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Graded Babe Ruth Cards You Can Own Without Going Broke

Early in 2014 one of the higher-end products from the Topps Company was released to the baseball hobby. 2014 Topps Museum Baseball was released for its third season, and it wanted the collecting public to know that it would continue to focus on high-end hits. Indeed, every pack promised either an autograph or a relic card with four-pack boxes promising an autographed relic, an autograph, a jumbo relic and a quad relic.

Ruth bat 2014 MuseumSo, who does Topps turn to for its box image on one of its highest-end and most modern card offerings that contain nameplate cards, colored parallels, various inserts and high tech printing processes? Who can sum up such a product to the modern, well-heeled baseball card consuming audience?

Babe Ruth. Of course.

Truly it is not a big surprise to anyone who is aware of the baseball card and memorabilia market, but it is incredibly interesting that the Sultan of Swat, the Bambino (cue Sandlot film reference) is still employed by the Topps Company to represent and sell its high-end product some 66 years after his death. Yes, there are Babe Ruth cards in the set, but it is a testament to the Big Bam’s popularity that he is still considered “the draw.”

Of course, it is not Topps and their Museum product alone. Topps Tribute has had Ruth grace its boxes in recent years. But the appeal of the Yankee immortal goes far beyond just appearing on the packaging or showing up in the set. Ruth items dwarf even the latest hot prospect or rookie to flash across the baseball skyline. This is easily demonstrated by considering just one aspect of the baseball card market. It is generally understood that the past several years have seen a great decline in the interest (and thus, the value) of most game-used or game-word relic cards. But not when it comes to the Bambino. Cards that contain silvers of his war clubs or pieces of his cut up uniforms still command decent dollars on a regular basis.

Here are just a few examples from eBay of Babe Ruth game-used bat cards and what they have sold for since January of 2014:

Note that these are just bat relic cards. They do not contain autographs or pieces of uniform. By way of comparison, other game-used bat cards from the 1999 Upper Deck set referred to above had a Mel Ott sell for $135, and a Jimmie Foxx sold for $154.50 during the same time period. Those are still pretty good numbers for a simple game-used bat card, but the difference between those two Hall of Fame sluggers and Ruth’s card sale price is similar to the differential in the fastball speeds of Bruce Chen and Yordano Ventura.

Topps certainly knew what they were doing using Ruth on the Museum packaging as there just seems to be an insatiable appetite in the collectibles market for decent items related to Ruth. His cards, both relic and other types, continue to attract buyers and at least hold their value, if not gain in value over the years.

Another aspect of this is the modern collector who feels that relic cards and such are the only way Ruth-related items can be afforded at this juncture. Although most people are aware of the Honus Wagner T-206 “holy grail” card, it is assumed that most Babe Ruth cards produced in his actual era are way out of range cost-wise and difficult to find. And there is some validity to this as the price guide value on a 1933 Goudey card of the slugger ranges from $5,000 to $8,000 depending upon which of the five cards in that set you are referencing.

However, it does not have to be all of that. A recent search on eBay for original, graded Babe Ruth cards offered for under $1,000 yielded more than 140 results. And these are not sloppy, fly-by-night grading service cards, but cards graded by PSA, SGC or Beckett.

Granted, a Buy It Now price on eBay is not the same as an actual valuation on an item, and it may or may not relate to what amount for which a card will eventually change hands or what the price guides have to say (whether the Sports Market Report [SMR] or the Beckett Graded Card Price Guide). However, such a search does provide an interesting starting point regarding “entry level” Babe Ruth cards from the time period roughly involved in the Sultan of Swat’s career.

Believe it or not, there were several “oddball” cards produced of Ruth during his diamond days. Some were regional items or tied to specific and short-lived advertising campaigns. Other cards from late in his career were produced in foreign lands, which demonstrates just how far his popularity and fame reached even without the internet and television. Some of those are represented below, and others are fairly well-known American baseball cards. We will look at a few of the more easily obtainable cards, and in approximate chronological order.

1921 Schapira Bros. Babe Ruth1921 Schapira Bros. Babe Ruth Candy Card

Among the earliest cards to depict Babe Ruth as a New York Yankee were these cards that were affixed to boxes of the New York based “Babe Ruth Candy,” and comprised a very unusual and fascinating candy-box set devoted exclusively to the slugger. The prize redemption included an opportunity to receive a single signed Babe Ruth baseball in exchange for 250 of the box cut cards. The cards are printed in red, white, blue, and black, and are roughly 1.6″ by 2.5″ when cut properly.

Since these “hand-cut” keepsakes were typically removed from the box within the confines of black dotted lines, many of the professionally graded existing examples have simply been deemed “Authentic”. Any early 1920’s Babe Ruth card is highly sought after. This is one of Ruth’s earliest Yankee cardboard treasures, joining forces with the 1921 E121 and preceded by only a few strip cards. The PSA Authentic examples listed on eBay were in the $650-$1250 range for a Buy It Now when we ran the search (see what’s available right now here). However, as recently as January 12, a Beckett Vintage Graded example also listed as “Authentic” sold at auction on eBay for $281.99…or less than many boxes of Topps Tribute.

W512 Ruth1926 W512 #6 Babe Ruth

Sometimes referred to as “Athletes, Aviators, Movie Stars and Boxers,” this set was issued originally in a strip of cards. Each of the blank-backed cards measure about 1 3/16″ by 2 3/16″ when separated form the strip, and features crude color drawings of the personality noted. Thesewere done on very fragile, thin card stock. As revealed by the title referred to earlier, the set includes actors and actresses as well as some of the athletes that made the 1920s “The Golden Age of Sports.”

Of those depicted there are ten major league baseball players (variations of the cards bring the total number of different cards to 17): Grover Alexander, Dave Bancroft, Ty Cobb, Frank Frisch, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Everett Scott, Tris Speaker, and Glen Wright.

Of course, though the debate was always about Cobb vs. Ruth with regard to baseball greatness in that day, the Home Run Hitter easily wins the race for most desired collectibles. Once again we are largely working in the arena of cards deemed “authentic” rather than being graded, and the last three sold on eBay ranged from $325 to $499 when we searched the records. A couple were still available in the $500-$575 asking price range.

Babe Ruth 1928 Fro Joy Cards

FroJoy RuthSome have called it “the most heavily reproduced vintage card in the hobby,” and others have gone on record to delcare that 99% of the cards from this set that exist are fake. Whatever the real statistics may be, it is certain that the 1928 Fro-Joy Ice Cream Babe Ruth card set is one of the most controversial and consternating card sets ever produced.

For one week in August, 1928 the Fro-Joy Ice Cream Company of Boston gave away one baseball card with every cone. Each of the 6 different cards pictured Babe Ruth in a different pose or action shot. Kids were instructed to mail a complete set in to Fro-Joy in exchange for a larger premium of The Sultan of Swat and an un-cut sheet of the six cards they were to send. The small cards measured 2 1/16″ by 4″, while the larger premium was 8″ x 12″. The cards collected with the ice cream featured black and white photos, along with a short caption on the front, and an ad for Fro-joy ice cream on the back. The genuine cards use an unusual size and above-average printing techniques for the 20s, with thick paper stock, and good quality photos. In the minds of many collectors the card quality exceeds the humble strip sets like W519 and W521.

As mentioned earlier, these cards have been the source for many illegal and harmful reprinted sets. In fact, some were so incredibly brazen as to use colored paper and other techniques that stand out like melted ice cream. In fact, some grading companies have even stopped accepting Fro-joys to avoid authenticating a too-good-to-be-true reprint. There are still some which have been authenticated and graded, however, and frequently show up online. Many have speculated that the over abundance of the fake cards have depressed the market for the genuine, and that certainly seems to be the case.

1932 Sanella Margarine Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth 1933 SanellaHe may have been nearing the end of his remarkable career in 1932, but the Babe still had enough left in the tank to clout 41 home runs during the regular season, and enough bankable appeal that advertisers from all over the world wanted to use his likeness. One of the companies who did just that the Sanella Margarine company of Germany. Sanella issued various sports cards and an album into which the 112 cards could be glued. The athletes depicted include leading skiers, rugby players, boxers, curlers, ice hockey players, soccer players and other athletes of the period. The only cards about baseball had pictures on the front of either Babe Ruth or a Japanese catcher.

Variations exist with regard to where on the card back the Sanella name is placed (either in the center of the card or along the bottom). Many feel these cards are undervalued today, and the one reason often cited is that it is because the cards are of German origin and printed in the German language on the back. However, there was a time when these cards traded like a card from the Babe’s actual playing days would be expected to perform.

In the baseball card boom of the 1990s the cards sold fairly regularly in the $1,000 and up range. Today they trade at far, far below that amount. It is said that at the height of the baseball card frenzy, and following the fall of the Berlin Wall, that a German collector brought quite a haul of the cards and albums out of Germany and the price dropped like a rock. Whether or not that is completely true is hard to ascertain. What can be verified, however, is that the cards are easy to find at pretty common prices these days.

A Type 2 card graded by Beckett Vintage as a 7.5 (NM+) has an asking price of $325, while a PSA 5 can be purchased for $185 – $250. One seller was offering all three variations, graded by PSA as 5s for $795 or Best Offer. Finally, at the time of this writing there were several completed albums with cards intact and attached available through eBay…and for less than $200.

1930s Goudey Ruth Cards

Babe Ruth 1933 Goudey

In the 1933 Goudey set, Ruth was everywhere. He appears on card numbers 53, 144, 149, and 181. Card #144 is considered double printed. Much has been written about this set, and the basic price guide values for the four Ruth cards range from $4,000 to $8,000. However, if a lower quality card is acceptable to a collector, and patience is employed, there are bargains to be found with cards in the 1 to 1.5 range available on eBay for under $1,000.

Ruth’s last Goudey card, the 1935 ’4 in 1′ issue, can easily be found for under $1,000 in very respectable condition.

As with many iconic baseball cards, there are cards that can be had for lower prices if a collector is willing to compromise on condition or scarcity.

It also appears that when it comes to Babe Ruth, the cards often considered “oddball,” that is, regional issues or foreign made cards can also be found in a price range reachable by more than just a few. A quick look into online offerings found a few of those cards:

Finally, it is interesting to jump ahead a bit in the Ruthian timeline and see how his immense popularity continued through the years. Obviously, as we stated at the beginning, that appeal remains strong as Topps uses his likeness on some of their leading products. The Bambino passed away in 1948, and even then collectors could find his cards in products being marketed and those cards continue to have an appeal today. Thought they are not from his playing career, they were produced in his lifetime and have a special quality about them for many baseball  buffs.

It was in 1948 that the Topps Company offered their Magic Photos card set, and Ruth’s card from that set sells in the $200-$550 range for middle of the road graded copies. The 1948 Leaf set featured the slugger on card number 3 and a card in that ’3′ or VG grade can be found online for $800-1,000.

About Larry Pauley

Larry Pauley began collecting in the 1960's, opened his first card shop in the KC area during the late 1980's, and today, when not combing flea markets for the next “find,” he runs MLB Memories—a card shop in Nixa, MO, a website at mlbmemories.com, and stores on eBay and Amazon. Track him down @MLBMemories on Twitter or Facebook, or e-mail [email protected].

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