Spotlight: Babe Ruth M101-4 and M101-5 Rookie Cards
Babe Ruth’s major league rookie cards are among the most valuable cards in the world
When it comes right down to it, the Honus Wagner T206 card is the most valuable card on the planet. Pound for pound, nothing tops it in terms of intrigue and price. There aren’t many cards really in the vicinity of it but one of the cards in the short list right behind it is the 1916 Babe Ruth M101 rookie card.
Technically, there are two Ruth rookie cards from the M101 set — one is the M101-4 card and the other is known as M101-5. The M101-4 and M101-5 sets are often called the Sporting News sets, though, that name isn’t all that accurate. Sporting News was one of the companies that printed their name/advertisement on the backs but there were many others that printed their ads on the cards, too. Both of the sets are very similar. There are some minor differences but most of the same players are in both sets and used the same images.
While these are considered to be Ruth’s major league rookie cards, they are not his earliest cards. That distinction belongs to the 1914 Baltimore News card, which features Ruth as a minor league player with the Baltimore Orioles. That card is much rarer and more valuable but does not show Ruth as a major leaguer.
The M101-4 and M101-5 sets were created by Felix Mendelsohn (not the composer), a photographer/printer. Essentially, Mendelsohn created this set with blank backs, then is believed to have peddled it to companies to see if they wanted to use them for promoting their business. Many bit and, today, there are about 20 different types of backs for the sets.
In the pre-war era, much of the focus always seems to be on tobacco cards or caramel cards. But these are neither. Because they were used by many different companies across a variety of industries, they can fall under different classifications. But you will find them as an M-Card in the American Card Catalog, which cites these as cards from publications. But that isn’t true for all of them. Some were cards distributed by publications, such as the Sporting News and Successful Farming. Others were distributed by department and clothing stores. Others still were distributed by food or beverage companies. They are listed as M-Cards and that’s really a poor way of classifying all of them.
Many key cards are in the set. Football Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe who also played baseball, for example, has one of his few baseball cards in the set. Then there’s Shoeless Joe Jackson and Ty Cobb. Plenty of other notables are there, too. But without a doubt, the key to the set is Ruth’s rookie card.
Ruth’s is one of the more interesting Hall of Fame rookie cards to be sure. While he became known as a slugger, Ruth was a strong pitcher earlier in his career, winning 94 career games. His 1.75 ERA in 1916 actually led the entire league. Ruth would go on, of course, to become the most feared slugger in all of baseball. But this card captures his early days with the Boston Red Sox as a pitcher quite well.
Like most players, Ruth is found in both the M101-4 and M101-5 sets. His No. 151 card number is also the same in both sets. While many players are in both sets, most have different card numbers. This PSA article notes that 30 players are in both sets and have the same numbers. Ruth is one of those.
So the question, then, is how do you determine if you’ve got an M101-4 or M101-5 card in those instances? Sometimes, there’s no way of knowing. But other times, you can tell by the backs. Some backs are exclusive between M101-4 and M101-5. For example, The Sporting News backs are only on M101-4 cards. Thus, a Sporting News Babe Ruth card would be from M101-4. But there are cards with sponsors that are known to have produced both sets. And more commonly, blank-backed cards can also be M101-4 or M101-5 cards. In those cases, there’s no real way to determine if you’ve got an M101-4 or M101-5, though some theories may exist.
In the case of Ruth’s card, however, it doesn’t make much difference since all are valuable. I shouldn’t say that there’s zero difference between the M101-4 and M101-5 cards. All are pretty rare but the M101-5 cards seem to be harder to find. That is simply because the Sporting News-backed cards make up a good bit of the M101-4 and M101-5 population and, as mentioned, Sporting News cards are only found in the M101-4 set. That, by default, makes the M101-4 cards easier to find than the M101-5 cards.
Interestingly, though, while there are probably more total M101-4 cards around, we basically see the opposite with the Ruth card according to PSA’s population report. To date, they’ve graded only 20 M101-4 Babe Ruth cards with either the Sporting News back or the blank back. However, they’ve graded 35 blank-backed M101-5 cards. That sort of defies logic considering the overall population report numbers for the rest of the cards in the sets.
In any event, the Ruth card from either set is extremely valuable. Even in low-grade condition, the card often sells for more than $100,000. High-grade cards can threaten the $1 million mark. A PSA 7 Ruth card, for example, sold for more than $700,000 in a 2016 Heritage auction.