A couple of years ago, former Sports Collector’s Digest editor Bob Lemke stumbled across Goudey sales figures for baseball cards in the 1930s and 1940s. He presented the figures while expressing a disinterest in doing the math to try to figure out how many cards Goudey sold.
For some insane reason I decided to take a stab at it. Or, rather, make my computer take a stab at it. And I came to some unexpected conclusions.
First, let’s present the sales figures:
|year||baseball sales (dollars)|
The first thing an expert collector will notice is that Goudey sold cards in 1939 and 1942, but didn’t issue new sets in those years. But it’s notable that after 1935, Goudey didn’t put years on its wrappers, and in reading up on Goudey, I’ve read speculation that they intended to sell card sets for more than one year to save money during the Depression. This makes sense, as their competitor National Chicle sold one card set from 1934-1936 with great success.
So I believe they sold old inventory in the years they didn’t produce new sets. And it looks like they ran out of 1938 inventory sometime in 1939 but didn’t fire up the presses again until 1941, relying instead on sales of non-sport cards and gum without cards to stay afloat. There were no new cards after 1941 due to World War II.
To make the math manageable, I assumed that 1939 and 1942 sales were sales of the previous year’s set, and that other years were that year’s sets. To do otherwise is pure speculation. I also assumed that no cards were double-printed, which I think is accurate.
That’s a lot of assumptions, but there’s still enough data here to find something useful.
So the next thing I did was multiply those numbers by 100, since Goudey sold the cards for a penny, to determine the number of cards sold. Then I divided that number by the number of cards in that year’s set, which proved these numbers have been rounded off, because I almost always got fractional numbers. There’s no way Goudey produced 188,284.5188 of each card. So I rounded off my sales calculations.
|Year||# of each card sold|
Keep in mind this is an estimate of the number of cards Goudey sold. It’s possible only to guess how many survived. But this gives a nice idea of the relative rarity of the various sets. It seems to me that 1941 Goudeys ought to seem hard to find. Why’s the 1935 Babe Ruth cheaper than any of the 1933s? Besides having to share the card with three other players, it’s almost twice as common.
So why were there more 1934-36s when the 1933s outsold them so handily? The later issues were smaller sets. Smaller sets meant fewer players to sign to contracts, fewer artists to pay, fewer printing plates to create, and just lower overhead all around. This was probably self-defeating behavior, as the smaller sets were easier to complete and therefore probably encouraged lower sales, but remember in the 1930s this was a nascent industry, and Goudey didn’t have much data to go by. It’s pretty clear from the variety of their designs and some of their quirks (like numbering the 1938 set as if it were a continuation of the 1933 glory days) that they were willing to try anything to duplicate that 1933 success, but sadly they never came close.
So where did this data come from? From 1955 to 1981, Topps had a monopoly on selling baseball cards with gum. Two gum companies, Fleer and Leaf, challenged Topps on this, using various strategies to issue cards but with limited success. Both companies challenged the monopoly in court unsuccessfully. In 1965 the Federal Trade Commission took action against Topps, and the Goudey sales figures were evidence in that case. Goudey went out of business in 1962. This is only my speculation, but one possibility is that the Feds tracked down former Goudey personnel to get these figures. Another possibility is that either Fleer or Leaf had acquired the information from Goudey prior to Goudey going out of business, then supplied the information to the Feds after they abandoned their individual cases against Topps.