Babe Ruth is not just one of baseball’s top icons. He is one of the icons of the entire sporting world. George Herman Ruth, or Babe, is one of the most widely recognized sports heroes of all-time and he hasn’t played baseball in nearly 90 years. Babe’s home run record may have been broken, but the quality and scoring behind his 714 homers is absolutely unrivaled. It seems that every single vintage sports card collector wants a Babe Ruth card in their collection, and those who have invested in sports cards have done well owning Ruth’s cardboard too.
Collecting Babe Ruth cards is perhaps not as difficult as it might be thought. There are lots of cards out there, and it really boils down to what each collector can afford to pay. There is one thing that is absolutely certain here: collecting any Babe Ruth card would be next to impossible had it not been for the 1933 Goudey set.
It was not unheard of in the 1910s and 1920s to have multiple cards issued for a single player. Many players from the T206 set have multiple cards (Cobb has 4 different cards alone, without even counting back variations). Still, this practice was just not as common to have many variations of the same player in the same set when compared to the modern era. Goudey made a huge splash in 1933 with 4 different Babe Ruth cards from the set.
Collectors Dashboard aims to keep both collectors and investors informed of what trends may fade and which trends may endure ahead. We evaluate high-end collectibles as an alternative asset class, and that is definitely the case for Babe Ruth cards.
Modern era cards with populations of 10,000 (or 30,000+) in base cards have seen their prices shoot higher from 2020 into 2021, but many of these overpopulated base cards have continued to see prices drift lower after the sharp correction in 2021. Babe Ruth’s vintage cards remain in high demand and it is becoming very difficult to find vintage Babe Ruth cards for less than (or even close to) $1,000 per card.
Card collectors and sports card investors have found out that, just like investing in stocks and bonds, those who endlessly chased prices found out the hard way that there are no guaranteed profits. Babe Ruth has been an exception after some record-setting card sales in 2021. It is very likely that Babe Ruth cards will be in high demand for decades into the future.
Memory Lane Inc. conducted an auction for the prized Thomas Newman Collection in June 2021, which was from the 73-year old doctor who passed away from COVID-19 early in 2021. His collection was worth millions and there were two prominent 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth card sales. The “Yellow Ruth” commanded a $4.21 million record-breaking sale of its kind, and the “Green Ruth” from the 1933 set fetched $1.27 million as a record for that card’s grade.
GOUDEY WENT “ALL-IN ON RUTH”
One factor which must have played a role for Goudey to include Ruth four times in 1933 was that the Great Depression was in full swing. Kids were not being given the pennies to buy baseball cards and bubble gum every day. The Roaring Twenties were a distant memory and it was an oppressive economic period. Sky-high unemployment and homelessness also came with long lines for bread and soup.
Goudey took a chance here with color cards and it seems that the odds of pulling a Babe Ruth cards kept the interest alive. Quite simply, this just wasn’t the era for card and gum companies to take big chances. Many of the 1933 Goudey cards that are found today are graded, but we still find some “raw” cards from time to time.
THE GRADED POPULATION BARELY GREW
While modern sports cards saw their population of graded cards expand exponentially, the vintage card market saw its graded population expand at a much slower growth rate. This does not take into consideration the cards, nor does it count the population of cards graded by Beckett nor those still encapsulated in GAI holders. These individual card populations have been broken down below.
- The yellow card (#53) is considered to be the toughest card for collectors to find. PSA’s graded sampling counted 1,026 graded examples in May of 2021, but that figure was 1,091 at the start of 2022. SGC had 481 counted in its population in May of 2021, but that was up to 502 examples as of January 2022.
- The population for Ruth’s card #144 (image below by Heritage Auctions) was 1,439 from PSA and 559 from SGC in May of 2021. At the start of 2022 those graded populations were up to 1,528 from PSA and 583 from SGC. This example is the largest population due to a double printing by Goudey.
- The card #149 for Ruth had a total population of 1,042 from PSA and 434 from SGC in May of 2021. The graded populations at the start of 2022 were last seen at 1,096 from PSA and 454 from SGC.
- Ruth’s #181 in the 1933 set had a total population of 1,169 from PSA and 502 at SGC in May of 2021. At the start of 2022, the graded populations were 1,225 from PSA and 515 from SGC.
Adding all of these up comes to the total graded population of cards just not being so large by modern era standards. In May of 2021, there were 4,676 graded 1933 Goudey Ruth cards from PSA and 1,976 from SGC — so there was a total of 6,652 graded cards at the end of May 2021 from PSA and SGC combined.
Jump forward to January 2022 and the total graded population from PSA and SGC combined was only up to 6,994 graded cards. In short, modern era cards saw exponential graded population growth after the grading backlogs cleared up and the entire graded examples of the 1933 Ruth cards rose by only 5.1%.
BABE RUTH HIGH-END CARD PRICES
Collectors Dashboard showed earlier in 2021 that card buyers could still find vintage Babe Ruth cards for under $1,000 per card. That quite simply would not be the case if it wasn’t for the 1933 Goudey issuance. Just look at the 1933 Uncle Jacks massive premium prices and imagine that this would be the norm for card collectors and investors who wanted a Babe Ruth card. And the pre-1920 Ruth cards would probably be off the charts.
The record price for the #53 “yellow” card is now a PSA mint 9 with an opening bid of $500,000.00 at Memory Lane. That card saw 76 bids and it propelled the collection-high sale of $4,212,000 after buyer premiums. Memory Lane also saw the #181 “Green Portrait” of Babe Ruth’s 1933 Goudey at a PSA Mint 9 grade. Bidding started at $300,000.00 and after 45 bids it fetched $1,272,000.00 after premiums.
On February 27, 2021 a PSA 8 #144 (Batting) Babe Ruth sold for $288,000.00 through Heritage Auctions. A prior PSA 8 sale had fetched $62,142.00 in November of 2019 through SCP Auctions. But more recently… Memory Lane more recently had a PSA 8 of the #144 card sell for $436,736.40 on December 5, 2021.
The 1933 Goudey #149 is the “Red” Babe Ruth card. A PSA 7 graded Red Ruth from Memory Lane’s Newman Auction in June 2021 fetched a price of $171,483.60. On December 5, 2021, Memory Lane sold a PSA 8 example for $510,000.00.
BUT WAIT… GOUDEY HAS 1 MORE (OR IS IT 2?)!!!
While we have touted that collectors and investors alike have four choices in the 1933 Goudey baseball set, there is also Goudey’s Sport Kings series from 1933. This was the multi-sport set that has so many famous athletes from the 1930s and prior decades. Babe Ruth was the #2 in the set out of a 48 total cards from baseball, football, hockey, golf, tennis and so on. It also included some female athletes in the Sport Kings set.
The total PSA population of Sport Kings #2 was just 545 cards in May of 2021, and that was only up to 555 PSA examples in January 2022. There were just 242 SGC graded examples in May of 2021, and SGC still had only 248 graded examples in January of 2022.
The 1933 Sport Kings example of Ruth graded at PSA 8 sold for $182,863 in the Memory Lane auction in June of 2021, and a different example also graded PSA 8 sold through Memory Lane for $193,294.80 on December 5, 2021.
THE SECOND FIDDLE FOR RUTH…
It is not known why the 1934 “Lou Gehrig Says…” set from Goudey does not include a Babe Ruth. Babe had become a bit more difficult to deal with toward the end of his career, but Goudey did get one more use of Ruth in 1935 using the 1933 set image.
The 1935 Goudey baseball set was an unusual 4 players per card, not the norm for that era. This set features Ruth with three other players, and despite it being two years later Goudey absolutely reused the facial image from the #181 “green portrait” of the 1933 set. It is pretty well known that the 1935 4-in-1 cards are not as desirable to Babe Ruth collectors and investors. There are also multiple variations of the Ruth card here in PSA’s population reports.
The first example is Brandt/Maranville/McManus/Ruth (image below by Heritage Auctions) has 134 graded examples by PSA, followed by 154 graded examples of the second one in the PSA population reports. The third example has just 27 graded by PSA, followed by just 43 PSA examples of the fourth and 219 of the last in PSA’s populations.
These 1935 Goudey cards occasionally still sell for under $1,000 in lower conditions, and PSA grades of 5 and 6 barely fetched $5,000 three times in the first half of 2021. Those prices would be closer to 10X for the 1933 Goudey examples in those same grades.
There is another very rare from 1934 where Goudey used the same photo from the #144 card in 1933. This is the 1934 Goudey Premiums R309-1. It is quite rare and the entire PSA population is just 43 between the 5 without an easel and the 38 with the easel. These are usually in a condition that might say “roadkill” because of folding. To get this card required 50 Goudey wrappers to be turned in and it had an expiration date of November 1, 1933. As a Heritage Auction for a PSA 5 example from May 6, 2021 (which sold for $13,800.00) said:
It’s one of the most recognizable images of the great Bambino, decked out in his Yankees pinstripes and showcasing that monstrous and yet so fluid swing that made him the world’s most famous man and one who could claim he was having a better year than the President. Here, that image used for this breathtaking R309-1 Goudey premium ultimately dating to Ruth’s final season in the Bronx. This highly-collectible cardboard treasure was offered by Goudey in exchange for fifty wrappers from their 1933 effort with an advertised expiration date of Nov. 1, 1933. His was the first premium offered as such, along with three more team premiums but he remained the lone single-player premium. Spending 50-cents on baseball cards was no easy task in 1933. At one-cent per pack/wrapper, the 50-cent cost in 1933 equals $10.01 in 2020 dollars.
The images below (also from Heritage) show something interesting when the photo card is compared to the 1933 Goudey #144 for an interesting observation. Babe had spent more than a decade of eating endlessly and drinking heavily in New York (and anywhere else he went). The artist(s) at Goudey managed to paint Ruth a tad thinner than the photo that was used for the painting. Babe’s face, hips and mid-section all appear to shave off a good twenty-plus pounds from his aging body at the time.
The 1933 Goudey wrapper image below is also from Heritage Auctions.
Babe Ruth collectors and investors have a lot of reasons to be thankful that Goudey used Babe Ruth cards so prominently in 1933. This did increase the supply and helped to at least somewhat limit the scarcity of vintage Ruth cards. It has also allowed Babe Ruth cards to be purchased by those without unlimited funds for a few thousand dollars. Without Goudey’s 1933 contribution, it is very possible that even the lowest graded examples of the atrocious 1920s strip cards of Ruth might approach $10,000 per card — and his pre-1920s cards might not be able to be purchased for under $100,000 each!