Long before Instagram, influencers and the Kardashians, Babe Ruth was a self-promoter.
“He absolutely knew his value, and he worked it every day,” said Mike Gibbons, the historian at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore. “It was part of his shtick.”
Given his propensity for showmanship and excess, the iconic New York Yankees player surely would have relished the growing buzz surrounding a 107-year-old, frayed-at-the-edges Ruth baseball card — the bluest of blue-chip sports collectibles.
The card, valued at more than $6 million and climbing faster than a Ruth home run, is to be transported by armored truck later this year from Florida to the Emory Street rowhouse where Ruth was born in 1895 and that is now home to his baseballs, his rosary, and a bat that he and “Shoeless Joe” Jackson used. None are as valuable as the 1914 Baltimore News-created trading card coveted enough for shares to be sold — akin to a stock — by Collectable, an investment platform for sports fans.
The card depicts Ruth, then a pitcher, in the baggy uniform of a minor league team with the same “Orioles” name as the city’s current major league club.
The card is currently in a safe in Florida, where its owner says “nobody is getting to it, no elements are getting to it, no fire is burning it.”
The collector, who requested anonymity to retain his privacy, purchased the card in May from the descendants of Archibald Davis, a paperboy for the Baltimore News, who saved it when it appeared as an insert — along with cards of his teammates — in the long-defunct newspaper.
The most valuable baseball cards typically depict Hall of Famers in early seasons before fans know enough not to throw them out or wrap them in rubber bands that damage the value.
The more unheralded the player the better, and George Herman Ruth could hardly have been more obscure: a 19-year-old fresh out of St. Mary’s Industrial School.
Ruth went on to become the first player in big league history to top 700 home runs and an American cultural icon. He was known for his passion for life — and for being juvenile.
“He was like a 12-year-old boy in a grown-up body,” said Gibbons, who stepped down as the museum’s executive director in 2017 but remains its resident historian.
The new card owner said he expects to put it in an armored truck around Christmastime for delivery to the Ruth museum, where it will remain indefinitely as part of an exhibit called “The Making of a Legend.” The card will be housed inside a case equipped with a security system akin to that accompanying a rare gem.
The card had a market value of about $6 million when New York-based Collectable initially offered 2 million shares at $3 apiece in August. The $3 price was a nod to the No. 3 that Ruth wore.
Collectable ultimately was only able to offer a fraction of the card’s worth — a $66,000 share it acquired from the owner, who told The Baltimore Sun that he wanted the public “to enjoy it.”
The card, featuring a red image against a white background, may be faded but “you have to remember it’s over 100 years old. It’s beautiful to me,” said the owner, who describes himself as “a prominent Florida collector.”
The shares jumped to as high as $6.50 before settling at $5.40, boosting the card’s market value, at least for now, to $10.8 million.
Collectable is not the first company to offer shares in trading cards and other sports memorabilia, but it’s a relatively new phenomenon that — like the baseball card market generally — has boomed during the coronavirus pandemic with people stuck at home.
Collectable sells the Ruth card like a stock. The company takes percentages of rare sports items and forms small companies around them, essentially subsidiaries, to offer to the public.
Owning a piece of a piece of history can be a point of pride — shareholders do not receive any special access to the item — but the investors also “can make money through buying and selling shares on the secondary market,” Collectable CEO Ezra Levine said.
In July, the company offered $170,000 in shares of the bat that the late Oriole star Frank Robinson used to hit his 500th home run at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium in 1971. Shareholders earned a 17.6% profit when all the shares were purchased recently by an investor for $200,000, according to Levine.
The Ruth card owner bought it from relatives of Davis, who collected the cards while working as a young boy selling newspapers to Baltimore streetcar passengers.
Davis died years ago, and the sale followed an intrafamily squabble over the card’s rightful heir. Glenn Davis, Archibald’s grandson, and his mother won the legal battle in December 2020, according to Richard Burch, a Towson-based attorney for the family.
Then, last spring, Burch said, “the prospective buyer upped the ante considerably to the point where it was too much to resist.”
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The Davis family had agreed in 1998 to allow the card to be displayed at the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum, where it was shown “off and on” until being transported to Florida after the sale, Gibbons said.
“People did not know about the Babe Ruth card. It was not that important,” he said. “This phenomenon has really cropped up recently.”
The old case now bears a small sign: “Object temporarily removed from display.”
But it’s coming back. The new owner said he has agreed to lend the card indefinitely to its longtime home, and is paying tens of thousands of dollars for a fancy display case and security system.
“We knew there had to be so much more security,” he said. “We realized somebody could come in with a little hammer and break the glass.”
Gibbons is looking forward to welcoming back one of the world’s most expensive pieces of cardboard.
“People will want to see this thing because it’s like the crown jewel of sports,” he said. “Our hope would be groups would rent the museum and spend an evening with the card.”