If you looked up card #48 in the 1928 Harrington's Ice Cream set in the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, you'd find that Earl Smith "books" for $90 in NM. Why, then, is an SGC-graded Good example of the card already bid to $11,000 in the Oct. 1 sports cards/memorabilia auction being conducted by Heritage? And why has Heritage placed a $40,000 estimate on the card?
I'm sorry to report that I can't give you any definitive answers, but I did want to bring this anamoly to your attention.
Some background . . .
The Harrington's is one of a "family" of seven card sets that share the same front design and basic checklist of 60 players. The progenitor of the clan seems to be the 1927 York Caramel
The following year, a half-dozen other sets were issued. We're going to disregard the Greiners Bread version in this discussion, since so little is known about it, and even a picture of the card is virtually impossible to lay hands on. Within the five other sets, there are two distinct "generations." The first-generation cards were issued by Tharp's Ice Cream (location unknown), the Sweetman Co., of St. Louis (we don't know the type of product they used the cards to promote), and an unknown issuer whose cards have on back a game play/prize redemption notice and which are cataloged as W502. All of these first-generation cards measure about 1-3/8" x 2-1/2" and are printed in black-and-white. A portrait or posed action photo is on front, with a card number within parentheses and the player's name in the wider border at bottom.
There are two second-generation sets in this format, on which it appears that the entire front of a first-generation set was reprinted, with a resultant loss of quality, some different cropping and the card number/player name line of type being incorporated into the player picture. These sets were issued by Harrington's Ice Cream (location unknown) and Yuengling's Ice Cream (Pottsville, Pa.). Besides having stolen the design of York, et. al., the Harrington's and Yuengling's cards shared a purpose, along with the first-generation Tharp's.
Evidently given away, one card with each retail ice cream purchase, the 60 cards in these sets, according to information printed on the backs, could be redeemed for a gallon of ice cream, while the Babe Ruth card was redeemable for an ice cream bar or "novelty" or could be saved in an unspecified number for a quart of ice cream (Harrington's and Yuengling's) or "a $5.00 skooter" (Yuengling's).
As was often the case with such redemption programs, to limit the number of top prizes given away, the issuers were inclined to hold back from distribution one of the cards needed to complete a set. It is now becoming apparent that for Tharp's, Harrington's and Yuengling's, the "chase" card that kept many a youngster from pigging out on a gallon of free ice cream was #48, veteran National League catcher Earl Smith.
This supposition is based upon the empirical evidence of lack of surviving examples of that card in those three sets. Of 145 cards reported graded by PSA and SGC for the 1928 Harrington's set, there are only two Earl Smiths. Considering that the "average" number of cards graded per player in that set is only 2.4, the scarcity of the Smith card is not all that remarkable. Among Tharp's (146 submissions) and Yuengling's (412 submissions), however, not a single Earl Smith card has been graded.
Among the sets that were not issued as part of a redemption gimmick, the Earl Smith card shows up once among 91 York Type 2s, twice in 42 Sweetman's submissions, and in 10 examples among 550 W502s handled by SGC and PSA.
Of special interest in the example of the 1928 Harrington's Earl Smith card in the Heritage auction is the fact that, unlike the other 59 cards in the set, it is printed front and back in green ink, rather than black-and-white. The other reported example of the Harrington's Smith card is also in green. There are no confirmed reports of the card surviving in black-and-white. We are left to speculate whether the card was originally distributed in b/w, but exchanged for a green version when a set was redeemed for a gallon of ice cream, to absolve the retailer of the need to "cancel" all 60 cards, or whether it was only issued in the distinctive color to signify its status as the rarity of the issue.
Regardless of the facts surrounding their original distribution, surviving examples of Harrington's, Tharp's and Yuengling's Earl Smith cards can now take their place among the elite of vintage baseball card rarities. When the hammer falls in the Heritage auction, we'll know how far up on that list the hobby deems appropriate.