Lack of Bob Feller Cards from Iconic Play Ball Sets is a Mystery
One of baseball’s best pitchers was entirely absent in some of the most recognizable early gum card sets
The 1939-41 Play Ball cards are among the more notable ones found in the early gum card era. Goudey was king, of course, but during those years, Play Ball was the top outfit for baseball cards.
Play Ball’s sets weren’t massive but they weren’t small, either. Their first release came in 1939 and included 161 cards. A whopping 240 were issued in 1940. The company slowed down a bit in 1941 but still issued a healthy 72-card set. In all, you’ve got nearly 500 total cards and, for the time period, that was a rather large amount.
Still, one name is mysteriously absent from those sets — Bob Feller.
Now, to be fair, there are other players that did not appear in the Play Ball sets. The legendary Johnny Mize and Enos Slaughter, for example, are both missing from all three sets, as are some others. But Feller’s absence is a curious one and, in context of how great he was in those years, it’s difficult to see why he wasn’t included.
Feller broke into the majors as a 17-year-old phenom in 1936 and while he took a couple of years to mature, by 1938, he was one of baseball’s best hurlers. That year, he struck out 240 batters, leading the majors while making his first All-Star team. Feller’s command was certainly an issue early on as he routinely was among the league’s leaders in walks. But 1938 was the first of four consecutive years where he led the majors in strikeouts.
Feller, by the way, was winning games, too. In fact, in 1939, 1940, and 1941 when the Play Ball sets were issued, he led the league in wins all three years, averaging just over 25 victories per season. He had also become even more dominant, drastically lowering his ERA in those seasons. Leading the league with a 2.40 ERA in 1940, he won the pitcher’s version of the Triple Crown.
Now, Feller did not win a Most Valuable Player Award in any of those three seasons. However, he came wickedly close, finishing second in 1940 and third in both 1939 and 1941.
So how does a player so dominant be left out of such large and important baseball card sets? Well, unlike the issues some earlier players may have had with tobacco cards, that was not an issue here. Feller had also even appeared in earlier gum issues with Goudey, Double Play, and others, (and later, also with Bowman and Topps), so he wasn’t exactly against the idea of his picture being printed on cards.
One really interesting thing is that Feller did not appear in Play Ball’s sets but did appear in Bowman’s after World War II. That is notable because Play Ball’s cards were issued by Gum, Inc. Gum, Inc. was the same company that distributed the Bowman cards in 1948 and Feller was included in Bowman releases.
Exclusivity deals don’t really seem to be at the heart of things, either. Goudey did not even issue baseball card sets in 1939 and 1940, and while they did have a (really bad) set in 1941, Feller did not appear in it.
And of course, Feller was clearly good enough to be in the sets. As we established, in fact, he was one of the best players in all of baseball at the time so this wasn’t a checklisting issue with trying to figure out which players would be the most attractive to collectors.
Often, it’s declared that money was behind these sorts of things. While that sometimes can be the problem, I also think that excuse is used with little evidence to suggest as such. Consider that Play Ball didn’t have that problem with many other players, including stars just as big as Feller. Players such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mel Ott, and others, all show up in Play Ball’s sets. Was Feller really that much harder to come to financial terms with than those players?
Perhaps, I suppose. He was, at times, among baseball’s highest paid players and could have been a tough negotiator. But again, also consider the times. Many players worked separate jobs in the offseason simply because they could use some extra money. Something like appearing in a baseball set would appear to be a relatively easy payday, regardless of the amount.
It’s certainly quite possible that Feller did not like whatever agreement Play Ball was offering. And given how well he was paid, he wouldn’t have needed the money as badly as others would have. But any number of other factors could be at play. Maybe he had a poor relationship with Play Ball representatives. Maybe he had some other sort of deal with a company preventing him from appearing in these sets. Heck, maybe he had a second cousin that was divorced from a Play Ball employee. Who knows?
All of that said, I’m also brought back to the fact that it wasn’t just Feller missing from these sets. Several other very good players were not included in them, either, which makes it even more mysterious. Feller may not have been thrilled with Play Ball’s contractual terms but others may have had the same issues.
Unfortunately, we’re left with a really incomplete picture. But there’s no doubt that Feller’s omission from the Play Ball sets is one of the biggest head-scratchers surrounding those issues.