Trying to learn more about pre-war cards can be a tedious process. But every now and then, breakthroughs occur in the hobby to give us more insight on particular issues. These breakthroughs, it should be noted, often come as a result of incredibly fluky circumstances.
Such is the case here with the 1924 Walter Mails Game set.
Recently, the granddaughter of the game’s founder, George Groves, wrote to me. In my set listing for the 1924 Walter Mails Game, I erroneously had not credited Groves as the true founder of that game. After exchanging some emails, I quickly learned she would be able to provide much more information than the hobby currently knows about these cards – and not only these cards, but plans for an additional set. With her tremendous help in sending documents and images, the result is an in-depth article with quite a bit of interesting information about this popular set as well as a planned second release.
The Walter Mails Game, if you’re unfamiliar with it, was a deck of cards believed to be initially printed in or around 1924. The family is not certain, only believing it was sometime in the 1920s (more information on this in a bit). The cards featured black and white pictures of players and also included printed actions on them. They remain extremely popular because they are rare and include real pictures of players on them.
Here’s a fascinating look into their production and history as well as Groves’ plans to create a second set.
The Inventor, George N. Groves
George N. Groves (pictured here) is the inventor of this distinctive set. While many collectors may not know his name, some do because he is actually pictured on a card in the set.
Groves was born in Merced, California on October 4, 1904. He was a player/manager of junior baseball teams in the area. At 19, he married his first wife named Ethel and later remarried in 1937 to a woman named Elanor DeMartini. He and Eleanor had one child, Nadyne Groves, who became the mother of Lynne VanSchaick (now Lynne Foley Galletti, the relative who emailed me).
Groves worked for Standard Oil Company for 21 years and after World War II, began a career in real estate. Later in life, he became a councilman from 1954-66 and was also actually the mayor of Sebastopol, California, elected three times. Interestingly, a portion of one of his real estate signs can actually be seen in the background of this photograph.
One interesting thing about Groves was that he not only produced the baseball set but had loosely created sets for football, track, boxing, tennis, and basketball. These games were not actually produced. But Groves had mocked up the games and was ready to produce them given the interest. He mentioned these in letters to vendors when he was pitching his baseball release. Groves passed away in 1969 at the age of 64.
Creating the Game
A set of 57 cards was made but it was really advertised as a 55-card issue. One of the cards was merely an instructional card and a second was the card of Groves, which he figured would add little value. Thus, his advertising for the game generally described a set that contained 55 autographed photos of baseball players.
Needing an endorser, Groves turned to Walter ‘Duster’ Mails, who agreed to be the guy. Groves repeatedly sold Mails as a World Series champion, as he had won a ring with the Cleveland Indians in 1920. Groves details in his notes that Mails’ success as a World Series hero was a reason he turned to him. He showed Mails the cards and Mails agreed to allow his use of his name as he was said to have seen ‘great possibilities’ for the game.
Groves then turned to other players, asking for their permission to include them, and found pictures of the players to be included. Often, it seemed, he merely took what he could get, leading to the strange style of the cards with different layouts and images. Star power was limited and that, as we’ll see, is something that Groves intended to fix in later sets. Groves repeatedly mentioned the need for better players and pictures in his notes.
While producing such a set today would have expensive licensing fees, that wasn’t the case here because the players used in the set were not compensated. Even Mails, whose name headlines the set, was not paid. Later documents suggest they may have gotten a free deck of the cards but that was really it. All players merely provided their permission and that surely saved Groves quite a bit of money.
That wasn’t in an effort to stiff those guys, of course. Groves financed the game entirely on his own and paying more than 50 players wasn’t a viable option. He revealed in his notes that he never sought financial backing and that by not doing so, it was ultimately a mistake. Profit on the game was very small and, in fact, the game almost certainly would have lost money if he had to pay players.
After securing Mails’ endorsement, he then went about the work of trying to patent the game. Groves ran into snags there, however. He hired a patent lawyer, who informed him that he could handle the patenting of the game for a total of $100. Groves retained him, paid the $100, then waited. The lawyer then later contacted him, seeking another $100. After discussing it with Mails and other friends, he decided against it. The lawyer kept his initial $100 and the game was not patented at that time. It remains unclear if the game was ever formally patented.
The game was likely produced in 1924. In 1923, Groves applied for his patent and began work on the game. By 1925, it was being sold via mail. No firm information on the exact date of production is yet known but 1924 seems like the most possible year.
With the exception of the final 1,000 sets (more on that in a bit), the game was mostly only distributed as a mail-order game.
Groves first placed advertisements in Baseball Magazine and the Sporting News, running it for a three-month period. He stated they ran in 1925 and 1926. The advertising included pictures of Walter Johnson and Ray Kremer, players he met and had discussed the game with. While the players likely did not charge him, the actual running of the advertisements were not cheap, by his accounts. Sets were $1.00 each ($1.75 for two) and he initially sold nearly 1,000 of them. Groves cited the high cost of advertising as a reason for the game’s lack of profitability.
Interestingly, while the game of baseball was primarily only an American sport at that time with few other nations showing interest, Groves had orders for it from several countries outside of the U.S., including Australia, Canada, Cuba, England, Japan, and the Philippines. It is possible that a few of these cards remain scattered in some of those countries.
But, in short, the game’s inventor wasn’t getting rich off of the games and his profit was modest.
Groves’ notes indicate that his sales were primarily from mail orders. However, a poster found in the family’s records shown here indicates that the cards were either available in some stores (it even says ‘sold everywhere’) or that there were plans to put it into stores.
He eventually had about 1,000 decks left over from his print run that he didn’t sell and didn’t know what to do with. He was also anxious to begin production on an improved set.
Thus, in August 1933 in an effort to ‘dispose of the remaining decks’, Groves cut a deal with the California Board of Recreation to take the rest at a discounted price. He doesn’t state what they paid for them but they purchased the remaining ~1,000 games and distributed them through their various city playgrounds and to summer recreation camps.
So how many of these decks were actually created? That’s the million dollar question but we’ve got a pretty good guess from his notes.
In one of Groves’ letters, he indicated that about 5,000 of the games were sold by mail order. While other games may have been sold at retail locations based on the poster, that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Groves never made any mention of retail sales in his letters regarding the game’s success, only mentioning how many were sold through the mail. Few, if any, were sold on a retail level. Further his daughter believed he had only printed 300 so she apparently didn’t think there were tons of these sets lying around.
He then also sold the approximately 1,000 unsold sets to the California Board of Recreation, as he stated. Groves’ numbers sort of fluctuate a little and I’d estimate a total of about 5,000 sets created in all. Groves’ notes only indicated ‘about’ 5,000 games were sold and it was likely fewer. The only concrete reference to sales found in his notes was that almost 1,000 games were initially sold via the mail.
A total number of 5,000 sets would have yielded 285,000 cards and given the total number of cards likely in existence today (only about 500 cards have been graded), that even seems as if it could be generous. While that sounds like a ridiculously small amount, most pre-war sets have extremely low survival rates. As I recently wrote, there were an estimated 15 million 1914 Cracker Jack cards produced and only about 7,000 PSA and SGC graded cards exist.
Start of a Second Game
After creation of the first game, Groves mentioned a temporary shelving of the game to more strategically decide what he wanted to do. The bulk of Groves’ notes actually discuss plans for a second set starting around August 1931. Instead of mail-order sales, he planned to target baseball stadiums and numerous stores, including Woolworth’s, Kress, Montgomery Ward, Sears, drug stores, sporting goods stores, novelty shops, and amusement parks.
A new design was created for the layout of the cards, as seen here. The backs of the cards were to have a design of a generic pitcher.
The back design, at least, was not simply a mock – it appeared as if it could be the final design. Groves actually submitted this image with his formal disclosure form to the National Inventors Congress in 1934. His brother, Irwin, was an artist and mentioned on the letterhead as an officer for the company. He was the creator of these drawings.
As you can see, the new cards would have had a cleaner overall look. This design was signed and dated by Groves himself in March of 1934 as either the apparent date it was submitted to or approved by him.
In addition to the mock for the cards, a design for a new box was created as well. The new box would tout a higher-quality of linen playing cards and include an image of a generic baseball batter and playing scene in the background.
A New Headliner in Walter Johnson
It didn’t take long for Groves to realize that he needed a bigger name on the decks. While a serviceable player with a seven-year major league career, Walter Mails wasn’t a true headliner. With that, Groves targeted and apparently landed a much bigger star in Walter Johnson.
From Groves’ records:
“After coming to the conclusion that Walter Mails’ name on this game would not be a national drawing attraction, I then endeavored to locate a substitute name of somewhat more national prominence.
As Walter Johnson’s name was nationally known, and as he was on a visit at Reno, Nevada, I wired a request to him for permission to use his name (without any remuneration whatsoever) as the title of this baseball card game. He immediately wired me that it would be entirely satisfactory and confirmed the wire by a letter. Later Mr. Johnson came to Oakland, California, at which time I met him, and told him of my plans, ambitions, etc. He thought that it was a very good game. In fact he went so far as to express himself to the effect that it was the best indoor baseball game that he had ever played.”
A second, albeit less appealing option, of Ray Kremer was also mentioned. Kremer apparently gave his permission to be used as well if Groves thought it would be advantageous. Both players, it should be noted, were on good terms with him as he used their images in advertising for the initial set. His notes indicate that he had met the pair through Joe Devine (a former minor league player and manager, as well as a scout) while they were on the west coast.
While the idea of using Walter Johnson’s name was as a strong possibility, Groves’ notes actually indicate the temporary name of the new game would be called, the “Groves Baseball Card Game” for a few reasons. First, it represented his name and also, as he decided, it was similar to that of Lefty Grove, then a star pitcher resulting in an implied endorsement of a sort. Had the game been produced, it would have been interesting to see what the actual name was.
Securing a New Lineup of Talent … Including Honus Wagner
The 1924 game was missing many big names and Groves was determined to get bigger stars. In a letter he sent to concession managers, Groves states that his company was working on ‘changing the obsolete baseball players’ photographs to those stars which are now the “big shots” of baseball.’ One of the players Groves had in mind? The legendary Babe Ruth.
While no records exist of Groves securing Ruth’s permission, another big name was on board in Hall of Famer Honus Wagner. Groves’ process of finding players to participate in his game was simple. In the early 1930s, he mailed a type of postcard to serve as the release. The typed cards had a generic script stating that the player agreed to allow for use of his name and image.
The document stated that they were aware no compensation, save for a free copy of the set, would be given. Each player was to fill out the card and sign his name. Backs of the release forms requested players send in a picture of themselves for use in the set.
Incredibly, the family still has most of these documents and the Wagner signed release is provided here. On it, Wagner suggests that Groves should contact the local Pittsburgh Press newspaper to secure an image of him from his playing days. By 1934, the date of his release, he had been out of the major leagues as a player for nearly 20 years. We know from this, then, that the set would include past and current players.
Groves had sent out many of these postcards and either had received the forms back or otherwise had secured permission for approximately 30 players, including several Hall of Famers, such as Wagner, Johnson, Carl Hubbell, Ernie Lombardi, Al Lopez, and Ted Lyons. Others included Wally Berger, Charlie Berry, George Blaeholder, Jim Bottomley, Ed Brandt, Owen Carroll, Tony Cuccinello, Frank Doljack, George Earnshaw, Bernie Friberg, George Grantham, Mule Haas, Willie Kamm, Fritz Knothe, Ray Kremer, Marty McManus, Lefty O’Doul, Bob O’Farrell, Dick Porter, Billy Rogell, Gus Suhr, Cecil Travis, Johnny Vergez, and Dick Ward.
In addition to the release forms, several pictures of these players and others are still in the possession of the family that were to be used on the cards and some were taken by noted photographer George Burke.
Other Proposed Changes
So we’re slightly shortening the set to 52 cards, have a new name, and are finding better players. Groves also outlined several other initiatives for improving the next version.
Better Card Stock
Instead of the flimsy cards from the original game, Groves decided he needed to go with a fancier, more expensive linen version of card.
Groves’ suggestion was to use pictures that would ‘help to illustrate each play,’ citing an example with Babe Ruth in the act of hitting a home run as a possibility for the home run card. The pictures on the cards are often cited by collectors today as an area that needed improvement. He went on to detail that the pictures would be ‘neat’ and ‘clear-cut’, stating that the pictures would be so clear that they would ‘even show the player’s freckles.’
Groves wasn’t married to the idea that the set needed to be uniform, either. He also suggested that multiple sets could be created, including using players from other leagues for specific markets or even the idea of creating two sets each year – a spring series and a World Series edition.
Groves decided to engage fans as to which players they wanted in future sets. With each deck, a contest slip would be included, asking fans to vote for their favorite players. The slips, as Groves indicates in his notes, would help him identify players that should be added in future sets and also establish a mailing list. This was important because he did not wish to continue with the expensive magazine advertisements.
Inclusion of Minorities
This might not sound like much but consider that, at the time, Major League Baseball was not yet integrated. Sensing the international appeal baseball was gaining, Groves indicated that he wanted to expand the set beyond simply white players. Groves planned specifically to target black, Hispanic, and Japanese players as he understood their popularity. In his notes, Groves specifically cited a Lefty O’Doul interview where the major leaguer mentioned the high attendance of fans at Japanese games. He seemed ahead of the curve in this respect, which is a credit to his vision.
Planned Production and a Revised Pricing Model
Groves then began reaching out to printing companies to get pricing. He planned on producing a higher quality of card so you would think the cost of the game would go up. Instead, however, he decided to lower the price. Instead of charging $1.00 per game, Groves’ contemplated cost was somewhere between .25 and .50.
By his own admission, selling the game for $1.00 was not profitable. So how could he produce a more expensive product, sell it for less, and do better? Well, Groves’ plan was to focus on retail and eliminate the costly advertising and shipping (shipping ran him three cents per deck to anywhere in the U.S). Plus, he wanted to order in bulk.
Considering that, it was easy to see how he could make money at .50 per deck. Depending on how many he decided to produce, he could get the decks printed for as little as seven cents (a quote given by a Chicago printer in December 1933). His big plan was to get the game into as many locations as possible and even conceded that a store offering a small profit margin would still be acceptable since it would allow him to order more decks, thus lowering his printing costs to get the best available bulk rate. Groves’ planned option was to place an order for 100,000 decks, which would give him the seven-cent manufacturing rate per deck.
Finally, one really interesting thing is that Groves was ready to give up his rights to the game’s name if it meant selling more cards. As an enticement to wholesalers, they would have the option to buy the rights to the cards to sell in their area and use their own name on the game’s box instead of his own.
Despite all kinds of plans, a second game never happened. The last gasp for this set seemed to end mostly with Groves seeking investors. His ultimate goal was really to resign from his present employment to devote himself full time to overseeing the company.
Groves wanted to manufacture a few hundred sample packs of the revised game immediately to begin offering them for sale so that stores and purchasing agents could see the deck for themselves. The plan was to maintain headquarters on the west coast (at least initially) and an interesting fact was that his wife operated a beauty shop in Berkeley and that was his pitch as temporary office space. Finding investors must have proved too difficult, though. Ultimately, the game was not re-released.
Despite only printing the original set back in the 1920s, the game was not something that Groves easily abandoned. Detailed notes to his brother indicate that his push for the game came in the early 1930s and that he made another similar push in 1946. We also know that because as late as 1961, he was still pitching the idea.
On April 19, 1961, he wrote to Joe Garagiola, who was working at NBC Sports. In a detailed letter, Groves pitched the game asking for his endorsement. Groves mentioned the fact that Walter Johnson (who had since passed away) called the game one of the best he had ever seen and asked Garagiola if he could send him more information on it.
Garagiola took the time to respond with a letter of his own. Though, brief, he signed it and stated that he was not interested. The letter was on Anheuser-Busch letterhead – a company for which Garagiola was a representative of sorts, and he responded several weeks later. Seen here is a copy of the letter.
In addition to individuals, such as Garagiola, Groves also reached out to numerous companies to try to secure their involvement. The most intriguing of these, perhaps, is Topps. Groves contacted Topps, as well as other large companies, such as Kellogg’s and Quaker Oats, working to secure their endorsement. These trails all apparently led nowhere as there is no evidence of any interest on their part.
Where Groves went from here after the game is unknown. He would pass away only eight years later, so it is quite possible that he continued to market the game until his death.
An extraordinary thanks to the Groves family for sharing this wonderful information with the hobby and shedding light on this incredible set nearly 100 years old as well as plans to create a new one.