Tips of the Trade
Baseball Collectibles: Hitting a Home Run
Leila Dunbar says that baseball memorabilia can be both affordable and outside the ballpark.
Almost anything Babe Ruth touched is valuable today.
Black memorabilia—including baseball collectibles—are appreciating fast.
Baseball cards are a perennial favorite of collectors.
To avoid striking out in the field of baseball collectibles, Leila Dunbar, director of the Collectibles Department at Sotheby's, suggests you learn the rules of the game. Here are Leila's ground rules. Before you get up to the plate, you should know that the objects that are most valuable have made contact with baseball's most dramatic moments.
Leila Dunbar's ground rules for collecting baseball memorabilia
"The bigger the moment, the pricier," Leila says. One recent example is slugger Mark McGuire's record 70th and final home run of the 1998 season, a ball that sold for a record $3 million. If you can't afford that, look for less dramatic tokens, Leila suggests. For those in the real world, McGuire's 17th or even his 50th home run ball of that year might not bankrupt the farm. One Roadshow guest showed Leila a crumpled piece of paper that Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale used as a crib sheet for how to pitch against the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series. The notes must have worked, for the Dodgers beat the Twins four games to two, with Drysdale and Sandy Koufax both winning two games. Leila estimates that this piece of history is worth between $1,000 and $1,500.
More Valuable Dead than Alive
As important as the moment is the man. Billy Crystal recently bought Mickey Mantle's mitt for $225,000, a price tag that probably swelled after Mantle's death. Collectibles from the minor leagues are worth next to nothing because "these people didn't make the show," Leila notes. The holy trinity of collectibles is Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb, with Ruth towering head and shoulders above all the competition. "Babe Ruth was larger than baseball," Leila says. "Whatever he touched has turned to gold." A ball signed by Ruth has sold for as high as $42,500 and as low as $100, Leila says, depending on the signature's condition, another important factor in the world of baseball collectibles.
Signatures from Hall of Famers who passed away before the advent of card shows in the 1980s (where players sit and sign autographs for hours) are valuable, Leila says, because their autographs are much more rare. Signatures are even harder to find for players preceding Ruth who started the fashion of signing. A Walter Johnson baseball can command $3,000-$4,000 on the open market; one by Christy Mathewson, even rarer, can sell for $10,000-$15,000. Other players whose memorabilia is in much demand include Tris Speaker, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Cy Young, Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie. Baseball paraphernalia made before 1900—signed or unsigned—is rarer still. "The thing to watch for is a clubhouse signature," Leila notes, referring to a signature penned by a batboy for the stars, which are far less valuable.
Black Baseball's Collectibles
Collectibles from black players, including those who played in the Negro Leagues, are now appreciating quickly, Leila notes. Signed baseballs, photos, programs, pennants and equipment used by black players from the Negro Leagues are all valuable because they are rare, Leila says, and also because it's an important part of American history. "These players were barred from the game because of segregation," Leila says, adding that they are now recognized as some of the best players to ever put on a baseball uniform. A ball signed by a Negro League slugger such as Josh Gibson can sell in the range of $4,000-$7,000.
More than Baseballs
Demand is also pushing up prices for collectibles other than baseballs. A suitcase with Babe Ruth's name on it that was salvaged from a garbage can sold for $12,000; a special bat used by Babe Ruth during a game went for $100,000; a World Series ring from Davey Johnson, the Gold Glove second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, went for $17,000. Colorful press pins worn by journalists at World Series games are also hot tickets in the market. "The older, the better," Leila says of these often colorful momentos.
Baseball programs printed for World Series events are also collectible. Ones from the first championships played in the early 1900s are worth up to $20,000; those from the 1920s and 1930s are worth up to $3,000. Baseball advertising has also become hot, Leila notes. For instance, Lucky Strike trolley cards from the 1920s, featuring such stars as Lloyd Waner and Harry Heilmann, can cost $3,000-$4,000 apiece. Tobacco cards, the forerunners of bubble gum cards, also have come to the fore in recent years. For those looking for a bargain, Leila suggests cards or other paraphernalia from less famous players. Signed cards and baseballs for these players can sometimes go for under $50. Concludes Leila: "Collecting from the stars can cost you as much as a big league contract."
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Sports Memorabilia category:
The Original Dream Team (Tucson, 2007)
The Mystery of the Baseball Cufflink (Omaha, 2005)
Collecting Japanese Memorabilia
Winter Olympic Memorabilia
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.