In the ever-changing world of baseball memorabilia, one of the few reliable constants is that rarity sells. Whether you’re talking about autographs or photographs, pennants or paintings, sports cards or scorecards, it generally goes without saying that the scarcer the item, the more desirable.
Except, that is, in the case of Babe Ruth-autographed baseballs. They’re offered in abundance, yet reign as the most highly sought-after trophy in the baseball hobby.
So what’s the secret to the singular success of the Ruth-signed single? How can a collectible that’s renowned for being so readily available also find its way onto everybody’s want list?
It’s perhaps the greatest phenomenon in the entire hobby—and one of the more deeply rooted. Ruth’s devotion to autographing, the significance of his sweet-spot signature, the intricacies of the baseball medium, and the broad scope of Ruth-related collectibles all play an integral role in the mystique surrounding Ruth single-signed baseballs.
An Autograph Artist
At a time when shaking the hand of a favorite ballplayer was routine and getting his autograph was an unexpected delight, Ruth changed all the rules—he was more than happy to do both.
Some sports stars despise this aspect of their fame, casting it off as a burden. Not the great Bambino. He was completely at home in the role of American hero, remaining his jovial self even when enveloped by a throng of fans. Ty Cobb perhaps said it best when he called Ruth “the most natural and unaffected man I ever knew.” Ruth accepted his fame and thrived on it.
The great “Sultan of Swat” was an autograph machine. Long before the advent of baseball card conventions and pricey promotional signings, he was penning his name on countless programs, notebooks, photos, baseballs, and publications. He never charged money for the task. Autographing was a gesture of appreciation to his millions of fans.
Baseballs have remained Ruth’s defining emblem. The demand was never ending, and Ruth did his best to accommodate each request. One famous image from the 1930s shows him seated beside a mountainous heap of fresh, yet-to-be-signed orbs.
Even more significant than their prevalence is the issue of what Ruth’s autographed balls signify. The signatures represent the most noteworthy body of work left behind by Ruth, the artist. He single-handedly revolutionized autographed baseballs; he turned it into an art form.
Stylistically, Babe had a flair all his own. He owned real estate on the sweet spot. During his 15 years with the Yankees, the sacred center section of any team-signed ball was unquestionably reserved for him. Even the great Lou Gehrig bowed to his gregarious teammate, choosing to sign humbly on a side panel.
As for the signature itself, it’s perhaps more legendary than even that of autograph pioneer John Hancock. Ruth took the utmost pride in his signature. A stark contrast to the chicken-scratch signatures of today’s sports stars, his autograph is consistently clear, legible, and compelling: the grinning “B” and swooping “R” recognizable at 10 paces; the thin “b” rising like a ship’s mast; the cross of the “t” never failing to flow jubilantly across the “h.”
Marshall Fogel, owner of one of the country’s most extensive private sports memorabilia collections, said his Ruth single-signed baseball is always one of the main attractions for visitors.
“I enjoy watching the expression on their faces,” says Fogel. “Ruth is the one where you never have to say a word. People know what it is, they know who it is. I take the ball out of the box and turn on a halogen light. The signature is so charismatic; it speaks for itself. It just grabs you.”
On average, Ruth single-signature baseballs command between $2,000 and $50,000; a select few have even approached six-digit figures. To put these numbers in perspective, let’s analyze the competition.
Honus Wagner may dominate the card genre with his rare T206 tobacco issue, but when it comes to baseballs, his single-signed spheres come up short. Wagner, as well as Ty Cobb, tend to garner somewhere in the vicinity of $1,000 to $10,000, with the upper echelon being a seldom-seen exception.
Gehrig comes closest to Ruth’s consumer clout. Gehrig singles, practically an endangered species compared to those of Ruth, can beckon sums upward of $40,000 for a pristine example, which is due in large part to their extreme rarity.
Amazingly, it’s not even the astronomical asking price that sets Ruth single-signed balls apart from their competition—it’s their unrivaled demand. In a July 2000 sale by Robert Edward Auctions (REA), then a division of MastroNet, Inc., a total of seven Ruth singles were offered individually. An uninitiated observer might have wondered if they’d all find a buyer, let alone reach their estimated values. But each sold for winning bids that exceeded expectations: $3,545; $3,894; $9,565; $10,123; $10,454 (with a signed photo); $41,781; and, the capstone, a whopping $66,105.
“It’s the ideal collectible,” says Bill Mastro, president of MastroNet. “For dealers, they’re an item that’s always in demand and that’s worth a lot of money, so you’re not wasting your time. As a collector, there are enough Ruth single-signed balls out there that anyone who wants one can have one.”
So if supply meets the demand, how many Ruth balls are we talking about?
“It’s difficult to tell,” says Mastro, “because more and more examples surface in the hobby with each passing year.”
The escalating number of existing Ruth balls has done little to impact their popularity or value. In fact, counterintuitive though it may seem, higher-priced examples actually have risen in value amidst the increased prevalence. For example, the $66,105 ball from that 2000 REA auction claimed a record-high bid of $12,650 in a 1992 Superior Galleries auction just eight years earlier.
Essentially, there are two elements to any Ruth single-signed baseball: the ball and signature. As with all autographed balls, the baseballs themselves typically are evaluated according to surface toning, overall wear, and clarity of the manufacturer’s stampings. Signatures are assessed based on their boldness, size, and precision.
Joe Verno, the winning bidder on a $53,084 Ruth ball in MastroNet’s August 2002 auction, said he was long on the hunt for a specimen that fit his standards. His first acquisition came a decade ago, for a then-hefty price of $10,000, but the satisfaction it provided was short lived; although the signature was boldly scripted, the “B” of “Babe” was double-stroked, as if Ruth had started the signature and the ink was dry.
“That little imperfection drove me nuts,” Verno says.
His prized August purchase, which was signed by Ruth in 1948 on the Hollywood set of The Babe Ruth Story, is pristinely preserved and has a signature graded 10/10 for its boldness.
“In 10 years, I’ve looked at 20 high-end balls, and this was by far the nicest,” says Verno, who bought the relic as a gift for his son. “The ball is just as white as a brand-new ball, and the stampings are very bold. This one is the third upgrade for me and the last.”
Upgrading isn’t uncommon among serious Ruth collectors. Fortunately, finding the ideal example is a feasible reality for those who have the means. When Fogel first caught sight of the flawless signature on his Ruth ball, he knew right away that, as he described it, “The Eagle had landed.”
“The pressure of each letter is equal, carefully done,” says Fogel. “If you look at 20 or 30 Ruth signatures, you can tell when he’s really pushing that pen down and every letter’s perfect.”
Ruth’s signature evolved somewhat over the years, with early examples often featuring the “Babe” part of the signature within quotation marks. Other variations include notations or personalizations. Official American League or National League baseballs tend to fetch the highest prices. Some collectors favor unofficial balls, such as the International League or popular 1920s line of “Babe Ruth Home Run Special” balls. The “Home Run Special” was the most desirable ball of the period, produced with the same quality as official league balls, but with Ruth’s personal endorsement.
Ultimately, the decision on a Ruth purchase comes down to personal taste. “If you want an early ball where ‘Babe’ is in quotes or that has red-and-blue stitches, you may have to sacrifice condition,” says Mastro, “because you’re not going to find one in Mint condition. Some collectors want an official ball, while many don’t want personalizations. Sometimes a beat-up ball with a bold signature can go for big money based on the signature alone.”
Adding another factor to the mix, Mastro stresses the importance of provenance. “Authenticity is the most important criterion,” he says. “There are a lot of forgeries out there. Ideally, you want multiple letters from reputable sources within the hobby.”
The Big Picture
For all its attention and influence, the Ruth-autographed ball needs a far broader context to be fully understood. Its impact on the legitimization of all sports memorabilia collecting has helped turn what was once considered a frivolous childhood pursuit into a widely respected pastime. Once overshadowed by coins and stamps, sports collectibles have emerged from the shadows and into the limelight. Sports memorabilia is now an established multi-billion-dollar industry, with Ruth-signed baseballs passing among the hands of our country’s most affluent professionals.
These days, Ruth’s legacy is so grandiose and extravagant it’s become almost cartoon-like. He manages to steal our imagination each time we catch a glimpse of his roly-poly figure, his record-breaking statistics, and, perhaps above all, his artfully scripted signature on the very object that brought him such extraordinary fame—the baseball.