The Bambino’s rookie card is pricey, but should it be even more valuable?
Most collectors consider Babe Ruth’s cards in the M101-4/5 Sporting News/Mendelsohn series to be his rookie issues. Printed in 1916, these cards were near the start of Ruth’s career. And while his 1914 Baltimore News card came first (as well as a few other non-traditional trading cards), that issue features Ruth as a minor leaguer and not considered by most to be a true rookie card. There’s no 100% consensus on Ruth’s rookie but the M101s are as close as it comes, so
As you might imagine, Ruth’s M101 rookie cards are expensive. Last year, a PSA 7 sold for $600,000 in a REA auction and it’s one of the most expensive cards in the hobby. But I think the argument can be made that the card is actually undervalued.
Now, the plurality of the term ‘rookie cards’ might confuse you. But that’s because, technically, Ruth has several different M101-4/5 cards. If you’re unfamiliar with the M101 -4/5 cards, the issues were produced by a photographer called Felix Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn created a set of 200 cards, now referred to as M101-4 and also created a very similar, but slightly different set, now called M101-5.
The cards were then used by many different companies printing their advertisements on backs of M101-4 cards and others using the M101-5 cards. Some also used both sets. In all, there are more than a dozen different brands that had their ads printed on the cards. Ruth was in both the M101-4 and M101-5 sets and, as a result, has several different cards, which can all be considered rookies.
Now, because it’s already one of the more expensive cards, trying to find an adequate barometer for it is difficult. But one is certainly the Honus Wagner T206 card. The Wagner, of course, is the most expensive card. A PSA 5 (MC) sold in 2016 for a world record $3.12 million, the most ever paid on the record for a sports card.
By comparison, the Ruth falls well short of that card and the two are really not anywhere close. Take a look at that 2016 Wagner sale. A PSA 5 (MC) is really about the equivalent of a straight PSA 3 by many collectors’ standards and it still sold for more than $3 million. Ruth’s card was a PSA 7, in much better condition, and was still absolutely dwarfed by the Wagner in terms of price.
Wagner was a Hall of Fame player but he wasn’t the Babe, obviously. Ruth was regarded by most as not only the best player of his era but still holds that title for a great many fans even today, more than 100 years after his career began. The Wagner card is valuable because of its shortprinting as a card that was not intended for public release.
Now, while Ruth was the bigger star, a card’s value is often tied to its rarity. The Wagner is, no doubt, rare. While T206 cards are among the most plentiful pre-war tobacco issues, PSA has graded only 32 Wagner cards. For some perspective, the company has graded nearly a quarter of a million other T206 cards in all.
But here’s the thing — the Ruth cards aren’t exactly plentiful, either. To date, across the various M101-4 and M101-5 variations, PSA has graded a total of just under 60. While that’s almost twice as many as the Wagner, they’re still incredibly rare cards.
Keep in mind, this goes beyond the fact that Ruth is a more important player or that his card is very rare. The M101-4 and M101-5 cards are also Ruth’s rookie issues. Wagner’s T206 card, by way of comparison, was printed more than a decade after his rookie year in the majors and he has many earlier issues.
None of that is said to diminish the Wagner card. I’ve said on many occasions that it is the most important card in the history of the hobby. Rather, it’s to point out that the Ruth can be considered a relative bargain by comparison. When you consider the M101-4 and M101-5 cards are the rookie issues of the most important player of all time and that they are pretty rare to boot, you can make the argument that they should be even more valuable.