One of the more common questions I’ve gotten from collectors is where to start with regards to pre-war collecting. But despite answering it numerous times, it’s never that easy of a question, to be honest.
I can’t really spin someone around in circles with a blindfold on and simply say, ‘go’. As with anything, there are plenty of considerations. What do you like? What’s your budget like? How do you want to collect (sets, by type, specific players, etc.)? Once I have a grip on those, it’s generally pretty easy to make some recommendations.
In general, though, there are a few ‘go tos’ that I can offer. I’ve done this enough that I can rattle off a few options based on specific tastes of collectors. And whenever I’m asked for an easy starting point, one option that I find myself continually recommending is the 1936 Goudey set.
What’s a Goudey?
If you’re really new to pre-war cards, you might not even know what a Goudey card is. Think of them as the Topps of the 1930s. While standard practice in the early 1900s was to package baseball cards with tobacco or caramel/candy products, Goudey did so with their gum. They were one of the first ‘gum’ cards, so to speak, and they targeted kids.
Unlike some of the really narrow (in terms of shape) rectangular cards, the main 1930s Goudey issues were more square-shaped. Goudey also had a sister company of sorts in Canada called the World Wide Gum Company. Those cards often mirrored Goudey in appearance (ironically, in 1936, they did not) and it was a way to distribute baseball cards in Canada.
Goudey cards were categorized as R-Cards in the American Card Catalog (ACC). Those classifications for the Goudey issues aren’t real important today. The 1933 Goudey set, for example, is just known as that name. Its classification in the ACC is R319 but few call (or even know) it by that name.
Goudey’s first sets came in 1933 with the 1933 Goudey issue and the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings set, which was a multi-sport release. Their last sports issue was the 1941 Goudey baseball card set, which was produced after the start of World War II. Later in the 1940s, they produced cards featuring Native Americans but that is believed to be the last of their gum issues.
Most Goudey cards featured colorful artwork depictions of players. But some issues, like the 1936 set, used real black and white pictures.
About the 1936 Goudey Set
The 1936 Goudey set is a black and white issue featuring real pictures of players. They got the jump on Play Ball, who produced a popular, similar looking set in 1939. Like other Goudeys, these look more like a square than a rectangle with their width not much shorter than their height.
The cards are somewhat attractive but not wildly so. Shots are basic, straightforward, and almost entirely headshot portraits. Still, they have a very clean, vintage look to them. The lone example is Frank Crosetti’s card, which features him taking a mock swing with the entire photo extending just below his belt.
The only thing on the front besides the picture is the player’s name written in black or white cursive font. Some collectors unfamiliar with the set might think that they are replica signatures but that’s not the case.
The intriguing part of the cards is on the back. In addition to a small biography, the cards were meant to be used as some part of a game. That’s evident by the actions printed on them. Those actions were the same ones used on a 1935 set that Goudey created called the Knot Hole Game set. While there are only 25 unique fronts in the set, each card can be found with numerous backs and there are 176 known combinations today. Don’t panic – a 25-card set is considered complete by most standards.
One nice thing about the set is that, even though it’s small, there are some big names in it. Altogether, about 1/3 of the set is comprised of Hall of Famers and it includes many of the big names of the time, including Hank Greenberg, Lefty Gomez, and Mickey Cochrane. It’s missing the stars of the late 1930s such as Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller, but still has a nice collection of key players.
So why the 1936 Goudey set? Lots of reasons, actually.
First, the cards are really affordable. If low-grade cards don’t scare you, you can generally find commons in the $10-$15 range – even less sometimes. When I first put together the set not too long ago, I found several cards under $10. Obviously, you get what you pay for in terms of condition. But even the most expensive card, the Hank Greenberg, can be found for under $50. There aren’t any mountains here that will require years of saving up.
Second, at only 25 cards, it’s really easy. Using COMC and eBay, I built a set over a single weekend. It will take longer than that if you want to get the best bargains and keep what you put into it to a minimum. But the point is that it’s not really difficult. A low-grade set could be put together for as little as $350 with some patience.
Cards are also not too hard to find. If you’re an online buyer, you’ll find cards pretty easy to locate. Even if you’re more into card shows and buying in person, as long as you visit vintage dealers or shows, you’ll have a good chance of finding some.
Another nice thing is that, despite having only 25 cards in the basic set, there’s room to expand that. If you’re a master set collector, it offers a supreme challenge with all of the front/back combinations. And even if you decide that tracking down all 176 cards is too much, you can focus on all of the backs for specific players. Or maybe just add different backs you don’t have periodically. Lots of possibilities in that regard and it doesn’t have to end at 25 cards if you don’t want it to.
Finally, one basic fact that shouldn’t go unnoticed is that these are actual cards. That might sound silly but there are other pre-war issues that are easy to find and affordably priced, such as the 1936-37 Goudey Wide Pen set that aren’t really cards. Those, for example, are printed on thin paper and more like miniature photos than they are trading cards. Personally, I collect them but I am also hard-pressed to call them a card and that can be an automatic disqualifier for some collectors. The 1936 Goudeys are 100% without question actual baseball cards.
Like I said, pre-war is different for everyone. But if you’re a set collector and just want to get your feet wet, the 1936 Goudey set is probably as good a place to start as any.