A Baltimore baseball mystery at the Babe Ruth Museum

Officials trying to track down owner of vintage 1914 card

June 28, 2010|By Kevin Cowherd, The Baltimore Sun

It hangs in an upstairs display case at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum on Emory Street, an old baseball card at the center of a Baltimore mystery.

Inside the faded red border is a photo of the great Babe Ruth gazing off to his left, somehow looking pensive and mischievous at the same time.

The future Hall of Famer is 19 years old, tall and lean, not yet showing the effects of a prodigious appetite for beer and hot dogs that developed over his lifetime.

This is the 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth rookie card. It's one of the most valuable cards on the market, priced at a cool $500,000 in good condition. No more than 11 of the cards are believed to exist.

Museum officials are ecstatic to have it in their possession. While displaying the card for 12 years, they learned only recently that its value had skyrocketed.

"The Honus Wagner tobacco card used to be the Holy Grail of collectibles," says Mike Gibbons, the museum's executive director. "Now the Ruth card is the Holy Grail."

Gibbons and his staff are so excited about the card that they plan to make it the centerpiece of a "blockbuster" display on the history of baseball card collecting.

But before they do, they want to contact the card's owner, the Baltimore man who generously loaned the card for display. They want to let him know about their grand plans for his wonderful gift.

Except … they can't find him.

In this age of computer databases and search engines and 24/7 social media connectivity, the man has flat-out disappeared.

He vanished in a way that seems almost impossible to do in this day and age.

And all he left behind was one of the most expensive baseball cards in the world.

An offer they couldn't refuse

If you ask Babe Ruth Museum officials, they'll tell you the story begins in June 1998. That's when a local man named Richard Davis approached them with an offer.

He was in possession of the 1914 Ruth rookie baseball card in good condition, along with 14 other cards issued that year, mostly of Ruth's teammates. Davis agreed to allow the museum to display them on a long-term basis, with no time-frame for their return.

The cards were from a series issued by the old Baltimore News when Ruth had only recently left St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, the Baltimore orphanage where he had been consigned at age 7 by his parents for "incorrigible behavior."

A 19-year-old pitcher, he had just signed his first professional baseball contract with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League. The team was managed by the legendary Jack Dunn, who had agreed to be Ruth's guardian. As the story goes, Ruth's teammates took to calling him "Jack's newest babe," and the nickname stuck for the rest of his life.

Museum officials were delighted with Davis' loan. Even back then, they knew the card was valuable. But they didn't think it was worth anything approaching the amount the 1909 Wagner tobacco card was fetching. A card of the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame shortstop had sold for $640,000 in 1996.

"We're in the sports heritage business, not in the business of buying and selling memorabilia," Gibbons says of why the Ruth card wasn't appraised back then.

Still, Gibbons knew the Ruth card was rare. Not a lot of people had come across it back in 1914. And the ones who did apparently weren't excited enough to hold on to it.

"It had a very limited distribution, just in the Baltimore area," says Brian Fleischer of memorabilia evaluator Beckett Media in Dallas. "And couple that with the fact [Ruth] was a rookie."

In addition, World War I had just begun, in July of that year, about the time that baseball card experts believe the Ruth card was issued. And even though the U.S. would not enter the war until 1917, Americans seemed to have little passion for frivolous pastimes such as collecting baseball cards.

"There could have been more important things to worry about than the … card of an unknown future Hall of Famer," notes Fleischer dryly.

Richard Davis died in August 2001. His son, Glenn Davis, then entered into the same loan agreement with the museum concerning his father's card collection.

And for the next eight years, the Ruth rookie card was displayed with little fanfare in an upstairs room adjacent to where Ruth was born.

Then last year, Gibbons and his staff were alerted to a story in Forbes magazine on the world's most expensive baseball cards.

There, at the top of the list, was the 1914 Ruth rookie card. And now the price listed for the card was an eyeball-popping $500,000.

Not only had its price taken off, but the Honus Wagner tobacco card had nose-dived in value. Now a Wagner card in comparable condition was worth only $300,000, according to Beckett Media.

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