What you see: A road gray, game-worn New York Yankees jersey that was worn by Babe Ruth. SCP Auctions sold it for $4.4 million in May 2012, setting a record for any item of sports memorabilia at auction.
How rare are game-worn Babe Ruth baseball uniforms? “If you count them all, it’s ten. If you’re talking Yankees, it’s less than half a dozen,” says SCP Vice President Dan Imler, adding that SCP has handled five of the ten.
Ruth was recognized as a superstar in his time. Why weren’t more game-worn Babe Ruth uniforms saved, even as mementoes? “In his era, even the Yankees were fairly frugal,” he says. “It was typical to issue only two home uniforms and two road uniforms for the entire season, and they were considered to be disposable. [Once the season was over,] they would send them to the minor leagues as a cost-saving measure. That’s how a lot of [pre-1970 game-worn baseball uniforms] come to market–a player in the minors is issued a major-league jersey and doesn’t go on to a career, but he keeps his jersey.”
I understand that SCP Auctions uncovered some information that made the jersey even more valuable? “There was an undiscovered element to the jersey,” Imler says. “Before it came to us, we knew it was a Babe Ruth Yankees road uniform in all-original condition, but it was not dated until it reached us. We were able to date it to 1920, which elevated it quite a bit.”
How did you pinpoint the jersey’s date to 1920? “Through photo-matching. Also, it has cut sleeves [shorter sleeves than standard issue]. We were able to find images of Ruth with cut sleeves from that period,” he says.
Your colleague, SCP President David Kohler, called the Ruth road jersey “The finest sports artifact we’ve handled in our 30-year history.” Do you agree? “I absolutely agree with that. It’s arguably the finest piece of baseball memorabilia to surface anywhere,” Imler says. “You have to start with Ruth. Ruth is on a level all his own. When it comes to baseball memorabilia, he is the king. There’s nothing more coveted than a jersey or a uniform he work on his back in the most critical period of baseball history. Any Ruth uniform would be paramount, but he wore it in the earliest part of his career, when he transformed and resurrected the game. It checks all the boxes. It has everything you could ask for.”
Well, maybe not everything. Would it have sold for even more if it was a home jersey–if it had the famous Yankees pinstripes? “I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone looked at it as if it was lacking anything,” he says. “I don’t think anyone was wanting more from it.”
SCP estimated the jersey at $2 million and up. Was it difficult to arrive at that estimate? “Any sports object in seven figures is very uncommon. Multiple seven figures is very rare territory,” he says. “It was a lofty estimate at the time, but the market spoke and it sold for more than double that estimate. It validated the quality we believed it possessed.”
What factors drove the record price? “It was the best of the best in every category,” Imler says. “It was Babe Ruth. The quality was off the charts. It was completely original. It was from the most pivotal point in his career. And the fact that so few Ruth-worn jerseys come up–it was a huge call to action for high-end clients. When an item like this presents itself, you never know when you’re going to get another shot.”
How long do you think the record will stand? “Certainly this same jersey, if it was ever offered again, would surpass the previous sale price. I could see the record being topped in the next five years if something comparable surfaced,” Imler says, adding that he is not aware of another item, aside from the jersey itself, that could beat the auction record.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of SCP Auctions.