Goudey Sport Kings: A Set Treated Like Royalty

The brainstorm came from Chicago Tribune Sports Editor Arch Ward in 1933. It entailed gathering several top baseball players in each league and having them play against each other that summer in an exhibition game at Chicago’s Comiskey Stadium, former home of the White Sox, timed to coincide with the World’s Fair taking place in that city.

The 1933 All-Star game, planned as a one-time event, was a huge hit. But “one and done” turned into “annual fun,” and every year since (except 1945), Major League Baseball has had a Midsummer Classic. On a memorable note, in the inaugural MLB All-Star contest, Babe Ruth launched the first homer in the game’s history.

The same summer, one chest-deep in The Great Depression, Ruth helped out another all-star team of sorts as part of the Goudey Co.’s Sport Kings set, among the first trading card issues with gum in the packs. The eclectic mix of 48 star athletes from about 20 sports has been a tremendous hit with collectors ever since.

Even though Ruth had revolutionized baseball with his home run prowess since 1920, and hitting his “Called Shot” home run in the 1932 World Series, he shows up as the second card in the Sport Kings issue, right behind another occasional baseball headline-maker: Ty Cobb. But Ruth would likely laugh that his card is generally the most sought-after/priciest in the collection – especially if the factoid got under the skin of the overly competitive and fiery Cobb.

A PSA 10 Cobb from this issue sold in 2004 for nearly $82,000. The set’s best graded Ruth (PSA 9) traded owners for $115,000 in 2001. Robert Lifson, president of Robert Edward Auctions, described the Ruth card as “majestic.” 

At the 1934 All-Star game, Carl Hubbell made the permanent highlight reel in the contest’s history when he fanned five straight sluggers, including Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. But in October 1933 “King Carl” used his screwball to help his New York Giants team beat the Washington Senators in the World Series. The lefty’s ’33 Fall Classic exploits are featured on the back of his high-numbered Sport King card (No. 42), the set’s third and final baseball card.

Jim Thorpe, who “dabbled” with pro baseball, is known more for his Olympic and football exploits. He is one of three gridiron types in the set, along with legends Red Grange and Knute Rockne. Earlier this year, in a private sale, Memory Lane sold a PSA 9 Thorpe for $70,000, slightly more than double the “list” price.

“That is the Thorpe card to have,” said J.P. Cohen of Memory Lane, “and that price comes with four PSA 9s of the card in the hobby.”

Other trios of note in the issue are swimmers Johnny Weissmuller, of Tarzan movie fame; “Duke” Kahanamoku, considered by many the father of “modern” surfing; and Helene Madison, one of two women in the set. Golfers include Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones. The Jones card (No. 38) in high grade gets more than a polite golf clap from the gallery. In fact, it receives big cheers when a nice condition one surfaces. A PSA 8 Jones lists in the Sports Market Report for $8,500.

If Jones and Co. needed to fill out a competitive quartet on the links, they only had to look at card No. 45, “Babe” Didrickson (sic), the other woman in the collection.

A gold medal-winning track and field star at the 1932 Olympics, Didrikson (spelled correctly) would go on to golf superstardom just a few years later. You’ll have to spend about $3,500-$4,000 minimum for her “King” graded PSA 8.

“That is a hard card to find in high grade,” Lifson said, “and it’s very popular in any condition.”

The key foursomes in the issue are the hoopsters, “captained” by Nat Holman (some PSA 8 Holman’s have gone for around $20,000); boxers with Jack Dempsey; and the icemen led by Eddie Shore.
 
Mini masterpieces

With the innovative artwork depicting lifelike illustrations of the athletes against colorful backgrounds and near the bottom of each sliver of history a silhouetted sport scene, the images “jump right off the cardboard,” said hobbyist Bill Anderson. “The set is true Americana.”
Anderson, who has pursued Sports Kings for years, called the ’33 Goudey all-stars “the prize of my collection.”

Narrow white borders, however, often mean off-centered cards, and unless one comes across a top-grade 1933 Goudey Sports King, the residue of printing ink “bleeding” can be even more unsightly – and quite common. The “bleeding” came from uncut card sheets being placed “wet” on top of each other, and the ink migrated and stuck, to a degree, on several cards.

In a 2010 Huggins & Scott auction, a raw, Excellent condition uncut sheet of the 24 low numbers sold for just over $38,000.

Sightings
Based on PSA’s Population Report, the low numbers are roughly 50 percent more available in graded form, on average, compared to the last two dozen cards in the issue. Aviator James Doolittle (No. 28) shows up about 80 times in the Report, the toughest “King” to find in those holders. Meanwhile, the Cobb and Ruth cards, the most graded, both have around 375 PSA samples apiece on average.

Chock full of PSA 8s and 9s, a Sport Kings set changed owners in 2004 for $360,000, a then record-sum for a complete, encapsulated issue sold at one time.

Memory Lane brokered that set sale, and Cohen said the stellar 48-card collection has enjoyed some upgrades over the years and now includes three of the four known PSA 10s, with the Cobb. Cohen noted that if a high-grade Sport King set was to go on the market, it would bring a princely price tag.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if it went for $750,000 minimum, and it could break $1 million,” he said.

On the flip side, a set in VG-EX (PSA 4) can be pieced together for around $10,000.

Reading something into it

Looking at hundreds of Goudey Sport Kings in PSA and SGC holders and consulting several price guides and other hobby publications and websites, one could easily conclude that this set came out only in 1933.

A closer look, however, suggests otherwise.

The “case” really pivots on some high numbers. For instance, the card back of aviator James Wedell (No. 26) mentions a flight he piloted from Texas to Baltimore in December 1933, parts of which were in a blinding snowstorm, to transport an infant for a life-saving operation.

Just three pasteboards later, hockey star “Ace” Bailey’s card mentions his severe injury, that ultimately ended his career, on Dec. 12, 1933.
OK, maybe Goudey printed off a few cards right before the end of the year, and they all made it out the door before people started to sing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve.

Yet, the cardboard shot of jockey Jack Westrope (No. 39) makes the “solely a 1933 set” argument even harder to accept. Westrope’s card back clearly states that in the final week of January 1934, he lost his apprentice rating. Research confirmed that the jockey did lose that rating in late January 1934. So perhaps just a slight tweak in the labeling of this issue, as in 1933-34, is in order.

Whether a collector goes for the set or a particular sport or type card, the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings has something for several hobbyists. Lifson labeled the eye-catching cards as “all-time classics.” And that holds true for midsummer, late fall, or any other time of the year.

Wrapped up in effort

Unopened Sport King packs pop up for sale on occasion and normally sell for thousands apiece. The wrappers from those Depression–era packs surface more frequently and commonly sell for $40-$75 in Excellent condition.

Hobbyist Bill Anderson received a Sport Kings wrapper as a gift years ago.

“The wrapper certainly takes one back to the ’30s,” he noted, “when a card could be purchased for a penny.”

When the Goudey Sport King cards were first issued, a wrapper redemption offer took a concentrated effort to complete. Here is an excerpt from the redemption deal: “Cut off every number EXCEPT the one showing the number of the picture you want; then slit the ends of an ordinary envelope—roll fifty wrappers in it–mark the envelope third-class mail . . .”

As one can see, it took some doing, and a lot of wrappers, just to get one of eight pictures of an athlete from the Sport Kings issue: Dempsey, Ruth, Sarazen, Grange, Weissmuller, Bill Tilden (tennis), Jim Londos (wrestling) and Howie Morenz (hockey).

Doug Koztoski is a freelance contributor is SCD. Comments on this article are welcome at kozpro20@hotmail.com.

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