Sifting Through O-Pee-Chee’s First Hockey Sets — The Amazing V304 Series
Here’s a close look at the earliest O-Pee-Chee hockey card sets
When most collectors think about the 1930s gum card era, baseball is usually the sport that comes to mind. But while there weren’t many football and basketball card sets to go around during that time, several hockey card sets were issued.
Among the more substantial cards that were printed were from O-Pee-Chee.
Most collectors are familiar with the O-Pee-Chee name. If you’re in my age bracket and first collected cards in the junk wax era, you’re probably familiar with the 1980s O-Pee-Chee cards that were sort of a parallel to the Topps sets.
O-Pee-Chee produced its share of baseball cards but they are more identifiable for their hockey card sets. As a Canadian company, it makes perfect sense as that is the sport of choice in Canada. Now an Upper Deck product, O-Pee-Chee cards are still being produced to this day.
But while most collectors know the O-Pee-Chee name, many are not aware just how long O-Pee-Chee cards have been made. The first O-Pee-Chee hockey cards were not issued in the 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, or even the 1950s or 1940s. O-Pee-Chee hockey cards were first released in the 1930s.
One Set? That’s Crazy Talk … Or Is It?
These cards pictured hockey players on the front and had bilingual backs (English/French) as they were issued in Canada. Now, the 1930s O-Pee-Chee cards were all cataloged as V304 in the American Card Catalog. Really, however, there are five different subsets. Jefferson Burdick classified the issues as:
Those subsets, by the way, could probably be recognized as four sets, each with its own American Card Catalog number. That’s because V304-A and V304-B were issued for the 1933-34 season (some accounts state V304-B is a 1934-35 issue so there’s a bit of conflict there), V304-C for 1935-36, V304-D for 1936-37, and V304-E for 1937-38. Several hockey seasons are covered by these sets and breaking them up with four different classification numbers seems like the right thing to do. After all, 1933 Goudey, 1934 Goudey, 1935 Goudey, and 1936 Goudey baseball cards all have different classification numbers, as they should.
So why would Burdick arrange these cards in this manner with only one number, V304?
Well, the way the cards were laid out had something to do with that. O-Pee-Chee intended for this to be one long continuing series, despite the fact that the cards looked different from one another with each season getting a fresh look. V304-A and V304-B both have the same design but, again, those cards were issued during the same season, according to most accounts. The card design changed with each new year.
But the backs clearly show a continuation. The cards are actually labeled Series A, Series B, Series C, Series D, and Series E, so that is how Burdick did it, using the same letters for his classifications. The card numbering also speaks to the continuation aspect. Series A began with card No. 1 and ended at No. 48. Series B began with card No. 49 and so on. Each series continued the numbering, picking up where the previous one ended. By the time we get to the end of Series E, we’re at 180 cards.
Numbering sets like that for most baseball card sets wouldn’t work since most were quite large and the numbers would be very high. And it just seems like kind of a dumb way to do it, anyway. It would be one thing if the series’ all featured different players but they did not. Many of the players were found in other series’.
So in other words, we’ve really got four sets that are grouped together as one large one.
Reviewing All Five ‘Sets’
So, what of those sets, subsets, or whatever you want to call them?
Let’s start with V304-A and V304-B. V304-A consisted of the overall set’s first 48 cards while V304-B was issued later and picked up with card No. 49, continuing through No. 72. Series B was only half the size and because many of the bigger stars were already in Series A, it’s a bit lackluster in terms of name recognition by comparison.
Both V304-A and V304-B, as mentioned, share the same design. Shown here is a Morenz V304-A and a Trottier V304-B. Like I said, these are believed to have been issued in the same year and could (probably should, even) be considered one combined set. If not for O-Pee-Chee’s Series A and Series B distinction, I suppose they probably would.
The 1935-36 V304-C cards look a bit different but there are some similarities. If the standard 1933-34 dating for V304-B is correct, O-Pee-Chee apparently took a year off from issuing cards.
Shown here is one of Pep Kelly as an example. As you can see, those also used the same single-color ink (along with the black ink) for the backgrounds. Bottoms are also relatively similar with the player’s name isolated and sandwiched between two thick black horizontal lines.
These cards are easily different, however. In addition to being a shorter more square-like card to fit in with other similar 1930s gum baseball card sets, these are geared a little more towards aesthetics. Replacing the somewhat mundane stars in the background are generic images of hockey players. Really, it’s a slightly ‘busier’ card than the earlier V304-A and V304-B issues.
By the time V304-D came around the following year, things began to change again.
This time, O-Pee-Chee stripped color from the cards completely. Not only were the players black and white, which was the same from past years, so were the entire cards. Those cards included images of players in the background with more detail, as opposed to the silhouetted ones in V304-C.
More notably, the cards were a pop-up version with a 3D feature. O-Pee-Chee actually used the same layout for its 1937 baseball cards.
While the idea was nice, like other similar cards that tried this model (including the 1930s Batter Up cards, which came a bit earlier) the cards didn’t necessarily hold up over time as many collectors removed the backgrounds, tearing that part off to create more of a die-cut card. That, of course, kills the value.
Finally, O-Pee-Chee’s pre-war hockey releases ended with the 1937-38 V304-E set.
The look for these cards was changed again. The die-cut idea was scrapped and O-Pee-Chee was also back to implementing color in the cards again.
The cards again pictured black and white players and sort of reverted back to the V304-C cards, which had the single color silhouettes of hockey players in the background. They also had a funky new border design, which I could probably do without.
But the key feature with these cards was that the typed name of players was replaced with replica signatures. That was a nice touch as it wasn’t a feature commonly seen on older cards.
Shown here is a card of Syl Apps from the set.
Variations, Rarity, Pricing
Finally, note that cards in V304-A, V304-B, V304-C, and V304-E have known color variations. As I mentioned, cards in those sets come with a variety of background colors. Those colors are not uniform, however, for each player. Each player in those sets actually can be found with any of the various color combinations in it. That makes a master set quite a challenging proposition.
All of the cards are somewhat rare. According to PSA’s population report, they’ve graded the most of the 1933-34 V304-A and V304-B cards with the V304-D and V304-E cards not terribly far behind. The anomaly, however is with V304-C. Those cards seem to be the rarest with only about 700 graded in all.
What’s the reason for that? Well, if O-Pee-Chee really did take a break from hockey cards in 1934-35, the 1935-36 V304-C issue would have been their return. It’s possible that they were not sure how the cards would be received and did not print them in the same quantities as the earlier ones. That, of course, is a mere guess, however.
Finally, a word to pricing. Obviously, that will depend greatly on the rarity of particular series’ and the players themselves. But in general, these cards are very tough to find at low prices. Even low-grade commons from any of the series are tough to find under $20. One notation is that the rare V304-C commons are sold for a premium over the others because they are the hardest to find.
All in all, I’m a big fan of these cards. If I were more of a hockey collector, I’d definitely be trying to add more to the few in my collection. I’ll probably always be more of a collector focusing on tobacco and candy cards that were issued earlier than this. But this is a great set in my mind.