Collecting the Sultan of Swat - Babe Ruth memorabilia
89 years ago this Sunday (September 30th), George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth hit his 60th home run of the 1927 season and thus set a record that would not be broken for 34 years.
A contemporary of other great names among hall-of-famers such as Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Ruth remains a favourite among baseball memorabilia collectors. Wikicollecting takes a look at the enduring popularity of Babe Ruth collectibles, related to this star among American baseball players.
Background to the Ruth legend
Babe Ruth is revered among the greatest baseball players in history, if not as the very best of them all. He began his career as a young pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, where he earned the nickname ‘Babe’ due to his tender age.
Ruth was sold to the Boston Red Sox in 1914, with whom he made his name as a star hitter. However, due to financial constraints (rumour has it to finance a Broadway play), in 1919 the Red Sox owner was forced to sell Ruth to the New York Yankees.
With the Yankees, the recognition of Ruth as a power-hitting outfielder rather than a pitcher was cemented. In his first year with the Yankees, Ruth hit 54 home runs, and batted .376. This year he also made a slugging average record at .847, which held until 2001. In his second year, his 59 home runs led the Yankees to their first league championship.
Ruth’s name became synonymous with the home run, and he hit 60 in 1927. He gained the nickname ‘Sultan of Swat’ due to his phenomenal strike rate.
The rest is history. After an illustrious career, Ruth was traded to the Boston Braves in 1935, retiring in 1936. He famously hit a total of 714 home runs in his baseball career.
Babe Ruth is collected by sports fans and investors alike. His significance to sports history and also American history has not decreased with time. This can perhaps be explained by something his Boston teammate Harry Hooper once said:
"Sometimes I still can't believe what I saw. This 19-year-old kid, crude, poorly educated, only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization, gradually transformed into the idol of American youth and the symbol of baseball the world over – a man loved by more people and with an intensity of feeling that perhaps has never been equalled before or since. I saw a man transformed into something pretty close to a god."
Types of Babe Ruth memorabilia
The first Babe Ruth trading card was created before he was even in the Major Leagues. The Baltimore News printed a set of local Minor League team cards, including a 19 year old Ruth as a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. There are fewer than 10 known copies left in existence of these Babe Ruth rookie cards, making them extremely sought after, considered the second most valuable baseball card ever at upwards of $500,000.
The first card to depict Ruth in a Major League uniform from his time with the Boston Red Sox is the 1916 M101-5 Sporting news #151 card. One example sold for $82,250 at Robert Edwards Auctions in May 2010.
The most familiar Babe Ruth cards to collectors are the Goudey cards of 1933 and 1935, worth anything from a few thousand to $20,000 dependant on condition.
Despite Ruth’s retirement in 1935, his iconic status led to his inclusion in several 1940s baseball card sets.
Game used equipment and clothing
The New York Yankees were the first team whose players wore numbers on their uniforms regularly, and Babe Ruth was #3. His game-worn jerseys are a popular collector’s item, one of them holding the record for the highest price paid for any item of sports memorabilia sold at auction - $4.4 million.
Game used bats and baseballs, particularly when autographed, are very high up on collectors’ lists. They often rack up six figures at auction, depending on condition. Babe Ruth’s flamboyant signature is considered one of the most desired sports autographs.
Photographs of Ruth, particularly with his teammate Lou Gehrig as representative of their central position in the ‘Murderers Row’ of the New York Yankees, are very sought-after.
Collecting Babe Ruth
As a starter collector of Babe Ruth memorabilia, there are options that won’t immediately bankrupt you.
Some of the less elite vintage trading cards, or those that are perhaps graded a little lower may be a good place to start. The rough-around-the-edges cards that were once stuck up on walls, a little dog-eared, may be less desirable or valuable, but they are almost guaranteed to be authentic. You can get such a 1933 Sports Kings Gum Babe Ruth card for around $50, a 1950 Callahan Babe Ruth black and white card for as little as $30, or a 1959 Fleer #2 Babe Ruth and Ted Williams card for $10. An example of the sought-after 1934 R309-1 Goudy Premium Babe Ruth SGC, with a low 1.5 quality grade, sold for just $350 on eBay in August this year. A 1920 W516 depicting Ruth in throwing motion has sold recently for just $555, maybe still a little steep, but nothing compared to the top prices Ruth can fetch at auction.
The same goes for autographs – if in slightly dilapidated condition, examples can be acquired on a budget. Babe Ruth’s recognisable autograph on a baseball, albeit very faded, has sold for just $10 in the past.
Photographs are a very good place to start, as they look brilliant in display and can be found for a very reasonable price, many under $100.
- A Babe Ruth 1920s road jersey reached the highest amount ever paid for any items of sports memorabilia when it sold for $4,415,658 at an SCP Auctions sale in May 2012. This was the earliest known jersey of Babe Ruth, dating from his first term with the New York Yankees.
- The legendary bat used by Babe Ruth to hit the first ever home-run at Yankee Stadium on April 18, 1923 was sold by Sotheby’s in December 2004 for a record price of $1,265,000.
- The contract that took Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in December 1919 is the most expensive baseball document of its kind, sold by Sotheby’s in New York in June 2005 for $996,000.
- Ruth’s 1932 ‘called shot’ Yankees jersey, worn by Ruth during the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field, when he famously called his home run by pointing to the center-field bleachers before hitting it there, was sold in June 2005 at a Grey Flannel Auctions sale for a price of $940,000.
- The ball hit by Ruth for the first home run of the inaugural All-Star game in 1933 at Comiskey Park in Chicago sold for $805,000 in July 2006 by Hunt Auctions.