He's still the king, but for those trying to wrap their arms around the history of Babe Ruth baseball cards, the history actually spans a few decades.
As far as anyone knows, Babe Ruth baseball cards made their first appearance during the 1914 season when the Baltimore News distributed promotional photos of the minor league Orioles team for which Ruth played. Ruth was still a couple of years away from his Major League debut but the 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth card is generally considered his rookie card.
Exceptionally hard to find considering only a few die-hard fans would have saved what was essentially an advertising piece, the card is the holy grail of Babe Ruth baseball cards. While only a small number are known to exist, a few have emerged from hiding in the last couple of years. The lowest graded Baltimore News Ruth rookie card sold for $150,800 in 2006. Considered to be in ‘poor’ condition, the selling price reflected the high demand by sports collectors who wanted perhaps the best of the Babe Ruth baseball cards from his earliest days as a professional. A PSA 2 (“good” condition) Ruth rookie card sold in the spring of 2007 for $199,750. In 2005, a PSA 4 (vg-ex) brought $243,600 at auction, while a card graded 40 (VG) by Sportscard Guaranty (SGC), sold for the astonishing price of $517,000 at a sale conducted by Robert Edward Auctions in May of 2008.
Ruth’s first widely distributed card is a thin, rectangular black and white issue distributed in 1916 under the advertising umbrella of several sponsors, but generally regarded as emanating from The Sporting News. Ruth, then a member of the Red Sox, is pictured as a pitcher. While several different ads for the various sponsors can be found on the card backs, many of which are extremely rare, they all share the same Ruth photo. These, too, are popular with collectors. A PSA 5 (ex) copy sold in April of 2007 for $26,437 while a PSA 7 (nr mint) brought $82,250. Among lower grade cards, an SGC 20 (fair) sold for $10,322 in early 2008. The value and selling prices of the higher grade examples have varied quite a bit in recent years.
Babe Ruth baseball cards hit their zenith in the 1920s, as the Bambino joined the New York Yankees and enjoyed worldwide fame and the adoration of baseball fans at the new Yankee Stadium. While there were not yet ‘gum cards’, Ruth appeared on a wide variety of trading cards during the decade, many of which were premiums issued such as the 1921 American Caramel series. Ruth cards were printed for the promotion of bread and chocolates—even ice cream in 1928. Fro-Joy issued a set of Ruth cards which are extremely valuable, but often confused with the modern day reprints that were widely distributed.
In 1933, Goudey Gum of Boston produced its first major baseball cards set with the iconic Ruth at the center. No less than four different Babe Ruth baseball cards were issued as part of the release. Today, lower grade examples of each generally bring $700-2000 when professionally authenticated and graded. Mid-grade examples typically sell for $2000-4000, semi-high grades for $4000-8000 and high grade for $8000-20,000, although the few rare surviving mint condition Ruth cards from the Goudey sets have brought $70,000 and up when offered. Ruth also appeared in a 1933 Goudey Sport Kings multi-sport set. An SGC 92 (near mint-mt+) Ruth from that series sold at auction for $64,417.
Goudey’s presence and the cards-gum concept faded in 1935 and only three different Ruth cards were issued. Ruth’s career was over by the late 1930s and World War II put an end to any baseball cards for awhile as the nation concentrated its printing and paper production on the war effort. The most popular 1940s issue is probably the 1948 Leaf Babe Ruth #3 (now how did they come up with that number?), part a nationally-distributed issue which helped launch the modern era of baseball card sets.
Ruth returned in the 1960s as Topps produced a Ruth retrospective in 1962 and newcomer Fleer honored the Babe with cards in its all-time greats sets of the early 60s. Nu-Card did the same.
Ruth cards are still being produced today, with slivers from Ruth’s game-used bats and pieces of sliced-up jerseys issued as prime prizes in modern day packs.
For most vintage collectors, however, Babe Ruth baseball cards mean those issued during his time as an active player and searching for some of the true rarities issued during the short moment in time when the Bambino ruled sports can be rewarding as a collector—and even as an investor.
Recent sales of Babe Ruth baseball cards on eBay:
- 2005 Donruss Signature Stamp $6100
- 1933 Goudey #144 SGC 50 $2250
- 1933 Goudey #53 SGC 10 $1232
- 1948 Leaf #3 PSA 4 $ 910