Happy Birthday to baseball legend and American icon Babe Ruth, born on February 6, 1895.
The discussion of two-way baseball players starts and ends with Babe Ruth. In the years before the infamous sale that sent Ruth from Boston to New York, the man known as the “Sultan of Swat” was baseball’s premier left-handed pitcher. Ruth would later become the most prolific hitter in baseball history.
Before his powerful uppercut swing made home runs relevant and transformed baseball into an offensive game, the full-time pitching ace and part-time slugger led the Red Sox to three
World Series Championships. Ruth put together a 94-46 career record with nearly all of his pitching appearances coming in a Red Sox uniform. His 2.28 ERA is 17th lowest in baseball history.
The Babe found his place on the pitcher’s mound at the St. Mary’s Industrial School, a boys’ reformatory school. He developed his craft with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League under owner and manager Jack Dunn, who signed the 19-year-old southpaw to his first professional contract in 1914. The first Ruth baseball card was included in the 1914 Baltimore News series. Issued with red or blue fronts and black variation backs, the card displays a gangly teenager yet to make his major league debut. A red PSA-1 version of the Ruth rookie sold at auction for $450,300 last year.
Struck with financial hardship due to the emergence of the Baltimore Terrapins of the short-lived Federal League, the Orioles unloaded Ruth, Ernie Shore and Ben Egan to the Red Sox for $16,000 later that year. Pitching behind established hurlers Smokey Joe Wood and Dutch Leonard among others, Ruth was used sparingly. But in 1915, he went 18-8 as the team’s third starter and helped the Red Sox to the AL Pennant.
In 1916, Ruth emerged as a dominant pitcher, winning 21 games while tossing nine shutouts and posting a league-best 1.75 ERA. Helping the Red Sox to back-to-back World Series championships, Ruth pitched 14 innings for a 2-1 Game 2 victory over the Brooklyn Robins.
Still considered a top-notch pitcher, Ruth returned in 1917 with a 24-13 record and 2.01 ERA. He finished 35 of the 38 games he started. At the same time, Ruth’s offensive prowess was taking shape. He finished the season batting .325, triggering an eight-year streak of hitting .300 or better.
Already an established pitching ace, Ruth’s transformation to iconic slugger hit full stride in 1918. Primarily an outfielder, Ruth led the league in homers with 11, earning his first of 12 home run titles. Appearing in 20 games as a pitcher, he went 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA. The Babe pitched a 1-0 shutout in Game 1 of the World Series and won Game 4, as he established a 29 ⅓ scoreless innings streak, eclipsed by Whitey Ford decades later.
The Babe made 17 appearances on the mound in 1919, going 9-5 with a 2.97 ERA, but by this time pitching was merely a diversion for the future Hall of Fame slugger-to-be. Ruth led the league in home runs (29), RBI (114) and runs (103). Following the 1919 season, the Yankees purchased Babe Ruth the slugger, not the ace pitcher from financially-strapped Red Sox owner Harry Frazee for $100,000.
Ruth’s Red Sox-Yankees overlap is highlighted in his 1914 Frederick Foto card. The unique card displaying a photo-quality image, pictures the Babe in a red Sox uniform, but reads “Babe Ruth N.Y.” in the upper left-hand corner.
In his first season with the Yankees Ruth set a new standard with 54 home runs, effectively introducing America to a new brand of baseball emphasizing power and brawn over speed and savvy. Putting Ruth’s 1920 season in perspective: No other player hit more than 19 home runs and only one team hit more homers than Ruth did individually.
Laying the groundwork for what would become the Yankee Dynasty, Ruth’s 1921 season may have been the greatest in MLB history. The 26-year-old Ruth batted .376 while bashing 59 homers, driving in 171 runs, scoring 177 runs, and slugging a then-unthinkable .846. Riding Ruth’s prowess as a slugger, the Yankees became baseball’s most recognizable — not to mention most dominant — team, establishing new attendance records almost annually.
He eventually raised the bar to 60 round-trippers in 1927, a record that would stand for 34 years. The Babe’s contribution to baseball was almost as significant as his contribution to the New York Yankees. The new stadium built to house a growing fan base was quickly dubbed “The House That Ruth Built.”
Prior to Ruth wearing pinstripes, the Yankees neverwon a title of any sort. In his 15 years in New York, the Yankees captured seven AL Pennants and four World Series titles. Most baseball historians consider the 1927 Yankees to be the best team in baseball history.
Ruth returned to Boston in 1935 to play his final season with the Braves, hitting six homers to bump his career total to 714. The Bambino held an amazing 56 major league records at the time of his retirement — including most career home runs. In 1936 the newly formed Baseball Hall of Fame elected Babe Ruth as one of its five original inductees. More than 75 years after his retirement, Ruth remains one of baseball’s first and America’s greatest icons.
The complete history of the Babe can be found in the 1962 “Babe Ruth Special” subset, which captures significant moments from his life and career, beginning with “Babe as a Boy” (#135) and ending with “Babe’s Farewell Speech”. The special 10-card subset was issued one year after Roger Maris eclipsed the Babe’s single-season home run record. Most of the cards can be found in good – very good condition for $8-$15.
Any comparisons to Babe Ruth are subject to hyperbole, but the recent exploits of 22-year-old Shohei Otani give us reason to believe the Japanese star could be the Major League’s next great two-way ball player.
The recently-named Most Valuable Player of the Pacific League of Nippon Professional Baseball became the first professional league Japanese player to hit 10 or more homers and win 10 or more games as a pitcher in the same season. The only player in major league history to score a double-double was Ruth, who stroked 11 home runs and won 13 games for the 1918 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.
Otani is coming off one of the greatest seasons in Japanese history, boasting a 10-4 record with a 1.86 ERA. The right-handed flamethrower posted a 0.95 WHIP while averaging 11.2 strikeouts and 2.9 walks per nine innings. Moonlighting as a left-handed-hitting DH, the 6-foot-4 Otani slugged 22 home runs while hitting .322 with a whopping 1.004 OPS in 104 games. After four professional season, Otani is 39-13-2.49 as a pitcher while batting .275 with 40 homers and an .838 OPS.
Pacific Rim scouts have referred to Otani as the “modern-day Babe Ruth”. A top-of-the rotation pitcher and a middle-of-the-order slugger all in one. Otani throws a high-90s fastball that has reportedly topped out at 103 mph. He uses a low-90s forkball to keep hitters off balance. His changeup, which he hasn’t needed to this point, still a work in progress.
With natural power and a keen eye at the plate, Otani projects to be a legitimate major league hitter. Otani played 62 games as a corner outfielder his first two years as a professional. A sprained ankle early in the 2014 season quickly put an end to Otani’s outfield duties. He has been used exclusively as a DH when not pitching over the last two years.
Otani yearns to pitch and hit in the majors, to compete against the best in the world as a pitcher and a hitter. The questions ahead are complicated: How does he walk away from Japan and gain entrance to the majors at such a young age? Is there a major league team that will break the bank to sign Otani and allow him to hit between pitching assignments?
Otani cannot test the free agent waters until accumulating nine seasons in the Nippon Professional
League. However, the Nippon Ham Fighters can — and reportedly will — allow Otani entrance into the majors via the posing system at the conclusion of the 2017 season. The Fighters will surely receive the maximum $20 million posting fee from the major league team that would sign Otani. With revenues on the rise for MLB and free agent contracts spiraling upward — not to mention the mystery surrounding the next potential international star — could mean a long-term contract breaking $200 million for Otani, according to published reports.
Several Major League teams — including the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rangers — expressed interest in Otani four years ago. As a high school two-way player, Otani led his team to the Koshien Championshipship. The Fighters were able to convince Otani that his only chance to excel as a two way player would be in Japan.
A year from now several teams will be will likely be willing to empty the vault for his services. His decision may hinge on which team allows him to pitch and hit on a regular basis. Will an American League team allow Otani to DH or play the outfield two or three times a week? Is he better suited to pitch — and hit for himself — in the National League? Will batting just every fifth day satisfy his appetite? Will pitching every fifth day opposed to every sixth day (as he does in Japan) affect his workload as a pitcher or hitter? Questions that possible suitors and Otani need to answer in what looks to be a fascinating 2017 off season.
Otani is expected to display his baseball skills globally in the World Baseball Classic next spring. Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo is planning to use him as a pitcher, DH, and pinch hitter.
Otani’s first baseball card was an insert in Japan’s Sports Card Magazine #97 released in January 2013. It was a promo card for the 2013 BBM Rookie Edition set. Expect this card and other Otani rookies to gain significant interest during the WBC.
As David Ortiz climbs the charts among baseball’s all-time great sluggers, we see the name Jimmie Foxx appear in the record books over and over again, but for some reason Ole Double-X is seldom discussed. Dubbed “The Beast” because of his powerful right-handed swings, Foxx was one of the most underappreciated players in baseball and sports collectibles history.
Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez once proclaimed, “When Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, he and his space scientists were puzzled by an unidentifiable white object. I immediately knew what it was. That was the home run ball hit off me in 1937 by Jimmie Foxx.”
Foxx equaled or surpassed the production of nearly every slugger not named Babe Ruth, but he his rarely mentioned among baseball immortals such as Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle et al — and the demand for his baseball cards lag considerably behind baseball’s most revered sluggers.
Foxx hit at least 30 home runs and tallied 100 or more RBI from 1929 with the Philadelphia Athletics to 1940, his fifth season with the Red Sox. His 20-year total of 534 home runs ranked second to Ruth for many years. His 58 home runs in 1932 fell just two short of Ruth’s single-season record. Interestingly, two home runs were taken away from Foxx because of rain and 10 more were lost because of newly constructed outfield screens in Cleveland, St. Louis, and Philadelphia that were not erected until after Ruth hit 60. So if the baseball stars were properly aligned in 1932, Barry Bonds would have eclipsed the magical number of 70 set by Foxx.
While serving as the Red Sox first baseman, Foxx quickly learned to take advantage of the cozy confines in front of Fenway Park’s famed Green Monster. In his first three seasons with the Red Sox, he hit 41, 36, and 50 homers respectively.
Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey said of Foxx’s ridiculous power, “If I were catching blindfolded, I would always know it was Foxx who connected. He hit the ball harder than anyone else.”
The toughest Foxx baseball card to find in reasonable condition is the 1934 Goudey (#1). First cards of vintage sets received the brunt of the rubber band damage that decimated so many ’50s and ’60s baseball cards. A handful of PSA-8 versions exist, selling for $8,200, a remarkable buy considering ’34 Goudey PSA-8 Gehrig cards command as much as $15,000.
Foxx, provided Boston with their first bona-fide star since Ruth was sold to the Yankees in 1919. Double XX set Red Sox records for home runs (50) and RBI (175) during his 1938 MVP season. More than just a slugger, Foxx won the Triple Crown in 1933 and excelled defensively, primarily as a first baseman, but also as a catcher, third baseman, and outfielder.
Foxx was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1951, but strangely there has been little or no protest over the Red Sox failure to retire his number. Surely someone who is mentioned in the same breathe as Ruth and Gehrig deserves the same elite status as Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Pesky, Carlton Fisk and Wade Boggs in Red Sox annals.
Playing his only season with the Red Sox in 2006, infielder Mark Loretta told the Boston Herald that “Foxx never received the credit he deserved for being one of the game’s all-time great sluggers.” Loretta honored Foxx by wearing number 3. Foxx, who played 20 seasons for the Philadelphia Athletics (1925-35), Red Sox (1936-42), Chicago Cubs (1942 and 1944) and Philadelphia Phillies (1945), is arguably the best slugger not to have his uniform retired by any team.
Modern day cards of Foxx are somewhat limited, but affordable. His 2005 Upper Deck Trilogy Bat displays a vintage photo of Foxx in his Philadelphia Athletics uniform with a piece of an actual Foxx baseball bat embedded into the card can be had for under $45 — a great buy for limited card serial numbered to just 99.
On this day in 1974, Hank Aaron smacked an Al Downing fastball over the leap of Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner for his 715th home run at Atlanta Stadium, breaking the record held by Babe Ruth for over 50 years. The night of April 8, 1974 still hails as one of the most iconic moments in baseball history. The celebration of Aaron’s accomplishment combined with new-found appreciation for home run hitters from a previous, untainted era has increased interest in Aaron baseball cards.
The 1954 Topps Aaron rookie pictures a raw teenager on the verge of greatness. The card design sports two pictures, a large headshot and a small in-action shot in the lower left-hand corner. Hard to find in mint condition due to wear, dullness, blurry lettering and off-centered photos, near-mint PSA-7 versions sell in the $2,400 range.
The slender 180-lb. outfielder would go on to hit an unblemished 755 home runs over his 23-year career. A right-handed hitter with remarkably powerful wrists and a smoothly crafted swing, Aaron was recognized for home runs, but his legacy included 3,771 hits (third all-time), 2,174 runs (tied for second), 2,297 RBI (first), and a career .305 average. Aaron also displayed outstanding speed and one of the better right-field arms of his time.
Topps, a chewing gum producer new to the trading card business, made a wide array of printing and production gaffes while Aaron was emerging as the game’s top slugger. After just a few years of producing baseball cards, Topps had yet to establish much of a photo library, so pictures were often recycled during the ’50s. The same Aaron head shot was used from 1954-1956.
The 1956 card (#31) also includes an action shot in the lower right-hand corner picturing Willie Mays sliding into home plate wearing a Braves uniform. A Topps artist painted the uniform. The actual photo of Mays appeared in a baseball card publication a year earlier. Near-Mint PSA versions of this hard-to-find relic accidentally picturing two of baseball’s greatest players sells in excess of $2,700.
Topps made an even bigger blunder on Aaron’s card the following year. The production staff accidentally reversed the negative on the 1957 card (#20), which displays baseball’s most prolific right-handed hitter batting left-handed. The card that has no-doubt triggered decades of bar room arguments sells for $100 in excellent condition.
The 1958 Topps “Baseball Thrills” card, picturing Aaron’s classic home run swing, celebrates Aaron’s Game 4 homer that helped propel the Braves over the Yankees to win the 1957 World Series. This Topps set is notorious for being mis-cut and off center. The rare gem is worth up to $125.
The ultra conservative Topps Co. rolled the dice in 1974 by printing “New All-Time Home Run King” on Aaron’s 1974 Topps card (#1) despite Aaron entering the ’74 season one home run shy of tying Ruth’s career mark. Fortunately for Topps, Aaron kept the suspense to a minimum, hitting a homerun on Opening Day. The ’74 Topps card became officially accurate a few days later when Aaron broke the record on a nationally televised Monday Night Baseball game with a homer against the Dodgers.
Aaron has gained popularity with today’s collectors, as baseball card manufacturers continue to combine baseball history with modern day memorabilia cards. His 2014 Topps Tribute “Game-Used Bat” card is a great find for $40.
The first of a semi-regular series on “Baseball’s Most Unbreakable Records”.
During the summer of 1941, Joe DiMaggio established the measuring stick for hitting streaks when he achieved the most treasured – and, arguably, unreachable – record in baseball history. The same year that Ted Williams hit .406 for the Red Sox, DiMaggio compiled a 56-game hitting streak for the Yankees, shattering Wee Willie Keeler’s record of 44 games in 1897.
From May 15 – July 17, DiMaggio batted .408, blasted 15 homers and drove in 55 runs. On July 19, the day after Indians pitchers Al Smith and Jim Bagby Jr. held DiMaggio hitless, the Yankee Clipper started a 16-game hitting streak. All told, DiMaggio hit safely in an unfathomable 72 of 73 games.
How remarkable was DiMaggio’s hitting prowess? In the past 70 years, only three players – Pete Rose (44 games), Paul Molitor (39) and Jimmy Rollins (38) – have come within 20 games of DiMaggio’s seemingly untouchable record. There isn’t an active player in baseball whose two longest streaks, over an entire career, add up to 56 games
DiMaggio’s reputation and hitting exploits were established well before the magical 1941 season. In 1933, the 19-year-old DiMaggio, in his first season with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific League, established the minor league record with a 61-game hitting streak, shattering the previous mark of 49 set by Jack Ness in 1914.
Like his hitting streaks, DiMaggio’s baseball cards are in a class of their own. One of the rarest and most coveted DiMaggio cards is the 1937 V300 O-Pee-Chee, the key card from an extremely limited Canadian set distributed only in Canada. With our neighbors north of the border focused on hockey, few collectors or sports fans bothered to preserve the DiMaggio card and other cards from the series. The black and white photo card is one of a few featuring DiMaggio’s early seasons with the Yankees.
High-graded cards from this set are extremely difficult to find. Only three examples have been graded EX-MT 6 by PSA, the last one selling for over $5,200. PSA NM-MT 8 versions have sold for as much as $15,000. The O-Pee-Chee card is designed with a die-cut background that can be punched out and folded back, allowing each card to stand up. Because of this unique design, most V300 cards are found in poor condition, often with the die-cut backgrounds entirely missing.
Printed in both English and French, the card back – boasting sharp, bold legible text – informs baseball fans that DiMaggio “will make up for some of the color lost when Babe Ruth retired.”