One term that gets over-used in the hobby of sports collectibles is a “grail” card. Every collector’s grail card is of course very different from one collector to the next. One player that would likely be considered a “grail card” to almost any collector would be owning a true vintage Babe Ruth baseball card. The most widely recognized Babe Ruth cards are from the 1933 Goudey set, but there are many other vintage Babe Ruth cards that can be owned by collectors. The cards which were issued while Ruth was actually playing baseball (1914 to 1935) are generally speaking his most valuable cards.
There is a classic vintage sports card which is constantly referenced by the sports collectibles specifically as a “Babe Ruth” card which has some questions about just how legitimate of a “real Babe Ruth card” even if it was issued during Ruth’s playing years. This is the 1929 Churchman Sports & Games card of Babe Ruth (#25). There is just one problem here — Babe Ruth is never mentioned by name nor even by his team.
There are even multiple other issues which any vintage sports collector could bring up to challenge whether or not this should or should not be considered a legitimate Babe Ruth card. And there are also some strong and obvious points why the card is referred to as a Babe Ruth card.
Before you consider this to be a slap in Babe Ruth’s face, it is not. It is also not meant to be a slap in the face to collectors who have purchased this card under question.
The case FOR a “real Babe Ruth card”…
You can look at the image as long as you want and it is likely (say 99% likely) that you will agree that the man batting is Babe Ruth.
The 1929 Churchman Sports & Games card is also quite visually stunning. In fact, it may perhaps be better in appearance and detail with dust in the air and the action sequence than almost all other baseball cards of the 1920s.
The painted image is a rather stout batter that matches Ruth. He is swinging lefty, matching Ruth. His uniform looks like a Yankees uniform. The catcher and umpire are already mostly standing up. And it sure looks like the batter is looking way up and out into the stands observing a long hit ball that’s “out of the park.” In short, this card’s image is a much more obvious Babe Ruth even than “The Whammer” played by Joe Don Baker in the 1984 baseball classic movie The Natural.
So, why on earth would anyone dare refer to this Babe Ruth card specifically not as a legitimate Babe Ruth baseball card? It was issued during his playing career. And finding anyone who would challenge that this painted isn’t the great Babe Ruth would not be easy. (Image below modified from Heritage Auctions image)
Let’s first discuss the 1929 WA & AC Churchman Sports and Games card set. This 25 card set addresses the sports of the world rather than going into detail about the great players and athletes themselves. These cards greatly resemble the T206 and similar tobacco and candy issues we all know as the “T” and “E” series cards chased by vintage collectors today. Those cards were generally issued 15 to 20 years earlier in this size and likeness.
One key issue is that the set of cards was issued in the United Kingdom. The PSA CardFacts site points out that the WA & AC Churchman Sports and Games in Many Lands set of 25 cards is a tobacco card as Churchman’s Cigarettes. The green and white card backs include the company name, card number, card title, and a block of descriptive text. The card’s image does not identify Babe Ruth by name — even if his likeness is unmistakable.
It is very likely that Babe Ruth never even received a penny nor a thank you letter from Churchman’s for the effort. U.S. tobacco and candy companies using player names generally paid players for their image and name, but that doesn’t mean that it always worked out that way. Many players in that era were effectively not paid despite that they should have been paid.
How do In/Outsiders selling these identify the card?
It is very typical for eBay auctions of the 1929 WA & AC Churchman Sports and Games cards to include “Babe Ruth” by name in the headlines of these auctions. Actual headlines and descriptions are generally up to each eBay seller so they have the liberty to say what they want within reason.
That said, not every auction includes the Babe Ruth name in them on eBay. Some eBay auctions only make reference to the set name in the headline.
Reviews of Heritage, PWCC and other auction houses generally do not include the name Babe Ruth in the headlines. This only adds that much more debate as to whether or not this should be considered a traditional Babe Ruth card in the formal sense.
How rare are they?
These cards routinely come up for auction at eBay and elsewhere, and in lower grades this may be one of the few and only ways to buy “a Babe Ruth card” for under $1,000. This matters because the feat of landing a sub-$1,000 Ruth card issued during his playing years is becoming nearly impossible without going to oddities of that bygone era.
The WA & AC Churchman Sports and Games in Many Lands is not a common set. PSA’s entire population report counts just 825 total graded cards, and 739 of those 825 graded cards do not have a “+” or “Q” designation. Because of his popularity and worldly image of the time, and because of valuing grading costs versus card values, the #25 card (of Ruth – ? or !) is the most popular of all graded cards from this set.
PSA most recently counted 329 graded examples of Ruth/Baseball without any qualifiers, and there are 49 “+” grades and 1 qualifier grade. That is a tiny population of 379 graded examples for any PSA graded cards.
SGC’s population report is hard to count. The population report there counts 89 Babe Ruth cards and 34 graded examples of “Baseball, U.S.A.” Due to the grading changes and the crossovers that have likely occurred, there may never be an easy way to evaluate this SGC population without questions of overlap or multiple counts for the same card. If we just take the numbers at face value that would still just be 123 total cards graded by SGC.
And after stumbling around the Beckett (BVG) reports, the search there using Multisport and 1929 Churchman along with “Babe Ruth” showed a current 81 graded examples.
Assuming there are no crossover grades and assuming the population report tallies and searches are appropriate, that is a total of only 583 total graded examples by PSA, SGC and BVG combined!
How valuable are they?
To prove that this can still be in the “affordable” category of Babe Ruth cards, here is the PSA stats for the last 10 graded examples sold in auctions that they track themselves:
- 8/9/2022 $1,451.79 PSA 6 eBay probstein123
- 6/6/2022 $729.00 PSA 4 eBay gmcards2
- 3/14/2022 $740.00 PSA 2 eBay comc_consignment
- 12/30/2021 $819.00 PSA 4 eBay comc_consignment
- 12/29/2021 $585.00 PSA 3 eBay probstein123
- 11/29/2021 $1,124.00 PSA 5 eBay comc_consignment
- 11/20/2021 $1,170.00 PSA 6 Heritage Auctions
- 8/26/2021 $2,401.00 PSA 6 eBay flips47
- 8/16/2021 $771.01 PSA 5 eBay pwcc_vault
- 8/16/2021 $1,113.75 PSA 7 Sirius Sports Auctions
As for a comparison to any of the 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth cards, those have 4 variations. As of January 2022, the total graded populations from PSA and SGC combined was only up to 6,994 graded cards of all 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth cards. And these 1933 Goudey Ruth cards generally sell for just under or just over $5,000 even in the lower graded PSA/SGC 1 category unless they are mutilated cards.
And the labels…
While the PSA CardFacts site does note that it is unmistakably Babe Ruth, the PSA labels used to identify this specific card only say 1929 WA & AC CHURCHMAN BASEBALL, U.S.A. SPORTS AND GAMES.
On the other hand, and to show both sides of this case, both SGC and Beckett (BVG) labels do refer to #25 Babe Ruth on the actual labels.
PSA is generally considered the industry leader when it comes to grading modern and vintage sports cards. SGC and BVG encapsulations might have something to opine about that, but as of 2022 that is still the case.
And the back side…
The PSA CardFacts site also only lists the same “The Player” notes about each card. Here is what the back of each card (#25) says (with typos corrected for modern printing):
The great national sport of the U.S.A. is related to the old English game of rounders although it is not certain that Baseball developed from the English game. Over one-hundred years ago schoolboys in the North Atlantic States played a game known as One Old Cat; Town-ball followed, and further developments resulted in the first regular code of Baseball rules being drawn up in 1845. A game consists of nine innings played by teams of nine players, an innings being over when three batsmen are out. Attempts made to establish Baseball in England have not, as yet, proved successful.
What about other “Babe Ruth” questionable sets?
The 1929 WA & AC Churchman Sports and Games is certainly not the only card set every printed that might be challenged on just how legitimate of a Babe Ruth card each card can be.
The 1932 Sanella Babe Ruth was issued as a margarine card, and it was issued in Germany. This margarine card is always identified by graders PSA and SGC as a Babe Ruth card in the identifying holder. Turning this batting pose over to the back of the card does identify “Babe” Ruth at the top and the booklet for the cards to be glued into identifies a Ruth, George Herman. Still, the card fetches a fraction of what the Goudey cards sell for in auction.
The 1931 Josetti Babe Ruth (with Harold Lloyd) actually names both men and sells for much higher prices than the 1929 Churchman card. That card is also German, with little real eye appeal and Ruth isn’t in uniform.
A review of the article “You Can Still Get Babe Ruth Cards Under $1,000” may not be as accurate in the year after due to rising prices, but it also identifies other cards that have been issued overseas which are not thought of in the same light as Goudey and other more identifiable and more traditional Babe Ruth cards.
The 1929 Churchman set itself…
The cigarette cards were issued by the Imperial Tobacco Co. of Great Britain and Ireland. The football card is also one which does not identify any other players specifically in the 25-card set and the rest of the sports of nations also pertain to teams and individual sports. The Canadian hockey description does at least pinpoint that the match’s image was in Montreal. Here is a PSA CardFacts checklist of the 25-card set from the 1929 WA & AC Churchman Sports and Games complete set by number and card name:
- 1 Mock Combat, Africa
- 2 Hunting, Alaska
- 3 Ice Hockey, Canada
- 4 Ski-Joring, Canada
- 5 Hunt, East Africa
- 6 Fox-Hunting, England
- 7 Pelota, France
- 8 Trotting, Germany
- 9 Shooting, Germany
- 10 Hurling, Ireland
- 11 Pig-Sticking, India
- 12 Polo, India
- 13 Hunting, India
- 14 Dancing, Java
- 15 Archers, Korea
- 16 Go-Bang, Korea
- 17 Ski-Ing, Norway
- 18 River, Rhodesia
- 19 Sword-Dance Russia
- 20 Curling, Scotland
- 21 Bull-Fighting,Spain
- 22 Bob-Sled, Switzrland
- 23 Skating, Switzrland
- 24 Football, U.S.A.
- 25 Baseball, USA (Babe Ruth)
And (almost) finally…
That’s almost all there is to it. This 1929 WA & A Churchman card obviously has Babe Ruth on the front of the card. That should be undeniable, even if he is never named nor referred to even generally. That said, many collectors still do not give this tobacco card the same respect nor give it the same auction prices as a Goudey or other more widely known and pinpointed issue.
And even more into finally, imagine this…
There is a tantalizing “What If” aspect in challenging the 1929 AW & AC Churchman set as a real Babe Ruth card. Imagine if this was an actual U.S. issued tobacco card rather than being released in the United Kingdom.
And now imagine if the card said “Babe Ruth, Yankees” or “Babe Ruth, New York” on the front. And imagine if the card described the great athlete himself on the back rather than a simple historic view of baseball from a century ago.
In the same populations and available grades as the card has today, the value of each 1929 Churchman Babe Ruth card sale would likely be exponentially higher than the realized sale prices more recently seen.
A PSA 6 grade of the 1929 Churchman Ruth sold through Heritage Auctions on November 18, 2021 for $1,170.00 after the buyer’s premium. A PSA 6 example of any of those 1933 Goudey cards would easily sell for more than 20-times that price, and likely much higher.
What if indeed…