The 1939 Play Ball Baseball Set and its Three Ted Williams Rookie Card Variations

While I focus this blog on post-war cards, I also write about pre-war cards from time to time and collect them. So I thought it would be interesting to look at one of the last pre-war issues, the 1939 Play Ball set (WW2 officially started on September 1, 1939). In trying to find an interesting niche in the set to write about and tie together the set’s composition, the iconic Ted Williams rookie card (#92) and its three variations stood out to me. The Williams rookie is a “big deal”; for example, Joe Orlando included the 1939 Play Ball Williams in his list of the Top 250 sports cards in the hobby.

The three 1939 Play Ball #92 Ted Williams variations are the reverse with his name in mixed case letters, the reverse with his name in all uppercase letters, and the stamped sample copy that was used to drum up interest in the set.

1939 Play Ball #92 Ted Williams – Mixed Letters
1939 Play Ball #92 Ted Williams – Uppercase Letters
1939 Play Ball #92 Ted Williams – Sample

The sample cards were distributed (no one recalls the exact method of distribution, but one guess is that Gum Inc inserted them in other packs of their products) a few months before the release of the 1939 Play Ball set to get orders and to estimate how many the company should print. The entire low-number series of the set (cards 1-115), with names in all upper case letters on the back, have samples. We know this because Goldin auctioned off a complete set of samples in October 2013. The number made and that have survived is incredibly small, so sample cards command huge premiums. 


1939 Play Ball #92 Ted Williams – Sample

Looking at the population report for the 1939 Play Ball set, you can see that PSA has graded well over 1000 regular Ted Williams cards (they don’t differentiate between all upper case and mixed letter backs), while they have only encapsulated eight sample cards.

1939 Play Ball Ted Williams PSA Population

For the Ted Williams card, PSA’s APR shows that a PSA 4 graded sample sold for almost $16k in July 2015, while the last regular PSA 4 sold for “just” $6500 in July 2022.

Now, when it comes to the other two versions of the Ted Williams back, the all-uppercase, and mixed letter, while it appears that the mixed letter card is a bit rarer, they don’t really command a premium price. It’s believed that the mixed letter cards are rarer because Gum Inc inserted them (mixed case low series cards) into their second series release (cards 116-162), which were short printed (and generally sell for a premium over the low series). The second series were all printed with mixed case lettering on the back. Also, we know Gum Inc printed the upper case cards first because 12 of the low series’ mixed case cards correct typos from their all upper case versions.

I hope PSA starts labeling upper case vs. mixed case backs since I think the mixed letter backs should command a bit of a premium over the upper case versions.

Now, as a hobby, we may be off a bit here, but folks have done a lot of research, and the overall makeup of a 1939 Play Ball set appears to break down as follows:

  • There are 161 cards in the set.
  • Cards 1-115 all have upper case names and samples.
  • Cards 116-162 have mixed case names, and card 126 was never issued.
  • Seventy-three cards from 1-115 were also printed with mixed case names, leaving 42 that only have upper case backs.
  • While the bottom of the backs of the cards indicated a series of 250 pictures, only the two previously mentioned series were released. Presumably, Gum Inc intended to print a third series covering cards 163-250.

If you’re an unopened collector, bad news, I don’t believe any unopened packs exist, but you can see a pair of wrappers and an empty box on the Unopened Archive.

While some hobbyists may consider the black-and-white fronts a little boring, it’s hard to argue about the significance of the set’s key card, the Ted Williams rookie card. That specific card is now one of the most important in the vintage card market. So adding any of the three variations (regardless of perceived scarcity between the upper case and mixed case copies) to a collection is a big deal; if you can afford it. Happy collecting! 

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