1938 Whitman Big League Baseball Game Background
In 1938, the Whitman Card Game was produced by the Whitman Publishing Company. The game was the creation of two gentlemen, Ralph Williams and Frank Effinger from Racine, Wisconsin-based Whitman Publishing.
The game was like many others of the time period. Players used cards to compete in a simulated baseball game. The cards included baseball actions to indicate if batters could collect hits, score runs, etc. The game was compact with a deck of cards comprising the entire issue.
Participants were encouraged to draw their own playing field and use tokens such as coins to simulate the game. A sample score sheet was also inserted in to the game box but players were also to draw their own as well since that was really only an example. While crude, that cut down on the cost of creating a game board and charging more money for the product.
A Mysterious Baserunner
A total of ten poses are included in the set and they feature obviously generic players. Even the drawings of the players were done in such a way that a shadow was cast over uniform fronts so that it could obscure a number. This helped make the players generic without making it overly obvious.
One exception, however is a card featuring a baserunner. Eight such cards were included in the set (four printed in red ink and four printed in black ink). The baserunner cards had printed actions for either base stealers or runners that were either safe or out. The baserunner cards are as follows:
- Double Steal
- Out (Force Out at Second)
- Out (Caught Napping at First)
- Out (Caught Napping at Second)
- Out (Caught Napping at Third)
- Safe at First on Outfield Error
- Steals Second
- Steals Third
- Steals Home
Unlike the other players in the set, however, the sliding baserunner card depicts a player with a No. 4 jersey. No other player in the game has a jersey number.
The Case For Lou Gehrig
While the players in the issue are considered to be generic, one could argue that the sliding baserunner is depicting Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig. If you were going to feature a player in that era, Gehrig would have been a really good candidate. He was past his prime, of course, but still arguably the biggest name in the sport.
First, with all due respect to home run hitter Mel Ott, the biggest star of that era wearing No. 4 was Lou Gehrig. He was a two-time MVP and finished in the top five a whopping six additional times (twice he was second).
Also, consider that Gehrig was playing in the biggest market as a member of the top franchise in the New York Yankees. In 1938, Gehrig had just won his sixth World Series championship with the club and the team was fresh off back-to-back-to-back titles. No team was hotter or more storied and Gehrig was right at the center of it.
The card could have been seen as a tribute of sorts for Gehrig. He was nearing the end of his career in 1938 and in 1939, would learn of his ALS diagnosis. His number was quickly retired by the Yankees that year, marking the first time any player had their number retired in the sport.
Those dates are interesting, of course. Williams and Effinger copyrighted their game instructions in the June of 1938. But it isn’t known when the sets were actually printed and a 1939 printing wouldn’t have been odd. Other games, such as the Ducky Medwick Big Leaguer game were copyrighted earlier and then printed/distributed a year or two later. The set could have very easily been created and then, with Gehrig’s terrible announcement, a card could have been added to honor him. That would also help explain why it is the only card in the set featuring a player with a number.
I think a solid case exists for Gehrig being the unnamed player here anyway even if the cards were printed in 1938. But if the set wasn’t produced and distributed until 1939 after the Yankees retired his number, it makes even more sense.
Stealing Home Added Evidence
One more piece of evidence needs to be mentioned as well. The baserunner is stealing a base and while Gehrig didn’t do a ton of that in his career (102 stolen bases), consider that one of the cards depicts a runner stealing home. Actually, if you look closely, they all depict that as the base featured is shaped like home and not like the other bases.
The picture was used for all actions featuring a stolen base attempt. However, the image is clearly a baserunner stealing home as seen in the shape of the plate.
While Gehrig didn’t steal hundreds of bases, one thing he was known for was stealing home. As this site indicates, while some stolen base artists never stole home once, Gehrig accomplished the feat 15 times.
That ranked 16th at the time of his retirement and in the 1920s and 1930s, he was the best at it. Almost all of the players ahead of him on the list played earlier in the 1900s and it was not something as commonly done by the time he started playing. If there was a player to be featured as stealing home base at the time, it would have been Gehrig as he had no real contemporaries, save for Ben Chapman and Frankie Frisch.
Gehrig was famous for stealing home and it was even his first recorded stolen base. SABR wonders if he may have been the only player to accomplish that feat, in fact.
There’s no way to positively identify Gehrig as the player on these cards without more information. There are certainly arguments against it as well.
For one thing, even if a specific player was featured, it could have been a minor one. Or perhaps Effinger or Williams even wore No. 4 while playing as kids. Who can tell? And if the idea was to honor Gehrig, why not feature him as a hitter where he was known instead of as a base runner?
Still, his depiction here certainly makes sense given the type of seasons he was having, that he was in New York, and that he was wearing No. 4. And as stated, if the cards were printed after Gehrig was the first player to ever have his number retired, it makes the case that much stronger.