1936 Goudey, S&S, 1941 Goudey, 1941 Double Play

Al DeMaree, Butterfinger, Rittenhouse, Butter Cream, Schutter & Johnson, George C. Miller, Eclipse Import

Card sets I’ve left out:
Exhibits (a separate topic itself), Zeenuts (minor league), Canadian cards, U.S. Caramel (a 1932 issue), R303, R308, R311, R312, Worch Cigar, M&P (not issued until WWII, at least they are cheap – and ugly), Sport Kings (only a few baseball) and undoubtedly some others.

Cost of the Cards
In general, the cost of sets are 10-30 percent less than the total of the individual cards in the set per the Standard Catalog. But buying the entire set isn’t much of a collecting activity. It is a one-shot event. I’ll assume collectors want to buy a decent number of cards to get a set going and to continue to chip away at the set over time.

Table 1 (at left) reflects the approximate cost of collecting individual cards to make up a set in an average grade of VG, with roughly a 10 percent premium over the set price. Then assume that, for some reason, you want to follow my suggestion of buying VG cards and forgetting Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Williams and just one card of Shoeless Joe in the 1940 Play Ball set. I have shown the cost of completing near-sets of these cards and the average cost per card with and without the superstars. By leaving out the 31 superstar cards, you save about 20 percent of the total cost.

For the 1933 Goudeys, you cut the cost of the near-set by 35 percent. For 1939 Play Balls, two of the 162 cards (DiMaggio and Williams) make up 33 percent of the set price. Here is how the cost of collecting cards in a set stacks up on the affordability scale. This listing may imply that you can just go out and find these cards to make up a set, which we will see is not the case.

Affordable: S&S ($7 per card – Oops, I haven’t even started collecting this set, so why am I highlighting it?)
Fine Pens ($12 per card – forgetting DiMaggio)
1939 Play Ball ($13 per card – if you exclude DiMaggio and Ted Williams)
Wide Pen ($13 per card – forget two DiMaggio cards)
1940 Play Ball ($16 per card – if you exclude DiMaggio, Williams and Joe Jackson)
1941 Double Play ($19 per card without DiMaggio and Williams)

Not horrendous: Butterfinger ($29 per card – if you exclude Ruth and Gehrig)
Rittenhouse ($32 per card – without two Ruths)
1936 Goudey Game ($35 per card)
1941 Goudey ($36 per card )
BatterUp ($38 per card and you don’t have to leave anyone out, although you may have a problem finding the standup backs to your cards)
1941 Play Ball ($39 per card – if you exclude DiMaggio and Williams)
1934 Goudey ($45 per card – forgetting the two Gehrigs; however, you get a picture of Lou on most of the other cards anyway)
1933 Goudey ($49 per card – if you exclude four Ruths and two Gehrigs)

Pricey: 1935 Goudey Puzzle ($51 per card – if you exclude Ruth, who takes up one fourth of one card)
Eclipse Import ($52 per card – excluding Ruth)
Diamond Stars ($54 per card, darn those high numbers)
Schutter & Johnson ($63 per card – if you exclude Ruth and Gehrig)

High End: 1938 Goudey ($79 per card without DiMaggio)
Tattoo Orbit ($85 per card)
DeLong ($121 per card without Gehrig)
Butter Cream ($169 per card without Ruth)

I am going to go way out on a limb and state that no one is likely to start a collection of Al DeMaree Die-Cuts ($200 per card in VG) or George C. Miller cards (more than $500 per card in VG). Burdick had a nice collection of the Al DeMaree Die-Cuts that I viewed, but no one even knows how many cards are in the set and collecting the die-cut cards in mangled shape wouldn’t be much fun anyway. You are really looking at $500-$800 per card and the cards can’t be found anyway.

But you can see that as long as you are not a big fan of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio or Williams, you have a chance to collect near-sets of many of the issues. A few sets, like S&S, can be collected in their entirety since they had the good sense not to include any of the biggest names.

(Editor’s note: It’s probably not a viable option for most collectors, but many of the sets mentioned above, especially the more popular mainstream Goudeys, Play Balls, etc., have been reprinted over the years, and those near-set wholes from stars like Ruth, Gehrig and others of that ilk could be filled in with ersatz versions.)

Now that you may have an interest in collecting any of the sets described, a good question would be: What is actually available in the market? A card may well be affordable, desirable, attractive and nostalgic but if it isn’t available in the market, there isn’t much collecting activity.

One way to judge availability is to look at what is on eBay. While eBay may have several unusual listings at any point in time, I thought it would give me a general indication of how e asy it would be to find some of these cards. I looked at listings on eBay four different times and averaged the results. My research resulted in a big surprise to me. Even though I hadn’t been looking for some of the less popular sets from the era, I thought I would find cards from most sets available on eBay – for a price.

Of the sets I have described, 7,429 cards were either currently listed or had sales closed in the past two weeks. The 7,429 represented less than 0.5 percent of the 1.7 million baseball cards listed on eBay during my survey. Incredibly, 1933 Goudeys accounted for 50 percent of the 7,430 listings with 3,676 cards. 1934 Goudeys had 1,158 listings or 16 percent, Diamond Stars 798 listings or 11 percent, and the other sets I’ve discussed had much less activity in total making up 23 percent of the cards listed.

However we really need to look at how many listings there were compared to the number of cards in a set to get a better handle on “availability.” See Table II for “listings per card.” Even then, this is still a rough guide in that you certainly won’t run across high numbers as frequently. Also, many of the listings, DeLongs for example, include a significant number of eBay store items that are listed for buying now versus for bidding. However, using this rough approach, Table II ranks cards listed on eBay compared to the number of cards in the set.

If the survey numbers are valid, it would mean that Batter-Ups are 10 times harder to find than 1934 Goudeys, Rittenhouse cards are 10 times harder to find than Batter-Ups, and Al DeMaree Die-Cuts are 10 times harder to find than Rittenhouse. In other words, Al DeMaree Die-Cuts come around at about the same pace as eclipses. DeLong appears to be more available per the table than I think they really are, due to the many “buy now” listings at high prices.

According to the Standard Catalog, Rittenhouse was a relatively affordable set, but its infrequent availability would make them difficult. Several sets were not only unavailable but very expensive, which should not be a complete surprise.

I think the prices for the obscure sets are a lot “thinner” for both buyers and sellers. There don’t seem to be many of these cards available and when they do become available the seller will luck out if there are two or three people who have been anxious to acquire the cards. Modest book value prices might wind up doubling in such a sale. It may also be the case that the seller has a few of these obscure cards that no one is anxious to buy and it may take a long time before the ideal buyer appears. If you have a 1933 Goudey Ruth, you can probably buy or sell pretty quickly around book value. If you have an expensive Schutter & Johnson card, it might be awhile before a person who needs the card is willing to pay a high price. In statistical terminology I am guessing that the standard deviation from book value is much greater for obscure cards.

Collectors Comments
Finally, I asked a number of  current collectors to share their observations about these sets. Without resorting to my fancy analysis, they seemed to me to be right on target with their comments.

From Joshua Levine:
Wide Pen – fairly easy to finish but there are variations; Fine Pen – tougher than the Goudeys but not impossible; Batter-Up – rarely if ever seen complete; S&S – have seen complete sets fairly cheap; 1941 Goudey – very tough; Tattoo Obit – reprinted a lot; Rittenhouse – tough with back variations, some cards short printed; Butterfinger – also a Canadian version, top stars can get really expensive; Butter Cream – tough because of contest/promotion.

From Andy Cook
1941 Goudey is extremely difficult. I’ve been working on it for years and still need two to complete. Both the DeLong and Tattoo Orbit sets can be completed if you’ve got a little money.

From John Harrell
1936 Goudey is easy and relatively cheap; 1935 is a bit tougher; Wide Pens are somewhat more plentiful than Fine Pens; 1938 Goudey is doable in low grade but will cost you a fortune for the Greenberg and DiMaggio; 1941 Goudey is getting harder by the year, especially the short prints; the DeLongs, except for Gehrig, can be found in low grade for not too much, but you’ll have to be patient; Tattoo Orbits are extremely tough as several cards exist as (unlisted) short prints. I have been working on my set for close to 10 years and am down to three; George C. Miller is the “Impossible Dream” set.

From John Scott Gray
1941 Double Play is a set that I have been very successful at working on – I am more than halfway there and I have not been really trying that hard.

From Bob Donaldson
I think a realistic collecting goal would be to start with the 1933 Goudeys, the granddaddy of them all. I’d then pick a Play Ball set and one miscellaneous set (Fine Pen, Double Play.) Finally, I’d work on a type set of all the others. I definitely think the 1930s were the Golden Age of baseball cards.

Now that I am inundated with information and before I forget why I collected it, and before you figure out whether there is indeed any logic to my approach, I will put all the factors together using completely secret mathematical equations (even to me) and present my observations as to the sets to collect from the 1933-1941 era.

Category I: Sets that would make sense to collect:
1933 Goudey:  The 239-card set is a classic in appearance and is available with the most listings of any 1933-1941 set on eBay. There are many stars and HOFers. High numbers (Nos. 190-240 without Big League Chewing Gum in a block on the bottom) aren’t priced at a premium. Solon remembers the high numbers coming out in “a flood” after the World Series. If you can live without the six Ruth and Gehrig cards, a near-set in VG would (theoretically) run “only” $11,500 versus $17,600 with Ruth and Gehrig. It would probably be cheaper to buy a set but less fun.

We won’t talk about the 1934 issue of No. 106 Lajoie, but if you have an extra, please send it to me for safekeeping. On the other hand, this is all a lot of money for baseball cards and I can fully understand if this set slips in a collector’s priorities.

1934 Goudey: If you are working on 1933, you might as well hit the next classic, a 96-card set. I don’t know how you can collect a “Lou Gehrig Says” set without Lou, but a VG near-set without the two Gehrigs would be $4,250 versus $5,500. Based on what I found on eBay, the set is only slightly less available than the 1933s, although the “Chuck Klein Says” high numbers will slow you down. Ruth took a pass on appearing in Lou’s or Chuck’s set. Without Ruth and Gehrig, the 1933 and 1934 Goudeys average about $47 each in VG.

1939 Play Ball: Commons are affordable and available. Design is similar to 1953 Bowman Black-and-Whites. Williams and DiMaggio are the pricey cards. Many back type-font variations if you want to keep collecting. Only two of the 46 high numbers go for an additional premium, thank goodness. A VG set without the two keys would only be $2,000 versus $3,000.

Diamond Stars: Another classic, although only 108 cards get issued over three years. High numbers are hard to find and many variations can keep you going. Because there are no Ruth or Gehrig cards, you might as well go for the whole set although the high numbers are expensive – plus many are identical to the low numbers. In 25 years I’ve reduced my own high-number wants from 12 to four. A VG set would be about $5,800. My rough survey showed that Diamond Stars were more available than other sets, except for the 1933 and 1934 Goudeys.

1941 Play Ball: This set looked better than any produced in the next 10 years. DiMaggio, Williams and Foxx price the set in VG at $4,100. Without DiMaggio and Williams, it would run $2,700 for the rest. The eBay listings would have this set in the middle of the pack as to availability.

1940 Play Ball:
I love the nicknames. Everyone gets one even if their nickname is “Bob.” This is the “longest” set of the era and the high numbers drive the price of the set in VG up to $6,000. But if you can live without Williams, DiMaggio and Shoeless Joe for awhile, you can (theoretically) spend $4,000 for the other 237 cards, which include some retired HOFers, sort of like a 1960 Fleer set thrown in. Availability isn’t great, so this will take awhile.

Category II The Next Sets to Consider (or maybe the first, if Category I is financially impossible):

1935 Goudey Puzzle:
Only 36 cards if you forget the variations. A VG set is $2,200 with Ruth as a Brave, who only gets one fourth of the card anyway. Without Babe, it is $1,800 and about as tough to find as the Diamond Stars, per my survey.

1936 Goudey Game:
Like the 1948 Bowmans with 1968 Topps game card backs, but only about $880 for all 25 cards in VG. Greenberg is the most expensive. Availability is fair.

1941 Double Play:
Available and not too pricey if you leave out Williams and DiMaggio. Two little guys on one card are twice as good as four tiny guys on a card?

1936 Goudey Wide Pen:
A set of 178 handed out by Mr. Retailer. Lionel Carter didn’t consider them “cards.” Reasonably priced and available, especially if you skip two DiMaggio cards and the variations.

1936 National Chicle Fine Pens:
Since you’ll be digging though the Wide Pens you might as well go for their competitor from National Chicle with 120 cards and only one DiMaggio. Reasonably available, but a lot of cards to keep you busy in these two good-looking sets.

S&S: Started out as cheap dime-store cards and they are still the cheapest of the lot. Half the card is the game information. Hard to get enthused about the appearance.

Category III – Maybe consider these when you have extra money and time:

1938 Goudey: Not impossible to find but expensive with or without DiMaggio.

Batter-Up: Distribution of the high numbers wasn’t good in that cards were issued over two years. These fragile cards may be more mangled in lower grades than you can live with, and at 192 cards may take awhile. Lionel Carter still needs a couple of highs and he’s collected them for 70 years.

DeLong: Great looking but expensive with or without Lou. Availability was pretty good per my eBay survey and there are only 24 to collect.

Category IV – Nice cards but impossible.

Forget ’em (don’t even send me your extras, otherwise I’ll try to collect the set). Just not available very often even though book prices may not be ridiculous. A type card would be nice though. In a wild guess descending order:

“Conceivably Doable”
Butterfinger – 65 cards may be worth pursuing
Rittenhouse – pretty flimsy game-strip card, cheaper than others
Tattoo Orbit – $85 plus for a little VG card that is hard to find and has short prints. Solon remembers comparing these cards to Goudey, Diamond Stars, and Batter-Up and thinking it was hard to get enthused about this little set
1941 Goudey – hard to find but at least they are ugly with scarce color variations
“Truly Forget ’em”
Butter Cream – lots of money and hard to find
Schutter & Johnson – same as above, plus they are drawings
Eclipse Import –  strip card, slightly more glamorous than the M&Ps, which isn’t saying much
George C. Miller – a set for “dreamers”
Al DeMaree – Save the money and visit Burdick’s collection of these
I hope you’ll be persuaded to take a look at collecting another set or two from the 1933-41 era. Have fun whatever you choose to collect.

George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to SCD and can be reached at

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