By Doug Koztoski
With Joe DiMaggio ripping line drives across his famous 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams doing much the same while batting over .400 for the season, the 1941 Major League Baseball campaign delivered some of the brightest highlights in league history, a season for the ages in the hearts and minds of many baseball fans. The Goudey baseball card set that year, on the other hand, not so much.
Yet, Goudey’s severe lack of spark with its baseball issue in 1941 is part of what draws Anthony Nex to the 33-card collection. “It’s a horrible set,” the veteran sports collector joked, somewhat. “The design is bad, the production value is bad, and they were too cheap and lazy to even bother with the backs (which are blank). The cuts are abysmal on it. And the centering is just…forget it.
“They started out at the top design wise (in 1933, with their regular baseball set and the Sport Kings, among others),” Nex said, “then made a steady march to the bottom in just eight years.” The veteran hobbyist, however, has a true affinity for the issue and was quick to say, “the ‘41s are a fun set to collect.” Nex, who has compiled one of the top-ranked collections of the issue on the PSA Set Registry, compared the early 40s offering to the ’48-’49 Leaf baseball set: “the card design is so ugly it grows on you after a while.”
Speaking of ugly, at least in terms of winning percentage, the Philadelphia Phillies ranked among the National League bottom dwellers during much of the 1930s and ‘40s. So, it was likely a bit of surprise to many when the 1941 Goudey set started with a Phillie, in this case pitcher Hugh Mulcahy, who was coming off a personal worst 22-loss season in 1940.
Mulcahy came up with the Phillies in the mid 1930s and by 1937 he was a regular starter, although he averaged 10 wins and 19 losses for the next four years. A workhorse, if nothing else. Still, some sportswriters nicknamed him “Losing Pitcher.” Nice.
But Mulcahy is likely best known for a personal tidbit printed on the front of his ’41 Goudey: “First Major Leaguer to be drafted in U.S. Army.” The United States’ involvement in World War II, did not really start until right after the attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but President Roosevelt anticipated the U.S. fighting the flaring conflicts in Europe and elsewhere at some point, so he brought in the military draft lottery in September 1940 to help prepare for the inevitable.
Yet, Mulcahy took his March 1941 draft induction in stride, when he reportedly uttered, “At last I’m on a winning team.” First discharged on December 5, 1941, Mulcahy did not get much of a chance to return to civilian life because Pearl Harbor called many back into the military, including Mulcahy, who returned to the Army for four more years. At least he was back on a winning team, again.
A few challenges
Nex taps Mulcahy as one of his favorites in the ’41 Goudey issue, chiefly due to the military angle, and, in a set with just a couple big names, he selected two other commons for his “top picks” list: Dario Lodigiani (#15), a star in the Pacific Coast League after the war, and George Case (#16), who played chiefly with the Washington Senators. “Case was one of the unheralded stars of the era, overshadowed by bigger names in bigger markets.”
A lot of the attention in the set takes place from #20 until the end. Hall of Fame pitcher Carl Hubbell starts that run, and the offering concludes with one of Hubbell’s longtime teammates and another future Cooperstown “resident”: slugger Mel Ott.
Cards #21-25 (Harold Warstler, Joe Sullivan, Norman [Babe] Young, Stanley Andrews and Morris Arnovich) are all listed as short-prints in the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards, but Nex said it seems most of the other cards that fill out the back end of the set are, if not bona fide short-prints, certainly harder to locate on average than cards from earlier in the issue. “Except for Mel Ott. That is an easy card to find in any color.”
Ah yes, the background colors, there are four for each player. “Red is the toughest,” Nex noted. Blue is a close second, with Yellow and Green being “much easier than Blue.” Generally, from a PSA graded perspective anyway, that hardest-to-easiest color scheme holds true. Only about 1,800 cards from this offering have landed in PSA slabs, with around 12 to 15 on average graded for each background color per player, at most.
Nex said the cards came one to a penny pack, just as the rival Play Ball and Double Play baseball cards were sold that season. “1941 Play Ball is one of the greatest sets of all-time, ’41 Double Play had the two-player thing going for it and I think Goudey must have been in the tank” (with their set), I can’t imagine the cards being very popular (especially compared to their competition) back then.”
But the upside to that situation is their comparative affordability, with many of the raw cards selling for about $20-$25 apiece in VG condition.
Lasting power, of one sort or another
Nearly eight decades later DiMaggio’s streak has never been seriously challenged and Williams’ .406 mark in ’41 remains the highest regular season average since that period, keeping the Red Sox slugger as the last player to hit .400 or better in a season.
That hallowed .400 level has occasionally been flirted with but not consummated since 1941, a year when the US would eventually enter World War II and lead the Allies to victory come the summer of 1945. Mainstream trading cards, in any numbers anyway, took a break from production during that period.
As for the 1941 Goudey set, it will likely remain the mostly ignored baseball issue of that year. But on the positive end, the 33-piece issue provides collectors with another vintage choice for a type card or maybe even a set, either way, usually at a relatively low price.
And for Phillies’ fans of the era in particular, maybe it’s just as well Hugh Mulcahy started off the issue, in hindsight it just seems so appropriate.
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He welcomes comments on this article as firstname.lastname@example.org.