Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Standard Catalog Update #9 : A Really Rare Ruth

By definition a baseball card doesn't get any rarer than unique, and since that's what we have here, this "discovery card" has to be at least tied for the title of "The Rarest Ruth."

This is a card issued circa 1921 by a competitor of Cracker Jack in the field of candy-coated popcorn and other confectionery products. Actually, "issued" may be too strong a word as the rarity of Shotwell baseball cards is such that it is unlikely the cards were ever included in boxes of a major brand of popcorn. Also mitigating against the likelihood of being an in-product premium is the fact that the two known cards show no product staining such as would be expected by a card inserted into a popcorn or candy package.

The Shotwell card appears to be a parallel to the 1921 American Caramel Series of 80 set (E121). It is black-and-white and measures about 2" x 3-1/4." It would be easy to assume that the Shotwell cards are custom-imprinted versions of the blank-back, similarly formatted, strip card set known as W575-1, but the caption details of the Ruth card with the Shotwell advertising (no quotation marks around BABE, and the position listed as R.F.) do not correspond to any of the three Ruth cards from W575-1.

Prior to the discovery of this Ruth card, only a single other Shotwell baseball card was known, picturing Baby Doll Jacobson as a right fielder with the St. Louis Browns. (That, in itself, is curious, since Jacobson was primarily a center fielder, and after 1917 never played more than 34 games in right in any season.)

The Babe Ruth Shotwell card comes to the hobby's attention courtesy of long-time and well-respected West Coast dealer Bill Wesslund, owner of Portland Sports Card Co. Bill reports that the card is owned by a man who is not a card collector, but has had the card for more than 30 years. Prior to that, Bill told us, the card was used as a boomark by the man's grandfather.

Tragically, the Ruth card suffers from a half-inch tear at the edge, about halfway down the right side. Without that damage, the card would, by my old-school standards, grade at least Ex-Mt., possibly Near Mint. We'll see what the experts say, however, as the card has been submitted to PSA for grading/slabbing and has been consigned to the Aug. 27 Collect.Com Auctions summer sale.

Without spending all day googling Shotwell, I have to confess I don't know a lot more about the company than what you can find on the back of the card. Their biggest seller was Checkers popcorn, sold, like Cracker Jack, in a 5-cent box with a prize inside. In the early 1900s some of the Checkers boxes carried the slogan "The Prize Confection That is Perfection."

It is also evident that in addition to in-box prizes, Shotwell was prolific in the issue of better premiums such as lithographed tin toys, pocket mirrors, key chains, pop-up cardboard animal sheets and other stuff that wouldn't have been practical to package in their product. These premiums may have been used as dealer incentives or possibly in-store consumer prizes.

I did find a reference on a baseball board games web site to a "Big League Base-ball At Home" game from Shotwell attributed to 1929. It is described as a premium from Checkers popcorn. Measuring about 4-1/2" x 4" it is a spinner-game printed on thick card stock with the rules printed on the back. While at first blush this might seem like a natural connection to the Shotwell baseball cards, I'm concerned about the dates. The Ruth card certainly fits into a 1929 scenario, but the Jacobson doesn't. He was dealt from the Browns to the Red Sox in the midst of the 1926 season. Similar problems would have plagued the Shotwell/Checkers game if they had used, or intended to use, a 1921 baseball card set as game pieces eight years later . . . many of the players would have changed teams or been completely out of baseball, and many of the game's contemporary stars who weren't in the 1921 card set wouldn't be represented. Besides, none of the few citations found about the board games mentions accompanying cards.

Just wild-ass guessing here, but what do you think of the notion that while the board game was in planning, the contractor who was trying to sell it to Shotwell printed up the E121-style cards just as samples, intending to update the checklist if the go-ahead was given? The pitch would have been that cards could be included in each box of Checkers, and the game board obtained from the neighborhood candy store. That would logically explain the lack of product stains on the two known cards as well as their rarity. It would put the Shotwells in the same league with the 1904 Allegheny Card Co. game prototype set or the 1921 Herpolsheimer's.

Well, now, there's another thought! The 1921 Herpolsheimer's -- which share a format with the Shotwells -- are also known in only a single example of each player. And, while Jacobson is not among the known Herpolsheimer's cards, the Ruth from that set shares exactly the same caption details with the Shotwell Ruth. Are both sets the product of the enterprising printing company that had done the American Caramels, W575-1, Standard Biscuit, Koester Bread, etc.? It isn't too far fetched to imagine the Shotwells and Herpolsheimer's were salesman's sample prototypes that didn't make it into full production.

Perhaps the publicity of the Ruth card's discovery and the inclusion of the Shotwell set in the 2011 Standard Catalog will bring more cards from the set out of the woodwork and allow us to get a
better idea of their true nature.

Football card collectors, of course, are familiar with the Shotwell brand as the sponsor of a pair of 1926 candy insert card set featuring Red Grange. A 24-card blank-back card-stock set pictures scenes from Grange's silent movie "One Minute to Play." An advertising-back 12-card set of paper stock candy inserts pictures Grange in various poses not related to the movie.

Shotwell also used at least one non-sport card set, apparently as in-box prizes. The cards were part of an 80-card issue in 1922 from the silent movie "Suzanna" starring Mabel Normand. The same cards were released in Canada in packages of Patterson Candy and Telfer Biscuits.

Shotwell was sold to Cracker Jack in 1926, though production of Checkers Popcorn and some of Shotwell other candy brands was continued into the 1940s.

Speaking of googling Shotwell (as I did earlier), you'll find any search cluttered with hundreds (thousands?) of references to a lengthy federal prosecution of Shotwell executives for corporate tax evasion. Though they were convicted in 1953, the case dragged through appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for another decade. I never did bother to find out how it was resolved, but the case is still cited frequently.

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