Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Where did 1933 Big League Gum #106 Nap Lajoie come from?


Welcome to another article about Goudey Gum and its 1930s business choices! They continue to fascinate me as an American company (born from Canadian roots) that used chewing gum innovations to succeed during the Great Depression, one of history's toughest times to make a buck.

We often think of card makers like Goudey and Topps as driving the hobby forward by injecting "fun" into packs of cardboard and gum. While those companies mean a lot to those end products, they share the road with us, the collectors who buy their stuff. When I think of what we contribute, I think of Nap Lajoie.

1933 Goudey Big League Gum #106, Napoleon Lajoie

If you know #106 at all, you know it as one of our hobby's treasured rarities. When we fantasize about "owning a Lajoie," most of us mean this one. He's a prize, in part, because collectors demanded his creation. If you don't know that origin story, I recommend starting with Anson Whaley's 7 fun facts about the Nap Lajoie 1933 Goudey card. Today's article covers that card's larger context and a "deadline trade" that I believe made him so hard to find.

1933's best-laid plans

Leo "The Lip" Durocher first served as the Big League Gum #106 proof card, but just at first. Prior to final printing, Goudey removed #106 from its 24-card sheet and added a second #144 Ruth, seeking to satisfy buyer demand for the Babe. Durocher's own number changed to #147, leaving a new hole in the checklist.

Note #106 Durocher's uneven edges, hand-cut from the proof sheet

By 1934, enough frustrated collectors complained to Goudey about a missing #106 that they created a real one, featuring Napoleon Lajoie, to hold and enjoy. There's our man alongside 1934 Big League Gum's fourth series, its scarcer "high numbers" (#73-96).

While this means Goudey printed as many 1933 #106 cards as they did 1934 Bill Werbers, Lajoie never went into wax packs. We can assume all copies available today came from 1930s mail-in requests or from Goudey's leftover stock sale in the 1960s. It's a good bet they discarded or destroyed the remainder. (Ouch, babe.)

Designing a white whale

When Goudey yielded to demand and decided to create the missing #106, they assembled it from a melange of 1933 and 1934 Big League Gum elements. On the front, Larry's sliding silhouette mimicked 1934 #65 Cliff Bolton.

Lajoie's back bio uses quote marks, as seen on 1934 "Lou Gehrig says..." cards. While the "G. G. Co © 1934" stamp also carried over, Goudey put it below 1933's "series of 240" footer, since #106 filled a gap in that set.

So that's why #106, you say. But why Lajoie, you askCheck out that front again.

There's our Cliff Bolton slide alongside slimmer-than-1933 name lettering and a big empty shirt space where something else could be. That big jersey space reminded me of a different Goudey set: 1933-34 Sport Kings Gum.

1933 Goudey Sport Kings Gum #3, Babe Ruth

Sport Kings Gum covered a range of "Stars and Champs of Today and Yesterday" across two series, one released in late 1933 and the other in early 1934. Two baseball players appear in series one (Ruth, Cobb) and one in series two (Carl Hubbell). A few Sport Kings, like the Babe and Hubbell, were still active and doing their thing. Many others, like Cobb, were years removed from their famous professions or achievements.

1933 Sport Kings Gum series one window advertisement

I see Sport Kings Gum as a nostalgia pitch to older fans who remembered the 1910s and 1920s. Goudey also used it to sneak another Babe Ruth into 1933 before their license to use his image expired. That makes six different 1933 Goudey Ruths, if you count four Big League Gum cards and this mail-in premium.

1933 Goudey R309-1 premium, Babe Ruth

Pulled from the cold case files

While Big League Gum focused on active ballplayers, Sport Kings Gum covered people foundational to sports and culture in general, like Duke KahanamokuBabe Didrickson, and Jim Thorpe. Seeing how Lajoie's career lasted from 1896 to 1916, that's the mold he fits. Back in 1933, Nap's last on-card appearance was already a dozen years old and described him as "former 2nd base."

1919-21 W514, Nap Lajoie

So if Lajoie should've been in Sport Kings, why wasn't he? I suspect Big League Gum proved so popular that it changed Goudey's original plans.

Trading at the deadline

Jason Schwartz's "An alternate history of 1933 Goudey" describes the midseason scramble surrounding Big League Gum in great detail. While I recommend reading the whole thing, focus on three points.
  • Goudey's first five series cover 120 cards, half of their promised "series of 240," with no duplicate players
  • Thanks to baseball mania surrounding Chicago's "Century of Progress" exposition and MLB's first All-Star Game, Goudey sold more gum cards in 1933 than in any other year
  • Big League Gum's art style changed in late 1933 and became close to that seen on 1934, implying cards released a year ahead of plan

Sport Kings Gum's first series (#1-24) came out in late 1933, at about the same time Big League Gum's final series, allowing Goudey to compare results. Since Big League Gum's final series included all World Series players, 12 each Giants and Senators, they also gave New York ace Carl Hubbell his second card in the set.

1933 Big League Gum #234, Carl Hubbell

It's easy to imagine strong sales for a series of World Series players, King Carl included. If so, you can guess what came next.

Card Hubbell, circa 1933 World Series

1934 Sport Kings Gum #42, Carl Hubbell

I think Goudey had Sport Kings Gum series two (#25-48) ready to go with Lajoie at #42 and just bumped him in favor of New York's new World Champion and 1933 NL MVP. After all, Lajoie hadn't played baseball in 17 years. Give kids more of what they want!

That move left orphaned Lajoie art available for other purposes, like filling the gap at #106. While I doubt they predicted needing it later, Goudey's opportunism allowed them to avoid wasting completed work. Add some bits of 1933-34 design, slip it onto a Big League Gum print sheet, and move on to the next thing.

I can do more than just argue for Lajoie with words and phrases. Let's take him all the way home with some custom card work.

Now that's a Sport King we can root for. Slide, Larry, slide!


I never felt at ease with the idea of Lajoie dropping unexplained into a set otherwise full of active -- or at least recent -- players. It fails the sniff test for a company that made decisions with the bottom line in mind.

Knowing what we know about Goudey's business practices, set construction, and 1933 sales, I believe this series of events explains Napoleon Lajoie's appearance on 1933 Big League Gum #106. Other collectors and historians may disagree and alternative ideas are welcome. Either way, loving that look of Nap under a Sport Kings Gum banner.