Babe Ruth 1933 Goudey Card Prices are … Kind of Out of Control

The slugger’s 1933 Goudey cards have risen sharply in value — some might wonder why

Pre-war baseball cards, in general, have done pretty well in that they rarely have lost value over the years. Sure, some cards are selling for less these days than they may have a decade or two ago. But the cards have mostly retained their value or, in most cases, risen.

The cards are not really all that volatile compared to modern cards. But every now and then, you sort of see cards take on drastic increases in value in relatively short periods of time. The Ty Cobb T206 green background card is one of those, of course. Low-grade cards could have been bought in the $700-$800 range as little as a few years ago. Today, it’s nearly impossible to get those same cards at double that price.

I’m always curious as to what drives these sorts of values. In the case of the Cobb, for example, it’s certainly not rarity. While it is the toughest of the four Cobb T206 cards, it is not altogether a rare card. Nor is it even much rarer than Cobb’s ‘bat on shoulder’ variation in the set. Nevertheless, the card has shot up in value over all the others in the set and still shows little sign of slowing down.

Ruth 1933 Goudey Yellow

Card #53

Also in that category appears to be the four Babe Ruth 1933 Goudey cards.

Ruth, like Cobb, is one of the sport’s most popular players. And while there might be some debate as to which player’s cards are more desirable, Ruth’s is unquestionably the bigger name in the history of the sport.

As such, Ruth appears on all sorts of cards. But the four cards he is found on in the iconic 1933 Goudey set are among the most popular of the pre-war era. There’s good reason for that. The set, for one thing, is considered one of the most important sets of all time. And for another, the cards are just very well known. Even collectors of more modern cards are probably familiar with the images on Ruth’s 1933 Goudey cards.

Like the green background T206 card of Cobb, these have also shot up in value considerably in recent years. I remember piecing together most of a 1933 Goudey set about five years ago. My set was complete, save for the rare Nap Lajoie SP, two cards of Lou Gehrig, and the four cards of Ruth. I remember researching prices for the Ruth at the time and low-grade ones could be had for as little as $600-$700 (even as little as $500 for some cards with big flaws like really poor trim jobs). Today, good luck finding one in any condition for under a grand. Even cards with significant trimming or other major flaws are generally closer to $1,100-$1,200 as a starting point.

Interestingly, none of the four cards are all that rare. Sure, the four are not equal in terms of rarity. One was double printed and is easier to find than the others. But PSA has graded about 900-1,200 of the others (each) and they are not all that hard to locate, really.

Ruth 1933 Goudey Green

Card #181

Another really important point is that the cards came late in Ruth’s career and most of the time, those sorts of cards are less desirable than a player’s earlier cards. That, however, has not had much of an effect on the Ruth Goudey cards as they continue to shoot up in price.

While the low-grade Ruth cards have jumped significantly, those price gains have been even larger for anything above those in terms of condition. For example, cards graded around a 2.5 or a 3 are routinely earning $4,000 or more.

Is that wrong? More specifically, are buyers overpaying for these cards? Not necessarily. We already know that rarity is only one driver in a card’s value and if the market says those are $4,000 cards, then that’s what they are. But what I do think is important to point out is that the cards are overperforming even tougher and earlier Ruth cards, which seems odd.

Take, for example, Ruth’s E120 and E121 American Caramel issues. American Caramel is just as big of a brand as Goudey when it came to producing candy cards and they even issued more sets than Goudey. Those E120 and E121 sets were also from the early 1920s when Ruth was really ascending to the top as baseball’s king. Popular cards? Check. Early cards? Check. Rare cards? Check.

Ruth’s American Caramel cards check all of those boxes but even those are having trouble keeping pace with the Goudeys.

For example, a Ruth E120 American Caramel card graded authentic recently sold on eBay for about $1,400 — not too much more than what similar conditioned Goudeys sell for. Similarly, an SGC 3 of the same card fetched only about $4,500.

E120 American Caramel Ruth

Those prices are both a little higher than the prices of the Goudey cards but not by that much. Some have even sold for less. An SGC 2.5 of the E120 card, for example, earned only about $3,200. Finding a Ruth Goudey in that condition at that price is incredibly difficult (all of the most recent examples on eBay have sold for more — some significantly so).

The same generally holds true with at least some of Ruth’s E121 American Caramel cards. Ruth has a few different cards in that set and the least expensive version is generally one that shows him in uniform holding a bird. You can find those similarly priced with the Goudeys or even lower. Here’s one on eBay, for example, that was an SGC and sold for under $2,200 – about half of what you would usually pay for a graded Goudey card in the same condition.

What is even more confusing is that the American Caramel cards are on completely different planes in terms of rarity. Remember those earlier PSA populations of roughly 900-1,200 for the non-double print card? By comparison, PSA has not even graded 50 of the E120 American Caramel Ruth cards. And while there are several Ruth cards in both of each of the E121 American Caramel sets (The Set of 80 and Set of 120), even collectively, those are all much rarer, too.

It’s important to point out, obviously, that not every graded card is alike. Some PSA 3 cards, for example, have significantly more eye appeal than other PSA 3 cards. Still, even taking that into consideration, that the cards are even somewhat close in value is still sort of mind-boggling when you actually look at the facts surrounding them.

Why would a card that is much rarer and older sell for about the same price as the later Goudey cards? It’s all tied up in the prestige of the Goudey name and the popularity of the set as arguably the premier gum baseball card set of all time.

Is it all in the Goudey name, though? Nope.

For example, Ruth’s 1935 Goudey card is much rarer than his 1933 cards and nowhere close in terms of price. Collectors often point out the fact that Ruth’s 1935 card includes several players, thus the reason it is much less valuable. But that theory doesn’t explain why his card in the multi-sport 1933 Sport Kings set is also significantly less valuable. In short, the Goudey name is part of the puzzle but I think it’s really the prestige and popularity of the 1933 Goudey set specifically that makes the cards so desirable.

Now, of course I am not suggesting collectors are wrong to place so much emphasis on that. After all, the simple rule of supply vs. demand applies to anything and the reality is that the Goudey cards are very popular with collectors. If people are buying a card at $1,000 routinely then that’s what its value is — regardless of how rare it is. But if the 1933 Goudey cards are not overvalued, I might argue that Ruth’s earlier American Caramel cards are undervalued.

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