Sunday, December 3, 2023

Piercing the 1930s Sea of Sameness with Oscar Melillo

People who pursue sets between the world wars notice a certain unwelcome consistency to what's on offer. Some 1930s companies recycled their limited number of images, year by year, tweaking things just enough to keep their gum moving. Even 90+ years later, hobby malaise can set in.

Think about spending hundreds on this top-tier HOFer. "How do I feel about such similarity? Are two cards twice as good as owning one? Half as good?"

When kids opened penny gum packs in spring 1934, they found a familiar Foxx pose, as Goudey copied series one (#1-24) from existing 1933 cards. You can imagine the childish frustration over these retreads, which would suit crosstown competitor National Chicle, whose Diamond Stars Gum offered fresher images in an Art Deco style.

Chicle and Goudey each put star Lefty Grove in their first series, a predictable way for two Massachusetts companies to recognize the key Red Sox offseason acquisition. Goudey, perhaps chastened by complaints, changed direction after #24. Their checklist for #25-96 looks like what we now call an "update set" of lesser-known guys and roster changes. Jason Schwartz wrote a lot more about this at SABR's card blog. It included someone they left out of 1933's 240-card set, Oscar Melillo.

1934 Goudey Big League Gum #45

Let's track this popular 1930s second baseman through his lookalike collectibles and rank the best choices for those who like their prewar on a budget. Our first option isn't even a card!

1933 Gum, Inc. Double Header Pins (PX3)

Gum, Inc., who later made 1939-41 Play Ball cards, started in baseball with metal medallions that were meant to be paired front-to-back, hence the name "Double Header." An unopened pack, perhaps unique to our hobby, sold in 2011 via REA.

Their medals cropped Oscar to face alone. He looks friendlier here than on your other 1933 choice, DeLong Gum, a small set published by Goudey's former treasurer, Harold DeLong.

1933 DeLong Play Ball Gum (R333) #3

Metal coin sets remain a gray area and hard to recommend when other options remain. This set's drab and little-known in our hobby.

Cost: As of writing, eBay sellers ask $60-200 Buy-It-Now for graded PX3 coins (example search).

1934 Goudey Big League Gum (R320)

Oscar's first Goudey card shows DeLong design influence with its sketched grass and cartoon diamond. Its photo expands what Gum, Inc. put on its coin to show his batting follow-through and classic bloused uniform.

Oscar played every day at a key position, second base, so it's a mystery why Goudey left him off 1933's set. Just nine Browns got cards that year, well below average for a 240-card set covering 16 teams. The crosstown Cardinals got 14 and Rogers Hornsby appears for each squad thanks to his move from Cardinals player to Browns player-manager in late July.

Cost: 1934 commons like Oscar run ~$5-10 in low grades.

1934 O-Pee-Chee/Butterfinger Premiums (V94)

Here's our prizewinning "complete view" of Oscar, the Oscar for Oscar, at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. Canadian card maker O-Pee-Chee produced a handful of 1930s baseball sets and V94 stands out for its photo quality and size (6.5" x 8.5").

I think earlier cards cropped away Oscar's background to remove those teammates running sprints.

Cost: It's easy to damage OPC's thin paper stock and most surviving examples are low grade. Common players start about $10 and go up fast for stars and HOFers.

1934-36 National Chicle Diamond Stars Gum (1935 series)

Chicle expanded their Diamond Stars Gum checklist to 84 cards for 1935 and used Oscar's now-familiar pose at #53.

Some Chicle cards include buildings from their player's town, as on #5 Tommy Bridges, so that could be a real 1930s St. Louis structure. If you recognize it, let us know in the comments!

Cost: Diamond Stars commons crept up in recent years, so expect to spend $10 or more, even in low grade.

1935 Goudey Big League Gum (R321)

Goudey re-cropped Oscar's larger image for this 4-panel layout. Each card required an original (small) painting in those days, so reusing art saved them time and money.

The Browns sent Melillo to Boston in a splashy mid-1935 trade, more details below, so this card preceded that move.

Cost: As with Chicle cards, Goudey also crept up of late and even those with four common players like this run $15 or more.

1935 Goudey Premiums (R309-2)

Prewar collectors might recall Goudey offered mail-in premiums for 1933 and 1934 that include this famous Babe Ruth image.

1933 R309-1 Babe Ruth with mail-in promotional strip

Goudey switched to black-and-white photos on thin paper as an in-store loyalty program for 1935. They packed these premiums with Big League Gum shipments and kids would swap empty wrappers back to the pack seller for their preferred photo. The fifteen known R309-2 premiums cover just five metro areas (New York, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington), with good odds each city received premiums for its local guys.

R309-2 contains three composite photos, Boston, Cleveland, and Washington. Their Red Sox premium shows our Melillo pose and pitcher George Pipgras, who used the same base photo as 1933 Goudey.

1933 Goudey Big League Gum #12, George Pipgras

Melillo and Pipgras make an intriguing combo for this Red Sox composite, considering Boston's mid-1935 team transactions.'s 1935 Red Sox transactions (excerpt)

Does this mean Goudey printed their Red Sox composite in that one-week window? I bet they just added Oscar following his trade and failed to remove George when released, dating Boston's R309-2 to "sometime after May 27."

Goudey also gave Oscar a personal photo and tweaked the cap to "B," as Beantown expected great things on his arrival. Melillo delivered excellent defense and modest hitting, holding down second base until Bobby Doerr's much-hyped arrival in 1937. This feeds Melillo into Doerr's own significance to Goudey's unusual 1938 "Heads Up" set.

Cost: R309-2s prove scarce, so availability means more than price. I'd pay $20-25 for common, low-grade players.

Summary: "...and the Oscar goes to..."

What did you think of all these sets based on one Melillo image? This happens often with 1930s players and can cut into your enjoyment as a collector. I think four float atop this sea of sameness.
  1. Diamond Stars Gum for balanced art quality, availability, and hobby familiarity. This set produced a lot of best-of-career player cards.
  2. OPC/Butterfinger for its big, detailed images. Rank this first if display quality matters most to you.
  3. 1934 Goudey is comparable to Diamond Stars, if lesser in image quality most of the time.
  4. R309-2 Goudey remains interesting, if tough to find. OPC/Butterfinger looks better and you avoid competing with team collectors over a scarce issue, the Red Sox composite in particular.
Hope you enjoyed Oscar's parade in (St. Louis) brown and red (Sox). If you'd go after something else in this situation, sound off below!


Bo said...

I would vote for Diamond Stars as well. I didn't know the buildings were based off of real ones. I'll have to check out scans of the NY teams to see if I can ID anything.

Matthew Glidden said...

Please do! There are good odds that their first series (1-24) came from the same artist, who would have similar interest in adding buildings. By that 1935 series, which includes Oscar, it's yet to be determined how seriously they took the backgrounds.