Rabbit hole

This thing where pre-war cards get surprisingly affordable when you move away from the heavy hitters of baseball and boxing is dangerous territory. I saw someone post a card on Twitter and did a quick ebay search to see how expensive it was. I was not prepared to find out how low the price was and couldn’t resist plumping for it (as well as some others because of combined shipping reasons).

Oh, and the low price? It was for the complete sets not the individual cards. This confirms that the price I paid for the Kings and Queens of England cards was indeed too high (I still got my money’s worth so I’m not complaining) but more excitingly (and dangerously) opens up world of cards to me that I hadn’t ever considered before.

Am I going off the pre-war deep end? No. But certain sporting figures do hold my interest and of course I’ll get my head turned by them if the price is right.

The card which spurred my interest was the Jesse Owens card from the 1939 Churchman’s Kings of Speed set. Jesse Owens of course is Jesse Owens but the set itself is pretty cool too. It’s a snapshot of all of our speed records at the time—from airplanes to boats to cars to bikes to running to rowing to cycling. Since speed correlates to both our perception of the world and our understanding of human ability it’s really neat to see everything collected together.

This wide-ranging checklist also means that there’s a card of a young Howard Hughes also in this set. It’s great to have an Owens card but it’s also a lot of fun to have a Hughes.

Productionwise there is some interesting stuff going on. The cards look to be simple black and white photos but there’s some extra processing where the backgrounds are screened back a little so as to give the subjects a bit of pop. Also some of the cards, such as the Owens, look to be action photos—semi-advanced stuff for this period in time.

The backs of the set make for good reading with lots of biographical information. I appreciate that Hughes’s card includes his vast inheritance and Hollywood productions. It’s nice to see Birabongse Bhanudej/Prince Bira of Siam have a card which predates his becoming the first Asian driver in Formula One in the 1950s. I wasn’t aware of motor-paced-racing until I read about Léon Vanderstuyft and now that I know I’m just glad he’s wearing a bike helmet. I’m old enough to remember when cyclists didn’t wear helmets (and died in crashes) so seeing a helmet in a photo from the 1930s definitely caught my eye.

Jesse Owens’s back meanwhile is interesting because of how it distinguishes between his amateur racing where he holds numerous world records and his professional career where he races against animals and appears in Hollywood films. I’ve come to side-eye the idea that sports were better when only amateurs could compete but it’s also bizarre for me to see what being a professional athlete used to involve too.

Another set I got was the 1934 Gallaher Champions set. This one has wonderful colorful art in all kinds of action poses. The thin keyline around the players makes everything graphically pop and many of the cards just look fantastic.

The set covers a wide range of sports including dog and horse racing but I got it for the cricket cards—in particular the Jardine and Larwood cards. Those two cards are especially nice but I’m actually more intrigued by Bodyline and the controversy of a technically legal but clearly dangerous tactic that caused the rules to be changed and apparently for many people counts as one of the most important events in the sport.

It’s interesting to me that Jardine’s card refers to “bodyline” while Larwood’s says “fast leg” since this set appears to be celebrating the Ashes victory (there are a number of other cricketers in the checklist).

I also enjoy having a proper Arsenal card which shows off those classic white-sleeved kits on the front and mentions Alex James’s signing bonus on the back. Joyce Cooper meanwhile is one of two women in the checklist and appears to have been England’s best swimmer for her time but suffered some bad luck in the Olympics.

The last set I got was a set of 1958 Kane International Footballers. This set predates the 1958 World Cup* but includes a number of stars from the 1954 World Cup such as Puskás and Fritz Walter. I know Puskás is a Real Madrid legend but I’ve always had a soft spot for him and Hungary and wish the Magical Magyars had won one World Cup to reflect their excellence in the sport and the way they helped drag it into the modern age with some of the first glimmers of Total Football.

*Probably a good thing since I’d expect Pelé and Garrincha cards to command higher prices.

Most of the photos in this set are cropped super tightly. It’s a bit of an odd choice but works pretty well. It also intrigues me that sports cards in England kept the tobacco size format for decades where cards in the US were all kinds of different sizes until 1957 when Topps standardized the form.

The backs of these cards kind of crack me up with their limited bios and emphasis on how the player has done against England. I do enjoy having a second Stanley Matthews card to sort of bookend his career. Paco Gento is another Real Madrid legend who’s won more European Cup championships that anyone else but is also one of Spain’s all-time great players. And Jackie Blanchflower’s card shows that this set also predates the Munich Air Disaster which not only ended his career but nearly killed him.

Now I need to get more pages to file these all away. They’re currently in the British-style 10-pocket pages but I do not have the albums for those nor do I like how they‘re nowhere near as dense as American 20-pocket pages. I’m looking forward to getting them all together where I can appreciate them 20 cards at a time. They deserve to be looked at and read and I’ve been really enjoying getting to know them so far.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

13 thoughts on “Rabbit hole”

  1. I’ve picked up a few tobacco sets from across the Atlantic at very affordable prices. I absolutely have to target that Jesse Owens card. Beautiful action shot.

  2. Well, this one slipped my radar the first time around. I need to find that Howard Hughes card – or maybe the whole set. We live a block away from one of the old Howard Hughes Corp. buildings.

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