THE SULTAN OF SWAT’S 1916 DEBUT AT LAST TAKES ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE AMONG THE HOLY GRAILS OF THE HOBBY
By Robert Wilonsky
As ever, numerous prominent rookie cards headline the Heritage Winter Platinum Night Sports Auction, which heads into extended bidding February 25 and 26. Among their estimable ranks:
A PSA Near Mint-Mint 8 Mickey Mantle from the landmark 1952 Topps collection, The Commerce Comet’s Topps debut. One of just 23 LeBron James offerings from the 2003 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection, this patch autograph numbered 12 and graded BGS Near Mint-Mint+ 8.5, with the signature set to 10. And a retired-again Tom Brady, whose 2000 Playoff Contenders Championship Ticket rookie offered here is numbered 67/100 with a grade of BGS Near Mint-Mint+ 8.5 with a Perfect 10 autograph.
All are coveted cards, especially these high-graded examples; each one – the ’52 Mantle, especially – has long been a favorite over which collectors and investors tussle every time they come to auction. Five months later, the $12.6 million one collector spent on the SGC Mint+ 9.5 Mantle offered by Heritage remains “the most ever paid for any sports item, card or memorabilia.”
There is something so symbolic about the image on the front of the 1916 Ruth card, and, eventually, collectors started to realize how special this card is.”
– Joe Orlando, Executive Vice President of Sports, Heritage Auctions
But only one rookie card had already passed the million-dollar mark with three weeks left before the auction’s close – Babe Ruth’s 1916 debut produced by Chicago-based printer Felix Mendelsohn. This one is particularly significant, as it’s from the M101-4 series boasting a Sporting News back and bears the remarkable grade of SGC Near Mint 7. Heritage has offered more than two dozen Ruth rookies over the years, many with blank backs or bearing furniture or candy-company ads on the reverse. This one is the first to break the seven-figure barrier.
“It’s long overdue,” says Heritage Auctions Executive Vice President of Sports Joe Orlando, who has written extensively about the 1916 M101-5/M101-4 series of Mendelsohn cards featuring the Ruth rookie alongside other Hall of Famers’ early offerings. “When you consider all the great attributes of the card and what it means to the hobby, it checks all the boxes.”
The already heated tug of war over this offering shouldn’t surprise, of course: Ruth was the sporting world’s first superstar and arguably baseball’s greatest player.
“He stands alone, the ultimate American sports hero,” the great Roger Angell once wrote of Ruth, “sufficient in feat and person to sustain the myth and all our boyhood memories.”
Yet for decades, the Ruth rookie was seldom, if ever, discussed in the same breathless tones as the 1952 Mantle or the T-206 Honus Wagner, baseball’s other grail. In fact, until about 15 years ago, when it could still be obtained for the mid-five figures, The Sporting News Ruth received shockingly little attention outside the hobby.
“There was a collective delayed reaction recognizing what that card meant,” Orlando says.
There are many reasons for this, says Heritage Sports Director and Founder Chris Ivy: “The Sporting News set, as most people once called it, was large – 200 cards in multiple versions distributed in various outlets. And Ruth is pitching in a black-and-white photo while he was still playing for the Boston Red Sox. The 1916 Ruth isn’t the larger-than-life Babe we’re accustomed to, the round-faced slugger in Yankee pinstripes you see in the 1933 Goudey set.”
“He isn’t yet The Sultan of Swat,” Orlando says.
As recently as 15 years ago, collectors could acquire high-grade examples of the Ruth rookie for well under six figures. Ivy and Orlando say that’s because, for years, collectors tied the value of a card to the overall popularity of the set in which it was featured – like, say, the turn-of-the-century T206 tobacco cards, the 1914-15 Cracker Jacks, the 1933 Goudey collection or the 1952 Topps series that redefined the hobby.
“The [Mendelsohn] set just doesn’t have the iconic reputation of those series,” Orlando says. “It wasn’t super-popular, and for the longest time, if it wasn’t from a widely collected set, the hobby tended to treat those cards differently. Then people woke up and said, wait, some cards should be revered as individual cards even if the complete set isn’t. There is something so symbolic about the image on the front of the 1916 Ruth card, and, eventually, collectors started to realize how special this card is. The card is a reminder of everything from ‘The Curse’ to the fact that Ruth could have been a Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher if he didn’t swing such a lethal stick.”
Orlando says the same thing happened to the Lou Gehrig rookie card found in the 1925 Exhibits set – another less-coveted collection that nonetheless features one of the hobby’s most significant offerings. One of those is featured in Heritage’s Winter Platinum Night Sports Auction – signed by the Iron Horse, no less.
Orlando once wrote that the 1916 Ruth rookie deserves its place “on any trading card version of Mount Rushmore.” Which is finally happening, he says, because “people finally realized they didn’t need the rest of this set. The Sporting News version of this card gives it a little extra appeal in the eyes of many collectors because of the connection to the sports world. But,” he says, laughing, “it’s Babe Ruth, a name that speaks for itself.”
ROBERT WILONSKY is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.