Babe Ruth is arguably the greatest baseball player of all time. No doubt he’s the most famous baseball player of all time. Goudey was the top baseball card brand of the 1930s, so Goudey and the Sultan of Swat make a legendary combination. When it comes to Goudey Babe Ruth cards, there are several options.
I don’t generally recommend baseball cards as investments. But Goudey Babe Ruth cards have increased in value over time and they aren’t hard to sell quickly if the need ever arises. So they are a safer investment than most other baseball cards, at least.
1933 Goudey Babe Ruth
In 1933, Goudey included four cards of Ruth in its landmark 240-card set. That seems appropriate. The 1933 Goudey set is always in the mix when collectors discuss the greatest sets of all time. The presence of four cards of the greatest player of all time doesn’t hurt its standing.
Ruth occupied numbers 53, 144, 149 and 181 in this set. Ruth 53 and Ruth 149 feature the same pose. Since Ruth 53 features a yellow background, it’s known as the yellow Ruth. Number 149 features a red background and is known as the red Ruth. Card numbers 53 and 149 are close-ups of the same full-bodied picture featured on card number 144. Ruth 181 features a green background and is known as the green Ruth.
Not only were the cards not identical, they weren’t printed in the same quantities either.
Card #144 was double-printed, so it is the most common of the four and the easiest one for you to find an example of. In some ways it’s also the most attractive card, since it shows his full stance and a baseball field in the background. The hardest to find is 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth 53, followed by #149. 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth 181, which was a different pose altogether, was single printed but is easier to find than the 149 red or the 53 yellow. Theoretically the cards should have been printed in similar quantities but it appears Goudey printed some sheets in larger quantities than others.
As it turns out, 1933 was Ruth’s last great season. His 1934 season was still Hall of Fame-caliber but not up to Ruth’s previous standards.
Scarcity relative to other cards
Ruth’s 1933 cards are expensive, but not the most costly cards in the set. That honor belongs to card #106, Napoleon Lajoie. Goudey omitted card #106 from the set and printed a card of Lajoie, the retired Cleveland Indians great, in 1934 to quell the outrage from people who spent money chasing a non-existent card. Those who wrote in to complain received the Lajoie card by mail. So the 1933 Goudey Lajoie was never released in wax packs with gum.
The increased chances of getting a Ruth card in any given pack and the impossibility of getting that elusive card #106 was a brilliant stroke of marketing for Goudey, even if Goudey didn’t fully realize it at the time. The whole idea of selling baseball cards with bubble gum was still very new in 1933 and Goudey and its competitors were all learning as they went along.
Pricing of 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth cards
Still, even though the 1933 Goudey Ruth cards were printed in large quantities and undoubtedly kids were more likely to save them, it’s extremely difficult to get even a poor-condition 1933 Goudey Ruth card for less than $900. Even Ruth 144, the most common, reaches those kinds of prices, possibly because the 144 card is such an iconic piece of Americana.
Mid-grade examples that have been graded and authenticated sell for thousands, and examples in high grade sell for tens of thousands of dollars when they come up for auction.
There are rarer and more valuable Ruth cards than his 1933 Goudey cards, but his ’33s are iconic, partly because they capture Ruth in his prime, albeit the end of his prime, and in a Yankee uniform. Goudey never recaptured the success of its 1933 set.
1933 Sport Kings Babe Ruth
In 1933, Goudey also issued a set called Sport Kings, a 48-card set that featured baseball, football, hockey, tennis horse racing, dog-sled racing, and pilots.
Babe Ruth was card #2 in this set, one of three baseball players featured. Ty Cobb and Carl Hubbell were the others. The pose is completely different from the poses Goudey used in its baseball-only 1933 set. The style of the card itself contains elements of both the 1933 and 1934 Goudey baseball sets, so it’s easy to quickly recognize it as a Goudey card.
While not quite as valuable as the Ruth cards from Goudey’s 1933 baseball set, this is still a valuable card. Even in beat-up condition it’s worth $400. The baseball players are the most valuable cards in the set, and Ruth is the most valuable of the three. But the Sport Kings Gum card of Ruth represents a more affordable alternative to the other Ruth cards that Goudey issued in 1933, or an additional card for completists to chase.
1935 Goudey Babe Ruth
For whatever reason, Goudey left Ruth out of its 1934 “Lou Gehrig says” set. In 1935, Ruth was back in and Gehrig was out.
In 1935, Ruth signed with the Boston Braves to wind up his career. His 1934 season had been good but not superhuman. In 1935 he hit like Jack Cust did in his final year. Frustrated with his diminished production and lack of opportunity to become the Braves’ manager, he retired in June 1935.
Ruth shares space on his 1935 Goudey card with Rabbit Maranville, another Hall of Famer near the end of his career, and two journeymen. The 1935 set wasn’t Goudey’s best effort either. Goudey reused artwork from its 1933 or 1934 sets and shrunk it to quarter-size. Collectors preferred the 1933 or 1934 efforts, both then and now.
That said, this card is the last card of Ruth from his playing career so it’s historically significant. If you want a Ruth card made by Goudey, it’s your most affordable option. Poor-condition 1935 Ruth cards sell quickly because of their relative affordability, but with good timing you can snag one for around $300.
Beware of reprints
Goudey’s 1933-35 sets have been reprinted several times, and many of the reprints are getting up in age themselves now. Some of the reprints aren’t marked. It’s not uncommon for them to get sold as the real thing. It happened to me. If you’ve handled enough real Goudeys, you can spot a reprint right away. The printing is fuzzier, the texture is wrong, the card stock is the wrong color, and it’s not thick enough. But if you haven’t handled many real Goudeys, you might never know the difference.
If you’re buying online, your safest bet is to buy a graded, authenticated Ruth card. If you want a reprint, there’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t pay $10 for one. Contrary to what some sellers will tell you, grading a Ruth reprint doesn’t make it valuable. Grading a genuine Ruth card increases its value mostly because of the assurance it’s not a reprint.
Alternatives to Goudey
There’s no question Goudey cards of Ruth can be expensive. If you want something older than a reprint, there are a number of cheaper Ruth cards you can buy, some of which date to his playing days.