By 1948, Babe Ruth had long since retired from the sport of baseball. At that point he was at the end of his life, hospitalized with cancer. But he enjoyed a few final highlights in his life before he passed away later that year and one was the making of The Babe Ruth Story, a movie about his life. Ruth attended the premiere of the movie at New York’s Astor Theater on July 26, 1948. Three weeks later, he died at the young age of 53.
The movie began with Ruth’s youth, much of which was spent at St. Mary’s Industrial School. It follows as the young athlete draws the attention of the Baltimore Orioles and begins his professional baseball career. The movie tracks him through his successful career, takes viewers through his years with the Yankees and later retirement, right up to the point where Ruth is ill in the hospital. As he was still alive when the movie was shot, Ruth does not die in the film. However, he would suffer that unfortunate fate shortly afterward.
While the movie is not held in high regard today, it is notable to baseball card collectors as a 28-card set was created specifically for its promotion. The Philadelphia Chewing Gum Company developed and issued the set for its Swell bubble gum product, distributing it in 1948.
About the 1948 Swell Babe Ruth Cards
The 1948 Swell Babe Ruth Story trading cards looked like other gum cards of the period. They featured black and white images from the making of the movie and included numerous scenes.
While many cards feature ‘Ruth’ and others, Ruth himself is not actually pictured on most of them. Instead, actor William Bendix (the man who played Ruth) and other actors and actresses are on many of the cards. Bendix, ironically, had strong ties to Ruth and the real New York Yankees, previously serving as the team’s bat boy as a child.
Some of the scenes are baseball-related while others are not. Some look entirely like non-sports cards though many collectors wouldn’t draw that conclusion from the name of the release. For example, cards numbered 3-7 featured only portrait pictures of the key actors and actresses in the film.
Measuring 2″ wide x 2 1/2″ tall, the cards are reminiscent of the 1948 Bowman cards, which had a similar size and look. The set is recognized today as R421, though older versions of the American Card Catalog actually cite it as R702. In that book, author Jefferson Burdick merely calls this a 48-card Swell gum product, medium in size, and printed in black and white with no additional information.
The cards include a variety of pictures. Most are actual shots from the movie but a few are during production. One, for example, features Ruth chatting with Bendix on the scene.
Finding Ruth … and Others
As stated, Ruth does appear in the set and the cards with him are naturally the highlights of the release.
Ruth is found on cards No. 1, 25, 26, 27, and 28. He is featured on those cards with Bendix, actress Claire Trevor (who played Ruth’s wife in the movie), or both. But while those cards are big hits with collectors, a few others merit special attention.
Card No. 22 includes Hall of Fame pitcher Ted Lyons. Lyons was not in the movie but instructed Bendix on how to pitch as that was a significant part of Ruth’s early career. Former player and manager Charlie Grimm is found on card No. 23 talking to Bendix from an opponent’s view. Finally, card No. 24 includes Hall of Famers Lefty Gomez and Bucky Harris pictured along with Bendix.
1948 Swell Babe Ruth Card Prices
For a Babe Ruth product, these are some of the more affordable cards of the slugger. Most, obviously, do not feature Ruth at all and many of those can be found for bargain prices, starting in the $15-$25 range for decent copies of the commons.
As you would probably expect, you will pay more for any cards that feature Ruth. Even though he is only in street clothes on those cards, prices are significantly higher than the non-Ruth cards, generally starting over $100. While not dirt cheap, of course, most of those are still less than you will pay for Ruth’s contemporary cards from his days as an active player.
The top-ranked set on the SGC Set Registry, with all cards grading EX+ and better, sold for over $1,443 via Heritage Auctions in 2010.
The set is not impossible to find but the cards are relatively tough. It is unclear how many were produced but it seems to have survived in relatively low quantities. eBay, for example, usually only has a small number at any given time. Additionally, PSA and SGC have combined to grade only about 600 total cards from the set.