Author’s note: This is the first in a series of posts that digs deeper into one of the Ten Mysteries of the 1934 Goudey Set.
Collectors and admirers of the 1933 Goudey know well that the iconic set includes “not one, not two, not three…” but four different cards of the Bambino!
What’s more, if we count the double-printing of the second one, a full five of the 240 slots on the ten printing sheets from the set were occupied by Ruth. In short, he was all over the set.
Fast forward only a year, and the Babe is completely invisible in the 1934 Goudey release. 96 cards, 95 different players, but not a single one of the game’s biggest draw. The reason the set had no Ruth cards may forever be lost to history, but this post will explore and evaluate several possibilities.
1. Ruth/Gehrig feud, part one
I first came across this angle in a post by Matthew Glidden over at the Number 5 Type Collection blog. There is enough out there on the Ruth/Gehrig feud itself that I won’t recap any of it here. Just suffice it to say the relationship between the two teammates was a frosty one and the timing of maximum frost was late-1933/early-1934, right around the time one might imagine the 1934 Goudey set being planned.
Let’s take a look at what (probably) would have needed to happen for the Ruth/Gehrig feud to have been the cause of Ruth’s omission from the set–
- Ruth or Gehrig to care about the baseball card set
- Goudey to choose Gehrig over Ruth provided both were not an option
The first of these strikes me as somewhat dubious since baseball cards in 1934 held nowhere near the prominence they hold today. We also see other 1934 sets (Butterfinger and World Wide Gum, for example) that included the two players. What’s more, the 1934 Exhibits 4-on-1 even featured both players on the same card!
The V354 issue is particularly notable since it not just any set but a Goudey set, distributed in Canada under the brand World Wide Gum. This seems to rule out the possibility that Ruth/Gehrig simply forgot to tell Butterfinger, et. al, not to use them both even as they delivered a clear message to Goudey.
The second point, that Goudey would have opted for Gehrig over Ruth given the choice, seems odd. While Gehrig was already the better player and would go on to win the American League Triple Crown in 1934, Ruth was without a doubt the more celebrated player and by far the biggest draw.
2. Ruth/Gehrig feud, part two
Perhaps the issue wasn’t so much having Ruth and Gehrig in the same set but having Ruth in Lou Gehrig’s set. The 1934 Goudey set, after all, is practically synonymous with the Iron Horse, and a full 84 out of 96 cards carry the distinctive “Lou Gehrig says” banner on the front. Backs for most of these cards also include a short player bio marketed as written by Gehrig.
Similar to part one, this theory still requires that Ruth would even spare a thought about his baseball card. However, it succeeds in explaining away the various other sets the two players would appear in that same year. Certainly none of the others were centered around Gehrig.
Still, there are reasons this theory is not fully satisfying. If Goudey were forced to choose one player over the other, Ruth still seems the more likely choice. It’s hard to imagine Goudey would have sold fewer cards if 84 (or 96) of them bore a “Babe Ruth says” banner.
At this point you might wonder if Babe Ruth would have been willing to write a bunch of bios, as the set seemed to require. However, the bios didn’t actually come from Gehrig himself but from his ghostwriter/agent, Christy Walsh, who also represented Babe Ruth (along with numerous other star athletes) in the same capacity. As such, it would have taken no greater effort to build the set around Ruth as to build it around Gehrig.
3. Ruth too expensive
Without knowing a lot about the mechanics of how a card maker gained the rights to use a player’s image and bio on cardboard in 1934, we can at least imagine that it might have cost something. It definitely was the case that Christy Walsh exercised significant control over the use of Babe Ruth in print. Could it be then that in 1934 Babe Ruth was too expensive for the gum counters at Goudey?
The problem I have with this theory is, again, that Ruth appeared in numerous other 1934 baseball issues including two other Goudey offerings: 1934 Goudey Premiums (R309-1) and the aforementioned World Wide Gum (V354). If Butterfinger could afford Ruth and Goudey could afford Ruth for its other 1934 issues, would he really have been too expensive for the 1934 flagship offering?
And even this neglects the fact that Ruth was everywhere in the 1933 Goudey set, along with a card in their 1933-1934 Sport Kings offering, and once again cracks the Goudey lineup in 1935.
4. Enough Ruth cards already!
If you’ve read my (sorry) extremely long ” Alternate History of 1933 Goudey” you will recall my speculation that the 1933 series was originally planned for release across two years. Part of this theory positions the final 72 Goudey cards from 1934 as a continuation of the 1933 cards, meaning there would be no need to issue new cards of players who already had cards in 1933.
As is well known, Ruth had four cards in the 1933 series, so his absence certainly wouldn’t be conspicuous if the 1934 cards were simply an extension of the 1933 set. At the same time, the 1934 Goudey issue did repeat some players in its final three series. A handful of the repeated players had changed teams, meaning new cards made the 1934 series more current. However, there were other players (Tommy Bridges, Bill Hallahan, Ki-Ki Cuyler) who received new cards for no evident reason, and of course Lou Gehrig himself received not just one but two new cards.
Meanwhile, I have to imagine Goudey was more motivated by making money than checklist considerations. Even if there was something elegant about churning out all new players, why not throw in another Ruth and sell a helluva lot more gum?
Oh, and my focus in this section has been on cards 25-96 in the 1934 release. However, repeats are much more frequent in the set’s first 24-card release. How many of those 24 players already appeared in the 1933 set? All of them! And yet, no Ruth!
5. Boosting Lou
Christy Walsh has is name all over the 1934 set, both on the card backs and also on promotional materials. Could he have also had a strong hand in the set’s focus and player selection? Walsh was already enjoying significant business licensing and merchandising the Bambino whereas let’s just say Gehrig opportunities were not exactly choice.
In the grand scheme of things, gum cards would not have been the number one business opportunity for the Babe. More profitable opportunities would have abounded. On the other hand, making the Iron Horse the face of a popular gum card offering was a chance to boost Gehrig’s profile. Pulling Ruth from the set entirely would only serve to underscore Gehrig’s leading role.
What I like about this theory is that it doesn’t require Ruth or Gehrig to take an active interest in their depiction on cards nor does it involve Goudey actively choosing Gehrig over Ruth. As Walsh controlled the rights to both athletes, Goudey would simply be making due with the options in front of them. If Walsh wouldn’t allow Ruth at all and (perhaps) would only allow Gehrig if he was made the star and spokesman of the set, then it would seem that Goudey chose the best of the options in front of them.
As context, I’ll note that both Ruth and Gehrig were absent from the year’s other very large offering, the 1934-1936 National Chicle Diamond Stars set. It’s certainly possible to read into their absence here that Walsh was indeed taking an active role in controlling their rights all the way down to the gum card market.
There is no smoking gun for any of the five theories presented. My personal sense is that the final one is the most likely. Were I forced to choose the second most likely, I might even consider a “none of the above” over any of the other four. If you have a different theory for Ruth’s omission, please leave a Comment.