The majority of Babe Ruth’s baseball cards are American made. But for many years, collectors have been able to find relative bargains in the slugger’s international cards. If you’ve been paying attention to prices lately, though, those low-priced cards are starting to disappear.
Ruth’s early candy and gum cards have long been expensive. But prices for those cards, along with prices for many pre-war cards, have skyrocketed this year. Most stuff, with few exceptions, is up across the board. And while the focus for Ruth cards has been on the significant jumps in cards from, say, American Caramel and Goudey, almost all Ruth stuff has risen. And that includes the collection of international cards that depicted the slugger.
When I mention ‘international cards’ in this context, I’m mostly referring to cards that were printed in the UK and Germany. And while many cards were issued in the UK in the 1920s and 1930s, the vast majority of those were cigarette cards. The tobacco card craze that hit the U.S. was mostly phased out by the early 1910s while it was just getting started in other parts of the world. The UK (and other parts of the world) printed many tobacco issues after that. Ruth has several Canadian cards but those were often quite rare and were not the bargains that his UK and German cards have been.
A good number of sports sets from that time period exist and Ruth found his way into several of them. Those cards of Ruth, while legitimate playing day issues have always gone a bit under the radar. eBay has helped bring these cards greater publicity in the past 20 years but even now, many collectors would be hard-pressed to identify many of them.
Many of those types of cards could be purchased for around $100 — some even considerably less if you were willing to sacrifice on condition. But those days are long gone, it seems. What I wanted to do is take a look at how much these cards have risen in the past year or so.
The Rise of Babe Ruth’s International Cards
Take, for example, Ruth’s 1932 Sanella card. I recently wrote about this in an article on bargain pre-war card gift ideas. Now, the card is still a bargain — just less so. Last year, I purchased two of these cards in modest condition (they would grade probably about a 1.5 or 2). Both were under $75 and one was closer to $60. Those were, admittedly, good buys. But today, the same card has been running in the $150-$300 range.
That card, distributed by a brand of margarine (two, actually — a second, rarer variation was printed or Astra Margarine), is a food issue. But the bulk of the popular international Ruth cards are probably the tobacco issues.
One of those is the 1929 Churchman Cigarettes card. The card is actually part of a 25-card set featuring various sports from different parts of the world. Other than American football and hockey, many of the cards are not too sought after by collectors. But a baseball card picturing Ruth is the headliner. The card does not name Ruth but he is obviously depicted and it is bought and sold as a Ruth card.
It’s always been an attractive card with its horizontal layout, smaller size, and picture capturing Ruth’s trademark swing, along with a catcher and umpire. And the allure is increased by the fact that it was a tobacco card and American tobacco issues of Ruth were virtually non-existent.
However, the card’s popularity is reaching new heights. Lower grade, but respectable examples started at around $100 just last year. Now, lower grade examples are often selling for multiple times that amount.
The story is similar elsewhere, too. Another popular international Ruth card is found in the 1932 Bulgaria Sport set. Despite its name, it is actually a set produced in Germany.
This card is a popular one not only for Ruth but also for former boxing champion and Hall of Famer Max Schmeling. Schmeling, a German fighter, would have really been the highlight as opposed to Ruth. That’s because it was a German set and Schmeling was close to, if not, Ruth’s equal in Germany, appearing in tobacco card sets all over the place.
How did the card come to be? Ruth and the Yankees were in Cleveland for a game against the Indians. Schmeling happened to be in the town for a fight against a boxer named Young Stribling. The chance meeting allowed a pretty special card to be created.
I’d always felt this particular card was undervalued because of the inclusion of Schemling. At the time, these were two of the world’s biggest athletes. But a common theme in card pricing is that dual-player cards are not typically worth as much, all other things being equal, as cards are with only a single player. That really helped keep that card at a low price. Lower-grade examples could be bought well under $100. Even nice mid-grade cards were easy to get around $200. These days, even presentable low-grade cards are nearly impossible to find at that price. Cards graded 2, for example, start around $300.
Yet another international Ruth card that is seeing big jumps is another dual card. This one, though, doesn’t feature another athlete.
Like many athletes, Ruth did some acting, appearing in films. One of those was a movie called, “Speedy.” Ruth was in the film along with actor Harold Lloyd, and the two appeared on a card together in a 1931 Film Stars tobacco card set.
There are actually several variations of the card as different tobacco advertisements can be found on the back. Those brands include Josetti, Sulima, and Jasmatzi Ramses. This card is a bit tougher to find than the others and asking prices can be quite high. But those prices are rarely met and, at auction, the card typically used to start around $75-$100 for presentable copies. Like the other cards on this list, that price has essentially doubled, or in some cases, even tripled.
Lloyd was quite popular himself, by the way. In fact, a postcard bearing this same picture actually only references Lloyd at the bottom. That card has no mention of Ruth at all.
These cards have certainly climbed sharply in value. But the good news for buyers is that they are still very inexpensive compared to the more popular American candy and caramel cards of Ruth. Those cards, even in low-grade condition, have been generally starting at $1,000 or more. While more valuable, they are still relatively affordable compared to most of his American cards.