It’s safe to say there aren’t many people still alive today who were around when he was still an active player. He hasn’t held baseball’s all-time home run record since early April of 1974. Still, someone will pay at least a few million dollars when the current auction for one of the highest graded Babe Ruth rookie cards comes to an end next month. Collectors will flock to a chance to own a small piece of another one when it comes to the fractional shares space this weekend—369,000 shares at ten bucks apiece. A PSA 6 sold in March for a little under $1 million. Other Ruth cards from later years are going for extraordinary amounts and original autographs and other memorabilia are still the gold standard for baseball collectors.
It’s always been that way. Babe was the Elvis of baseball. He and Michael Jordan are the two most well-known figures in American sports history and while Jordan is still a vivid memory, Ruth exists only on grainy old video, black and white photographs and the relics of his time that we collect.
No one had ever seen the sheer power Ruth had. Frank “Home Run” Baker led the AL in homers for four straight year from 1911-1914. Never hit more than 12. Occasionally someone would hit 20 or 25—a lot of which were of the inside the park variety. Then along came Ruth with 54 in 1920. Now, they called the decade or so before that the “dead ball era” for a reason but when Ruth hit those 54 in what was supposedly the time of a livelier ball that flew a lot longer, the National League leader was Cy Williams –with 15.
The crazy thing was, he was a pitcher when his career started and a good one, too. The ability to do both caught people’s attention, and then the awesome power –especially after moving to the new ballpark, Yankee Stadium, in 1923—put him on a pedestal.
Of course, the Yankees adding Lou Gehrig and winning all of those championships—and Ruth building a home run total that was just absurd—turned him into a household name. Playing in New York surely helped, but he had a great publicist in Christy Walsh who made sure he was known not just in the parts of the country where you could actually go and watch a game, but in Iowa and Montana and Oregon, too. Those efforts paid dividends in the generations to come and many of them collected items related to his career and passed them down.
The sports card market has taken many of Ruth’s most popular cards to heights unattainable to many collectors, but there are still some quality options out there if you don’t have 10 grand or more to spend on a single card. Among the value plays right now would include his 1934 Goudey Premium, the oversized card that uses the same image from his 1933 Goudey #144 and was available via a wrapper redemption program (he’s also on the 1933 A.L. All-Star team card in the same issue).
Some of his Exhibit cards in lower grade have gone up but not by nearly as much as some of the more popular issues.
His 1935 Goudey card—the last bubble gum card from his playing days—is even less expensive if you don’t mind him sharing it with three other Boston Braves. Lesser known cards from the 1920s and 30s like the American Caramel issues— can be had far cheaper than the four ’33 Goudey cards.
There are some great memorabilia items associated with his 1930s Quaker Oats endorsement deal like photos, flip books and newspaper ads that promoted his radio show and most can be had for under $150. Some modern era cards with a swatch of a Ruth bat or jersey can sometimes be locked down for a reasonable cost, too, if you’re into them.
I took my first plunge on a Ruth card back in the early 1990s at a card show in San Francisco. It wasn’t near mint but it wasn’t bad—some corner wear but no creases and relatively attractive. I paid $500 and kept it in a stand-up holder above my desk for years. About ten years ago, we decided to paint my office and took the window blind off. I knew the old collector warning: “Never leave items exposed to direct sunlight.” I moved it to a spot where it didn’t seem like it was in the line of fire but when we finally got around to putting the blind back up a couple of months later, I looked at the card and my heart sank. The once bright colors had faded a bit because of my carelessness. It was still a Ruth card but thanks to the unexpected bleaching, it had lost some of its lustre—and value–especially considering where the market has gone in the last year. With its head scratching color, it’s definitely a 1/1.
If don’t have a few million to jump into the crème de la crème of Babe-o-bilia, just know there are options for snaring a piece of a legend who’s still on the minds of fans and collectors 72 years after he left the building.