Collecting the 1940 Play Ball Set

Featured 1940 Play Ball Cards: #102, Chuck Klein; #217 Walter “Boom-Boom” Beck; #95, Hugh “Mul” Mulcahy; #160, John “Hans” Lobert

A few weeks back, I wrote briefly about how, out of necessity, I sold large parts of my pre-1970 collection nearly 10 years ago. As part of that sell-off, I liquidated nearly all of my collection predating World War II. As you can probably imagine, it was somewhat distressing, but I also knew that when my financial prospects improved again, that I could probably reacquire most of what I felt compelled to sell. Thankfully, for the past couple years I’ve been able to do just that, and in one notable case I am nearing my goal of once again completing the 1940 Play Ball team set I once possessed.

But first, a quick digression. As a result of the rise of the grading services, the overall complexion of my pre-World War II collection looks very different than it did 10 years ago. Admittedly, I could avoid graded cards should I wish to do so. However, as I’ve explained before, I buy the overwhelming majority of my vintage cards on eBay, and I view the graded product as a necessary evil. As a result, my nearly completed pursuit of the 1940 Play Ball Phillies resulted solely in mid-grade, PSA-graded cards. At this time, the only two cards I need to complete my set are Grover Cleveland Alexander and Joe Marty, and I have no desire to acquire them in anything other than PSA-graded form.

I made completing this team set a priority for a couple reasons. First and foremost, as I said before, I actually once possessed a complete team set 10 years ago. Secondly, it’s a relatively inexpensive team set to assemble. Yes, the Klein and Alexander cards are somewhat expensive, but obtaining mid-grade copies of their cards, even in professionally graded form, isn’t prohibitively so. And while the high numbers, cards 216-240, are also somewhat pricey, they cost less than many of the late ’40s through early ’50s Topps and Bowman cards (especially the high number cards) and are available in far greater abundance.

However, the most important reason I wanted to recompile this set is that I just absolutely love it. The primary reason is that so many of the player’s nicknames are placed in quotation marks, even though in most cases they’re unnecessary because that is how the player was known — it just feels quaint in a very cute way. And although it’s not considered a modern issue, in some ways 1940 Play Ball is incredibly similar to one. Its dimensions are fairly close to the today’s standard size, and the use of black and white photography nestled neatly in a designed border certainly presages the look of modern cards quite well.

There is actually one notable card in my 1940 Play Ball collection that is not PSA-graded, and that’s the John “Hans” Lobert Superman ad back variation. I didn’t even know about existence of this variation until Bob Lemke, former editor of SCD’s Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, mentioned it on his blog this past October. To me, that revelation of this variation is just another example of one of the amazing thing about collecting baseball cards. There’s an archeological element to collecting in that decades after the hobby reached maturity, we still don’t know everything about all the cards that have been printed over the past 135+ years. More germane to this particular post, however, is how the variation is even in my collection today.

Back when I sold off my original team set, my copy of the Lobert card was one of the few pre-World War II cards to survive the purge. Although it was one of the first vintage cards I ever acquired as a teen, sentimentality had nothing to do with its remaining in my collection. No, the only thing that saved it was the fact that there was discoloration on the front of the card from pieces of cellophane tape that once upon the time secured the card on some sort of backing. When I was scanning cards and posting them to eBay in order to raise money, it just didn’t seem like doing so for this particular card would be worth the time and effort. So, for a few years it ended up being the only 1940 Play Ball card in my collection. After I started assembling a new team set, the very damage that allowed me to keep the card made it easy for me to purchase a graded version to replace it. Yet, I still didn’t do anything about trying to find a new home for it.

The card actually stayed in my pile of duplicates until just a few days ago. Although I read Lemke’s blog entry about the variation back when he posted it (I’ve been a regular reader of his site for some time), it wasn’t until I started planning my 1940 Play Ball checklist for the Phillies Database Project that it occurred to me to check my graded card and its tape-stained brethren to see if either of them were the variation. Given that his description of the variation stated that the Superman ad backs were much scarcer, I didn’t hold out much hope that I actually owned one. I was therefore stunned to find out that my tape stained copy — the equivalent of a bastard, red-headed step-child — was actually an uncatalogued part of my collection. It was an unexpectedly wonderful surprise.

So, I’m now faced with something of a dilemma. Although I know it would come back with deservedly low grade, I’m tempted to submit it to PSA just so that I can store/display it with the rest of its counterparts. For now, I hesitate to do so only because I’ve never submitted a card to a grading service before (or even properly researched how to about it). Regardless of whether I do or not, I find it amazing that I now consider an important part of my collection a card I held in such low esteem for most of the past 10 years.

2 responses to “Collecting the 1940 Play Ball Set

  1. Great post! Those are nice cards, and I have a few myself; but now I am interested in working on a team set of my own. Was this also reprinted by TCMA, or did they just use the style for original sets in the 1980s?

    A couple comments:

    1) I guess they couldn’t bring themselves to print <> and <> like they did <>. (Beck supposedly got his nickname for the numbers of HRs he allowed.)

    2) To get items graded by PSA, you have to become a member. You pay $110 or $189 and you get 6 or 15 items graded for no extra charge. If you have a lot of them, the second is a better deal. I was a member for one year. about 4 or 5 years ago. They have monthly specials, sometimes “any baseball card since 1969 graded for $7” or things like that. I joined at the Philly Show, so I brought my 6 cards with me and handed them off to be graded and mailed back. I figured it saved the risk of one of the USPS shipments that way. I see now that membership has a limit of $499 value for your initial, free gradings, and I think they did at the time as well, but I handed them (and they didn’t charge me extra more for) a 1979-80 Topps Gretzky rookie that came back graded a 9–and that I later sold for well over $1000. (I also got back a great-looking Steve Van Buren rookie marked “possibly trimmed” without a grade, so that was a rude surprise.) I then took advantage of some of their monthly specials and sent in maybe 100 cards over the year, basically cherry-picking the best mid-1970s cards that I had, hoping for some “9” grades, which I did get maybe on about 15 of them. Whenever I got one, I sold it on eBay, often for a ridiculous amount, like $40 or more for a card that I could (and did) buy ungraded in EX-MT for $1 or $2 to replace it.

    So if you join, I think the way to go is to join at a card show like the Philly Show, and take your best cards to get graded first so they may be less likely to charge you a premium. (I figure they are more lenient there, since they don’t yet have you as a member.) For more recent cards that you want graded, mail them in when a monthly special arises. I personally don’t care much for graded cards, but (a) some people do and will pay more for them, so if you are looking to sell, it will help you in doing so, and (b) PSA is the most reliable, so you may as well join that. Try it for a year, and if you don’t like it, well, you can probably get your money more than recovered if you sell a few that come back with top grades (like I did with the Gretzky). Write back if you want any clarification about it.

  2. Oops, I must have accidentally used some HTML there in paragraph 1. I mean to say “I guess they couldn’t bring themselves to print nicknames like ‘Losing Pitcher’ and ‘Boom Boom’ like they did ‘Chuck’.”

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