A Baltimore paperboy sold newspapers on the cities and streetcars of Baltimore in 1914, likely for one or two cents each. Along the way, he collected baseball cards of Baltimore Orioles players included in that day’s paper.
He treasured them — particularly one of George Herman Ruth, a 19-year-old pitcher for the minor league Orioles — for years, eventually passing them on to his son. That Ruth card is now one of only a handful still around. And soon, it will be auctioned for the first time since it was issued 109 years ago.
It’s expected to fetch at least several million dollars and could potentially compete for the title of priciest baseball card ever, a record currently held by a Mickey Mantle rookie card sold for $12.6 million last year.
Archibald Davis, the paperboy who was 16 years old at the time, grew up to play semiprofessional baseball and later passed the cards down. Glenn Davis, Archibald’s grandson, remembered playing with them as he grew up in Towson in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Certainly, had we known how valuable they would become, we would have handled them with more care,” Glenn wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.
After a century of ownership, including many years in which the card was on loan at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore, the Davis family sold the cards to a private collector in 2021. That collector is now auctioning it off beginning Friday in what is expected to draw eye-popping bids as one of the most expensive cards ever sold.
First off, the 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth card is rare. Issued in both red and blue, there are only 10 known to exist in either color. For comparison, there are at least 50 examples of the T206 Honus Wagner card, one of the most iconic and valuable cards of all time.
Secondly, the card is the first collectible of Ruth as a baseball player, issued before he’d ever played a Major League Baseball game. At the time, he was playing for his hometown team and listed as a “pitcher,” the position he first played for the Boston Red Sox before becoming a slugging outfielder for the New York Yankees, changing baseball and becoming one of the country’s first athlete celebrities.
Before the two-week, online-only auction begins, the card will be displayed in Baltimore once more: The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum will host a showing of the card Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
The card is the centerpiece of Robert Edwards Auctions’ fall catalog. The auction house will start the bidding at $2.5 million, but it expects the card to fetch much more than that, likely becoming at least the second-most expensive card ever auctioned.
The Mantle rookie card, which was in mint condition and has the benefit of being auctioned just last year, is the only card to ever sell for more than $7.5 million. Brian Dwyer, the auction house’s president, thinks the Ruth card could reach or surpass $10 million because of its rarity and its unique provenance, having spent a century with one family. It could be many years, he projected, before another one of these 1914 cards is for sale.
“We believe that it has the potential to threaten the all-time record,” Dwyer told The Sun.
The Ruth card is not in mint condition, but Ruth’s esteemed place in sports history could make it tantalizing for wealthy sports collectors, a hobby that has skyrocketed in popularity — and in dollars spent — in recent years.
Before the past few years, a card being sold for millions was rare. Now, it’s becoming more commonplace.
“This is definitely rarefied air,” Dwyer said. “But if you look at all of the examples of cards that have commanded six, seven, 12 million dollars, none of them, in our opinion, has the significance of this Babe Ruth rookie card.”
The simple card features just Ruth’s last name on the front. When the card was issued, he was in the midst of acquiring his nickname, “Babe,” for his youthfulness.
On the back, it advertises the 1914 Orioles’ schedule against other International League teams — such as the Buffalo Bison, the Jersey City Skeeters and the Montreal Royals (the team Jackie Robinson would integrate decades later before breaking MLB’s color barrier).
The 2 5/8 inch-by-3 5/8 inch red card has spent much of the past quarter century on display at the museum near Camden Yards, first lent there by the Davis family in the 1990s. The Davis family decided to sell the card in 2021 and — despite an estranged relative challenging the family’s ownership, Glenn Davis said — moved forward with a sale.
The new owner, whose identity the auction house is keeping anonymous, agreed to keep the card on display at the museum until earlier this year.
The card is now in the care of Robert Edwards Auctions in a secure, undisclosed location — “It is heavily fortified, we’ll put it that way,” Dwyer said — and will be until Dec. 3, when the auction ends and a new buyer will own the century-old keepsake. In addition to the Ruth card, the other 14 cards collected by Archibald Davis in 1914 will be auctioned in separate lots.
The museum has had one of the few other examples of the card, a blue one, on display since July (thanks to a loan from a different collector) and on Wednesday, the one up for auction, a red one, will accompany it at the museum.
“We’re going to bring the Babe back to Baltimore and give collectors the opportunity to see both the red and the blue example together,” Dwyer said, “so two of the 10 known will be together for a two-hour period.”
Katie Dick, the museum’s director of external affairs called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The card must remain behind layers of high-security glass, secured with motion detectors. When traveling, the multimillion-dollar card — the same one Glenn Davis casually played with as a boy in Towson — has its own cadre of professional guards.
“This card has to have its own security detail,” Dwyer said. “This card has to travel with armed security. If you think about any movie you’ve seen where there’s armored cars and armored guards, this is worthy of that type of protection.”
People interested in seeing the card can do so by paying the normal admissions fee ($13 for adults, $11 for seniors/veterans, $7 for kids) to the museum. Also on display now is an exhibit featuring the late Brooks Robinson, which has one of his gloves, one of the first examples of a batting helmet, worn by him, plus his first contract with the Orioles from 1955.
Wednesday could be one of the card’s last public appearances for some time. But whichever deep-pocketed individual is able to next lay claim to the card, Glenn Davis hopes they’ll consider making the card accessible to others, as his family did.
“We hope that the future owner will consider having them available for public display,” he wrote. “They are beautiful and amazing historical sports artifacts. Something to be treasured by those who love the sport of baseball.”