One of the rarest Babe Ruth-related collectibles fetched an unprecedented $1 million at an auction on Saturday.
Ruth’s 1918 contract with the Boston Red Sox was the biggest hit at the auction mounted by Goldin Auctions at the Sports Legends Museum in Baltimore, where Ruth was born. The auction coincided with the 100th anniversary of Ruth’s major league debut as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.
Ken Goldin, founder of Goldin Auctions, called the event “the largest and most diverse auction of Babe Ruth collectibles” in a phone interview with Millionaire Corner prior to the event.
The most valuable baseball document ever sold, Goldin said, was Ruth’s 1919 contract with the New York Yankees., which fetched just short of $1 million.
The auction featured about three-dozen Ruth-related items for auction. One that really scored was a recently-discovered bat Babe Ruth used as a rookie. It was found in a 150-year-old house, where it had been stashed away in a cellar along with other game-used Red Sox bats. The owners of the house did not even know of the treasure in their midst, Goldin said. He credited a “picker,” with making the discovery. The bat sold for $214,000.
One of the auction’s most heralded items struck out; the ball said to be Ruth’s first home run shot at the as yet unnamed Yankee Stadium. On Feb. 14, 1923, New York Daily News reporter Marshall Hunt took Ruth to the ballpark still under construction. As a publicity stunt, he pitched a few balls to Ruth to have him test out the right field fence, Goldin related. Ruth hit a shot over the fence. It was retrieved by a construction worker who asked Ruth to sign it. The ball was consigned to Goldin by Joel Platt, said to be the world’s biggest sports collection, who has acquired the ball from the construction worker. It failed to reach the minimum price to sell.
Other Ruth-related items included a pair of size-42 pants the Bambino wore between 1928-1932. One item that did not get the press of the first home run ball was a one-of-a-kind palm print that Ruth made for an article written about him in Baseball magazine. The print was submitted to a palm reader for analysis. This item, too, though, did not reach the minimum selling price.
Sports memorabilia is the clear winner in the collectibles market, Goldin, 48, said. It is one that tends to attract wealthier buyers, and as such, can sustain hits to the economy. “We cater to high net worth individuals with discretionary income,” Goldin said. “They look at their portfolios and if they’ve had a good month or a great year, they (have the mindset) that they can give themselves a treat.”
Following sports memorabilia (‘easily No.1,” he said), historical items rank second, followed by entertainment, he said. “People can make a case for comic books as well.” (A 2013 wealth level study of Millionaire households conducted by Spectrem’s Millionaire Corner found that currency or coins and art are the two most popular collectibles)
The Ruth auction was a year in the making, which speaks to the scarcity of the items that makes them so high in demand, Goldin said. “We took out local newspaper ads in cities across the county from New York to Orange County in California, and invited people to bring in their material (a la “Antiques Road Show”). We have a group of experts in every field (such as bats and autographs) to authenticate and document everything we sell.”
Babe Ruth has a special cachet among collectors. “I’ve always viewed him as the greatest baseball player and the most important American athlete,” Goldin said. “I have a 14 year-old daughter. Her middle name is Ruth.”
The market, he said, is dominated by males, typically between 30 and 55 years-old. “They are now able to afford items from their childhood heroes,” Goldin said. “They grew up watching Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, or more recently, guys like Mike Schmidt and George Brett. They’ve heard the stories about Joe DiMaggio, Ruth and Lou Gehrig. This is their chance to capture a bit of history.”
Goldin’s advice to the budding collector: Buy what you love, of course, but buy only the true rare items. “Concentrate on the most collected names,” he said. “There are exceptions, such as Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, but baseball has always done the best (in the market). The legendary names—Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Cobb, Robinson, Aaron-- are always going to be in demand and the supply is limited. When something goes into a new collection it typically won’t come out until that person dies.”
It can be thrilling to have these historic pieces in one’s possession, if only for a short time. “I want to keep them all and redecorate my office,” Goldin laughed. “But there are still things out there that are undiscovered. To find this stuff is very exciting and rewarding.
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Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.