Friday, February 23, 2024

Babe Ruth rookie card sells for near-record $7.2M

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A 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth rookie card sold for $7.2 million, including the buyer’s premium, just after midnight Monday, the third highest sum ever paid for a sports card. It narrowly missed the $7.25 million paid for a T206 Sweet Caporal Honus Wagner card in August 2022.

It’s the most expensive Ruth item of all-time.

In 1914, a 16-year-old Baltimore paperboy named Archibald Davis collected baseball cards of his favorite Orioles — then an International (minor) League side — distributed in daily papers. He was fond of one depicting a 19-year-old pitcher born on Emory St. named Ruth. This is that card.

Davis’ cards, 15 in total, would be passed down in the family for generations — often played with by children before they knew what they had — for 107 years. The family loaned the cards to the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum in Baltimore in 1998. They were on display until 2021, when they were sold privately.

“Overall, the card was pretty well preserved; the fact that it was in the hands of the museum for the last twenty-plus years helped keep it in the condition that it’s in,” said Brian Dwyer, president of Robert Edward Auctions, who brokered the sale. “It’s one of only ten that we know to exist.”

For reference, there are more than 1,500 1952 Topps Mickey Mantles and 32 T206 Sweet Caporal Honus Wagners receiving a grade with card grader PSA alone.

Notably, the Topps Mantle and the T206 Wagner have lengthy mythologies of their own, with different copies rewriting the sports card record book in recent years. The Baltimore News Ruth — other than its exceeding rarity, that there’s only one known copy with the same grade and one known copy graded higher – doesn’t boast the same lore. But as recently as the late 2000s, it was considered the most valuable sports card.

“Ruth himself has mythology behind him; people don’t realize he was made a ward of St. Mary’s Industrial School at 7, under the custody and control of the priests of St. Mary’s Industrial School until Jack Dunn” — then the owner and manager of the Orioles — “saw Ruth playing and became his legal guardian,” says Dwyer. “With this card, you have Ruth having been a ward of the state for more than two-thirds of his life, not knowing much about the world and certainly not knowing what he was going to become. (That’s) what this card symbolizes.”

Per Dwyer, the Ruth rookie card’s existence wasn’t really known until the 1980s — astounding for a name who, Dwyer notes, “needs no introduction.”

“When we sold the record-setting Wagner at $6.6 million [in 2021], and we had people coming up to us – even at the [National Sports Collectors Convention] – asking ‘Who is Honus Wagner and why should we care?'” Dwyer says. “Not a single person asks who Babe Ruth is, what his significance to the game is, to the hobby, or frankly, to American culture. He transcends everything. We think the Ruth is the most significant card and it has not had its moment in the sun yet, so to speak.”

This is the first time in a decade that a Ruth rookie card has been up for sale.

“The last time one of these transacted (in 2013) was $450,000,” Dwyer said. “It’s easier to buy an NFL team in the last decade than it has been to buy one of these cards.”

REA communications director P.J. Kinsella added “it could be well over a decade, possibly more, before we see another one of these come up to auction.”

Notably, that same season, Dunn would sell Ruth to the Boston Red Sox. Ruth would pitch the Providence Grays to the International League title that summer and, by 1915, he’d go 18-8 as an ace for the big-league Red Sox, one of five on Boston’s staff to win 15-plus games.

“It’s miraculous that this card exists,” Kinsella said. “He was on the Orioles for a few months and, by the end of [1914], he was in Providence. That he’s encapsulated in this set, not knowing what he would become … it’s rather remarkable that he’s on this card. The time that in which they were able to get him was so minute.”

The Ruth card was graded a 3 by card grader SGC (Sportscard Guaranty Corporation); the three most expensive sports cards ever sold – the $12.6 million 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card, the $7.25 million Wagner card and now the $7.2 million 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth rookie card – have all been graded by SGC.

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