It was today in 1934, that the New York Times erroneously reported that Babe Ruth's 700th home run record would never be broken. While they may have proven incorrect, Ruth's name remains forever etched in history of baseball. In a career of twenty one years he amassed 714 home runs.
Today, Babe Ruth remains one of the hottest names in the world of Baseball, thanks to the hugely popular Baseball memorabilia market. In past decade, the emergence of the internet has seen Baseball memorabilia become a $100 million dollar industry.
With Ruth representing the forefather and defining great of the sport, it is little surprise to find collectibles related to the star highly sought after. Founded in 1983, the Babe Ruth Museum represents just one of the many institutions housing rare collectibles related to him. Amongst their collection is a 19-year-old Babe Ruth baseball card from his rookie season with the Baltimore Orioles which is currently valued at $500,000.
The pursuit of Babe Ruth memorabilia by museums has created a highly competitive market for all things related to the "the Bambino," meaning bidding wars can be fierce and prices can be high.
In one recent sale, a Babe Ruth signed sepia Hall of Fame postcard was auctioned for $44,062. This set a world record price for a signed Hall of Fame postcard for any player ever. And from here the prices attached to Babe Ruth memorabilia go up.
In New York, Hunt Auctions sold a 1920s sweat stained New York Yankees cap, thought to be one of only three in existence worn by Ruth while on the field, for a record $328,000.
To put this figure into some perspective, no hat belonging to a baseball player had ever sold for more than $100,000. I hope it fits the new owner.
Baseball bats related to the man affectionately known as "The Sultan of Swat" due to the phenomenal strike rate, command even higher prices at auction. The prices are often dependent on the significance of the piece, with collectors searching out the most historic pieces.
Ruth's first Hillerich & Bradsby bat is one example. First used in 1918, it is widely regarded as one of his most significant, being his very first with the manufacturer. Legend has it that once he selected the bat from a collection offered to him by the manufacturers; it was taken away and replicated to create the prototype on which all Babe Ruth bats, from July 1918 to 1926 would be based. The bat sold for $537,750, a fine price for a true original.
And when Ruth wasn't creating history in the manufacture of baseball bats, he was creating history on the baseball field, with over 700 home runs. In an auction in 2006, the baseball struck to record the record breaking 700th, was sold for $805,000. Yet if you thought this marked the top of the market, you'd be very wrong.
A year previous, Sotheby's held an auction of Babe Ruth's 1919 contract sending him from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Giants. Six bidders competed for the piece, which eventually sold for $996,000 to Peter Siegel who had this to say after the result:
"This is not only the most important document in sports history but is also important in American history. The contract is larger than life, a royal gem."
To date, the contract holds the record of being the most expensive sports memorabilia document.
However, it does not hold the record for the most expensive piece of Babe Ruth memorabilia.
This honour, instead, belongs to hit famous solid ash wood "Louisville Slugger" bat, which sold at Sotheby's auction for $1.26 million in December 2004. The 1923 bat was used to hit the first home run at Yankee Stadium on April 18, 1923 and remains the greatest prize on the Babe Ruth collectibles market.
Since then, only two baseball collectibles have exceeded this price at auction.
In January 1999, the fan that caught St Louis Cardinal's legend Mark McGwire's record breaking 70th home run ball of a single season, sold the piece for just over $3 million at a Guernsey's auction in New York.
The other collectible record breaker, which sold for $2.8 million, was, in fact, a rare T206 baseball card featuring a youthful Honus Wagner in his Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. It may be surprising to find baseball card memorabilia at this high end of the market, but in truth, the demand for baseball cards is a key driving force behind the market, and offers one of the most competitive routes into Baseball collectibles.
Is there value in Baseball cards? Well, the "Mona Lisa" of baseball, the Honus Wagner card would demonstrate yes. Six months prior to the $2.8 million sale, the card was sold for $2.35 million. That's an increase of $450,000 in six months. It roughly equates to value increase of $111 an hour during that period. How many other investments can boast that?
And the best part is, the market for baseball memorabilia and particularly baseball cards, is continuing to boom.
On May 1st this year, Robert Edwards Auctions set new records with the sale of 1720 lots featuring 181 high end baseball cards and memorabilia priced at $10,000 and over.
The unique collection of 19th and early 20th century memorabilia earned a total of $10.12 million, making an average sale of $5,883.
In amongst the highlights of the auction were various unique cards related to the legendary Babe Ruth.
A rare near mint condition Babe Ruth Sporting News baseball card dating back from 1916, which was the first card to ever feature Ruth as a Major League player, sold for a record $82,250.
Two bats, owned by Babe Ruth also did well at auction. One 1917-1920 era bat sold for $64,625 and the bat Babe Ruth used to hit his 702nd homerun was auctioned for $111,625.
Yet, in an interesting comparison a 1933 uncut sheet of Goudey bubble gum cards featuring three Babe Ruths and a Lou Gehrig came up for auction with a reserve price of $25,000 yet sold for $117,500.
While the $111,625 bat set a record for a Babe Ruth bat from the 1935 era due to its provenance and historical significance, it was interesting to note that it came in at $5,872 less than the uncut sheet of bubble gum cards.
With the demand for cards featuring the image of Babe Ruth so high, signed photographs could soon witness a similar rush for demand, with current images of Ruth available now for just $12,000.
Ultimately, the sale demonstrated the sheer demand for baseball collectibles, particularly those related to the legendary forefathers of the game like Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb.
The famous T206 Ty Cobb baseball card, featuring a Ty Cobb Tobacco advertisement on the back, broke records for a card of its kind selling for $111,625.
Yet, one of the headlines of the event was the sale of the T206 "Connecticut Wagner" which had been off the market for some 25 years. In 1985, an unnamed collector had bought the card for $10,000. Back on the auction block, the card sold for $282,000 an increase of 2720%
After the auction Robert Edwards Auction President Robert Lifson, had this to say:
"The market was extremely strong. While common sense tells us that our market is not immune to problems in the larger economy, you'd never know it from the results. This was our most successful auction ever..."
The sale also demonstrated the sheer variety of high memorabilia available to collectors. A World Series Program, from the first game of the tournament, nearly quadrupled its reserve price, with a final sale of $94,000.
While the famous 1908 "Merkle" ball, which cost the New York Giants the World Series, as Fred Merkle failed to touch base, sold for $76,375, having previously been purchased by actor Charlie Sheen for $30,250
Elsewhere, for the more aesthetically focused baseball memorabilia fans, one of only four newly discovered 1889 Goodwin Round Album advertising posters came up for auction.
Recognized as one of baseball collecting world's greatest display pieces, the poster sold for $105,750 at auction.
The growing market of baseball memorabilia collectors is set to continue driving prices within the market up, as competition for pieces heightens. In time, collectibles related to the career of one of the games greats, like Babe Ruth, will become hugely valuable. More importantly, collectors may start to explore other areas of the Babe Ruth memorabilia market, meaning ball park figures could soon be going out of orbit.
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