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The Babe Bows In: Ruth Rookie Becomes Third Most Expensive Card Ever

The Babe Bows In: Ruth Rookie Becomes Third Most Expensive Card Ever
December 7, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

Photo: REA, Graphic: Altan Insights

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The biggest icon doesn't always produce the highest values.

Until this weekend in the Hobby, the cards of baseball's most beloved legend took a backseat to the icons of the collectible world, Honus Wagner and Mickey Mantle. While the $7.2 million sale of Babe Ruth's 1914 Baltimore News card at REA doesn't place the Babe ahead of those stalwarts of cardboard, it does put his rookie card firmly in the mix of the most expensive cards ever sold, in third place to be exact.

Despite a far-reaching and clamorous press offensive, despite the plethora of "This Babe Ruth card could sell for $10 million" headlines, the card garnered just one bid in the last four days of the event after fourteen bids through the first two weeks. That lone bid emerged victorious at $6 million before buyer's premium. The result falls well short of the loftiest $12.6 million heights set by the SGC 9.5 1952 Topps Mantle but just a shade shy of the $7.25 million private sale of a T206 Honus Wagner.

But shouldn't it come up short of those cards?!

The T206 Honus and the '52 Mantle are culturally recognizable icons, rich with storytelling and mythology. They stand a chance of being recognized outside the Hobby, just as famous art is recognizable to those who aren't gallery-goers. Yes, the Baltimore News Ruth is rarer. But sometimes rarity borders on anonymity, stripping the asset of its potential for rich storytelling and cultural acclaim. A PR blitz can't manufacture those attributes over mere weeks.

In that regard, the $7.2 million result, punching right up there with Honus, could be viewed as a success. Really, most would hail a $7 million cardboard sale as a triumph. To nobody's surprise, though, small circles of the card world on social media have voiced suspicions, unfounded or not, about the bidding. That aside, let's take the result at face value and review the card's history to contextualize the outcome.

Back in 2021, the card was declared the most expensive ever sold at a Collectable press conference. It was said to have sold privately, but the actual price wasn't revealed, only that it was higher than the reigning record holder at the time. It was, as the kids say, a bit of a weird saying you do have a girlfriend, but she goes to another school. That's not to say that it wasn't true, only that it invites ribbing. In conjunction with that announcement, a 1% stake in the card was offered fractionally on Collectable, valuing the card at $6 million. The announcement and fractional offering would provide wider exposure to a card that had little, at least relative to titans of the category.  

In January, the 1% stake was bought out for an amount that would value the card at $8.83 million, delivering a win for fractional shareholders. The buyout price was 47% above the IPO price and 19.19% over the last trading price, per Collectable. Notably, the owner of the other 99% always had the right to repurchase the 1% stake at the greater of the IPO value or the average trading price over a 30 day period. Before the year was through, the card was up for auction.

The $7.2 million result seemingly improves upon the level of the private transaction in 2021, or at least that seems a safe assumption. Remove the buyer's premium from the equation, though, and there wouldn't be much in the way of profits. Still, more than one bidder ventured into the mid-seven-figure range, offering another feather in the cap of vintage trophy assets. In particular, SGC will have enjoyed the result, now serving as the grader behind the top three recorded sports card sales of all time.

But this was a weekend of mixed news at the high end of the card market. The other Baltimore News cards in the REA event failed to meet their reserves. A PSA 7 1952 Topps Mantle tumbled to its lowest level since early 2021 at $246,000, while a PSA 8 Goudey Ruth #149 sold for $396,000, its lowest since 2019.  

Elsewhere, at Goldin, the Elite auction notched 13 six-figure sports card sales, the most in an Elite event since May. Those sales were composed of many cards burrowing lower, though:

  • The top sale, a $488,000 result for a PSA 10 1980 Topps Scoring Leaders card, was the lowest since 2019 and a failed flip to boot, with the same card bought in June 2023 for $516,000.
  • The $268,400 sale of a BGS 9 2004 Exquisite LeBron James RPA is the second lowest result since early 2020 (up $70k over a November Heritage sale); that specific card sold at Goldin in August of 2021 for $1,980,000.
  • Tom Brady's Championship Ticket card, graded BGS 8.5, sold for $268,400 - stop us if you've heard this recently - the lowest since 2019.
  • A Patrick Mahomes Holo Gold National Treasures RPA, graded BGS 9.5, sold for $231,800 after previously selling for $480,000 in June of 2022 at PWCC.
  • A PSA 9 1955 Topps Sandy Koufax card sold for $244,000, the lowest since 2018. That specific example last sold at Heritage about a year ago for $396,000.

There are other examples, but we won't belabor the point. There were highlights too. Jordan's 1997 Skybox E-X2001 Essential Credentials Future card, graded PSA 9, sold for $197,640, while free agent Shohei Ohtani's Orange Refractor Rookie, graded BGS 9.5, delivered a strong $74,420 result, on par with May 2022 levels. And we still live in a world where Brock Purdy, system quarterback or not, has rookie cards (in this case his Flawless Shield) selling for $80k.

As always in the card space, there's a complex and nuanced world lurking beneath the headlines. $7 million is a heck of a lot of money for a sports card. That remains true. But it doesn't represent the unfailing strength of an entire market.


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