A while back, I looked at what could just be the ugliest pre-war baseball card of all time in the Babe Ruth 1933 Eclipse card.
I couldn’t really stop there. Not reasonably, anyway. The thought was just sort of gnawing at me in the pit of my stomach. So what’s the ugliest looking set?
Why do I do this to myself? There’s no good reason, really. I’m a sucker for really stupid, obnoxious questions, so oblige me, or something.
A few things jumped in my head at first. The whole Eclipse set, really, is pretty awful. Some trade cards are pretty bad, I thought, flipping through my binder of dozens of examples. 1938 Goudey is kind of freaky with the cartoon bodies and real pictures of heads. The rarely heard of Cine Manual playing cards (pictured here) are a special kind of awful that few people know about. I’m also not sure that the 1910 Tim Jordan game cards, named after former player Tim Jordan, should get a break, either.
But if we’re going to be serious about that, there’s only one place to go. And that’s to strip cards.
Strip cards, if you’re unfamiliar with them, were basically really low-grade cards. Vendors would keep them in their stores and they would usually be in strips where a merchant could cut off one or two and give to customers. Most reports indicate that they were usually given away, though some were sold, too. They’re often on low-grade paper and the production of them wasn’t too high-end, either.
In the strip card category, you’ve got all kinds of awful cards to choose from. Maybe the most popular ones that are inherently bad are the W515s but you can find plenty of other awful ones, too. The 1920s W542 Sports Drawings are something else.
If I’m naming a really close runner-up, it’s the Big Heads Strip cards. And truthfully, had I not already made up my mind, you could talk me into this one.
Produced sometime around 1915-20, these are uggggly. None of the pictures look like the players and they’re just obscenely ridiculous looking.
While the producer of these cards is unknown (which, if we’re being honest, was for the best), today, we call them the Big Heads Strip Cards, an unclassified strip card set (W-UNC). The pictures feature slightly plump heads placed onto equally slightly plump bodies.
I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here, but this had to be intentional. Most of the cards in the set have the same general look and even thin players like Walter Johnson shown here look awkwardly overweight for no apparent reason other than the artist’s own desperate need for humor. Ironically, Babe Ruth actually looks somewhat trim on his card.
Artist got jokes.
Here’s the thing, though. They tried. Like, they had sort of a unique look that I can appreciate. It’s something different than what’s out there so I’ll let them slide.
The clear winner for me, though, is the W9316 set. Unless you’re a strip card or pre-war enthusiast, you likely have no idea what these cards are.
It’s called W9316 because, well, we don’t know much about it. The producer is unknown and it is merely known its W9316 categorization in a recent publication (it is not mentioned in the American Card Catalog).
This was a short 10-card strip set featuring baseball players. It’s egregious on several levels but the thing that usually jumps out is its lack of stars. It’s believed to have been produced in 1921 but is missing most of baseball’s biggest names. There’s no Babe Ruth. No Ty Cobb. No Walter Johnson or Rogers Hornsby.
Now, the checklist isn’t completely empty. In fact, four of the ten players (Home Run Baker, George Sisler, Wilbert Robinson, and Ray Schalk) are Hall of Famers. But aside from maybe Sisler, those guys weren’t among the biggest names of their day. Baker’s career was nearly over and Robinson’s had been long over as he had moved on to managing.
Another appalling thing? The price tag. These are among the more pricier strip cards out there with even lower end copies fetching $50 or more. Beaters, cards with serious flaws such as corners ripped off, etc., can go for less. But in general, these cards aren’t cheap compared to other strip issues that you can routinely find for $10 or so.
Alright, so let’s jump into the design.
Without question, the most egregious violation here is the lipstick, right? So, these cards weren’t really intended to feature players wearing lipstick. It just sort of happened on most. Some don’t exhibit the bright red lips we see above on Home Run Baker. It sort of depended on how much red ink was left in the print cycle. If you look at several examples of these, it’s clear the printer often was asleep at the wheel because many cards are printed with a clear shortage of ink. As a result, the cards can look pretty different. But even beyond that, we’ve got some issues.
So, okay, red lips. Fine. The whole Joker gimmick, whatever. That’s hardly the only faux pas. Man, take a look at most of those uniforms. My goodness. Talk about mailing it in. Like, that’s honestly the best we can do? Sisler’s looks respectable but, in general, you get a few buttons, some crudely drawn lines, and that’s it.
Check out the faces, too. Not only do the players not look like anyone in particular, some of them even resemble each other. Like, are you telling me the George Sisler and Wally Schang cards (shown here) are supposed to be different players?
And, I mean, what’s the deal with the backgrounds? The funny thing is that the print quality apparently varied so much on these that you can find some like the Bob Veach shown above with a series of squiggly lines in some kind of twisted attempt to recreate the sky or with completely blank backgrounds that where maybe the ink was running low. They are so different that you could even refer to them as variations, if so inclined.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, despite the fact there were only ten cards in the set, the printer/artist couldn’t even bother to spellcheck the names as two cards (Wally Schang and Wilbert Robinson) have typos.
If you look at these cards in general, you get the impression they were done by an ambitious 9-year old or some dude got the assignment about 15 minutes before the end of a workday heading into the weekend. I try to be overly gracious with strip cards. They had to have been produced on mostly shoestring budgets and to come up with anything, I suppose, is admirable. But when it comes to aesthetic train wrecks, I’m not sure any pre-war issue tops the W9316s.