He's one of a small number of players active before World War II who appeared on more than a handful of baseball cards while in his prime. Babe Ruth is the guy every company wanted to promote its product. Every maker of trading cards wanted to have him in their set. Not all athletes could help sell something. Ruth was the exception. That's why today's collector actually has some options when trying to buy vintage Babe Ruth cards--or just one to say they've got him.
From his first-ever appearance on cardboard, widely thought to be the 1914 Baltimore News 'rookie card', through the mid 1930's, Ruth appears on some of the most valuable cards in the hobby. High-grade 1916 Sporting News or 1930's Goudey cards sell for thousands--sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. While those who favor mainstream high-grade sets chase the best, the average collector can still find some vintage Ruth cards for far less. It's an exciting, rewarding chase.
Ruth had four cards in the 1933 Goudey set. They are easily the most widely distributed of the cards from his playing days. Not all are created equal. #144 and #149 seem to be the most readily available. #144 a classic shot of the Babe taking a practice swing. Shop around for the best-looking low grade example you can find. A card grading G-VG can often be fairly solid and sometimes you can grab one in a "2" grade for less than $1600.
Ruth's last season as an active player was 1935 and Goudey's 4-in-1 set features him along with Rabbit Maranville and two others. If you don't mind multi-player cards, this is an extremely attractive opportunity. It represents the final stage of the Babe's career and also the latter stages of Goudey's efforts at producing bubble gum cards on a national level. Best of all, it's priced at less than $500 in the low-to-mid grade range. eBay usually offers several in the "4 to 5" grade range for $700-800.
Sandwiched between the '33 and the '35 was Goudey's 1934 set. While Ruth doesn't make an appearance in the "Lou Gehrig Says" set, he's prominently featured in the R-309 premium set that includes pictures of the A.L. and N.L. squads in the first All-Star game and the World Series champion Giants.
Measuring 5-1/2" x 8-13/16", the card was distributed as a mail-in offer and was meant to be displayed on the easel which is attached to the back. One of the most undervalued of all Ruth cards, it's a piece of history that can be found for $500 and less.
Some of Ruth's first cards come in the American Card Catalog's "W" series. While not the most attractive cards, they're not easy to find, yet still reasonably priced and from the era of his prime Yankee years (click here to see a few different ones).
While it doesn't fit the mold of a gum or candy issue, the 1929 R316 Kashin baseball cards were produced by Kashin Publications of New York and are among the more attractive and affordable 1920s Ruth cards. A photograph style card, the Kashin Ruth has a white border around a black and white photo. A facsimile autograph is printed on the front. Legendary photographer Charles Conlon is believed to have been responsible for the photographs used in the set. They aren't common but reasonably solid mid-grade examples can be found for around $1,000-$1,200, sometimes less (see them here).