By Doug Koztoski
The set begins with Ty Cobb, immediately followed by Babe Ruth. Two of the next four cards in the issue are football legends Red Grange and Jim Thorpe. One or two of those names alone would spark interest with many collectors, much less all four, but when hobbyists discover the set stems from the 1930s the attraction soars. Welcome to the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings issue, considered by many a classic. One collector called it “true Americana.”
Containing only 48 cards, the pasteboards literally and figuratively deliver some of the most colorful sports figures of their time, and, for some fans, all-time. The artwork displays detailed illustrations of the varied athletes against an eye-popping background of color nicely accented on the card front bottom by a silhouetted “action” scene of the sport associated with the highlighted “King,” or, in some cases, “Queen.”
The virtual cornucopia of characters and sports covered in this issue provides choices from the major team sports to golf, cycling, ice skating, horse racing, billiards, boxing and wrestling, among others.
“There is no other set with the diversity of superstars from bygone years like the Sport Kings,” said U.S. Congressman Chris Collins (R-NY), who assembled a PSA graded version of the set four years ago (currently No. 9 on the PSA Set Registry). “It’s a very eclectic, fun set, the first (graded) one I completed.”
It seems fitting that Babe Ruth leads this athletic “all-star team” in many ways, since, if for no other reason, the legendary figure blasted the first MLB All-Star Game home run in the game’s inaugural year, the same year this Goudey set debuted. As expected, Ruth’s 1933 Sport King normally brings some of the highest sales figures in the set. In 2016, for instance, two Ruth PSA 8s from this issue each sold in the $55,000 to $60,000 range.
This article’s main focus, however, is the offerings’ last 24 cards, the high numbers, some of which, if not all, came out in 1934, and this is based partly on card back biographical information. Jockey Jack Westrope’s card (#39), for example, mentions him losing his apprentice rating in January 1934—and that is when the event happened, so you know this card did not appear in 1933.
Carl Hubbell, not only showed up in the back half of the set (#42), and is reasonably easy to find in decent shape, but the Hall of Fame pitcher made a splash for himself both of the years this set was distributed.
Known as “King Carl,” the southpaw hurler, with his famous screwball pitch, led the New York Giants to the 1933 World Series crown. In the first couple of innings of the 1934 MLB All-Star Game, Hubbell struck out Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin, in order, one of the most memorable feats in the Midsummer Classic’s history.
Playing hard to get
While a certain Babe and others struck out early in the ’34 All-Star contest, another Babe of the era was making her mark. That’s right, her mark. Babe Didrickson (sic) as it is spelled on card #45, is, by far, one of the most sought after in the set. Didrikson (more commonly used spelling) was a gold medal-winning track star at the 1932 Olympics and a handful of years later she vaulted into the limelight again as a golf superstar.
In higher end condition the Didrikson goes for thousands of dollars. Low end graded cards bring a couple hundred dollars. Only 182 Didriksons without qualifiers have been slabbed by PSA, compared to 439 of Babe Ruth, one of the set’s most encapsulated cards.
Swimmer Helene Madison, the only other woman in the issue, also a high number (#37), is even tougher to find than Didrikson (139 to 182). Madison generates decent interest.
“I had trouble getting the Didrikson,” said Collins, “but I had great difficulty finding the Madison, almost impossible.”
While Babe D. lit up the links after her track days, Bobby Jones was part of the golfing elite by the time his Sports King (#38) made the rounds. Expect to spend thousands on the card of this legend in mid-range or better condition.
“I am a golfer through and through,” Collins said, “and the Jones card was the first one I went after in the set.”
The only footballer as a high number is yet another legend, Knute Rockne (#35).
Rockne cemented a name for himself in football annals as the head coach of the University of Notre Dame (1918-1930), winning 88 percent of his games. Fairly readily available, the Rockne Sport King is in solid demand.
Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines
A big attraction of the 1910s through the 1930s was airplane stunt flying, plus the general public had a fascination with early aviation, as well.
The Sport Kings set was “on board” with this delight of human flight and features three aviators, all high numbers; the most well known of which in retrospect was Jimmy Doolittle (#28) who in World War II, led a famous U.S. air raid of Tokyo in 1942. At the moment, the Doolittle Sport King, at 105 samples with no qualifiers, owns the smallest number on the PSA Population Report for the collection.
James Wedell (#26), meantime, likely has the best story of the trio of sky birds as his card back highlights a December 1933 flight, parts of which took place in a blizzard.
Wedell flew an ill baby from Texas to Baltimore so the child could receive a life-saving procedure. If you get a chance to “catch a ride” with any of the pilots, including the mustachioed Col. Roscoe Turner (#27), at a decent price, your collection will glide in some rare air.
Dog-sled champ Leonhard Seppala, the set-ender, however, likely takes the trophy for the MVP of the Sport Kings, at least in terms of a card back “backstory.”
Seppala and his canine crew played a pivotal role in relaying some medicine for a 1920s diphtheria outbreak in Alaska. They battled temperatures that reached 30 degrees below zero, risking their lives over a dangerous ice floe, with one day needing a 90-mile effort to help save several lives. That endeavor takes the world of sports to a whole new level.
The dog-sledder pulls his weight in the harder-to-find environs of the issue, it sure met that description for Collins.
“That was one of the last cards I bought to finish the set,” Collins said.
The stories of Wedell, Seppala and others from the collection, high numbers or not, help make this a memorable set of athletes from their era for several reasons. And, the classic, colorful and quirky Sport Kings offering looks to resonate with many collectors well into the 21st century and beyond.
“It’s a fun set to go after,” Collins noted, “for its diversity and that you can complete it.”
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He welcomes comments and questions related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.