By Doug Koztoski
Sitting near his RV before a recent Penn State football game, Nittany Lions’ season ticket holder Howard Rothenberg and his wife recently enjoyed tailgating, along with a crowd of the football faithful. The collector relaxed with his two puppies in his lap when a young woman in her early 20s approached him to ask the dogs’ names and if she could pet them.
Rothenberg said she could certainly pet “Sergeant” (the black one) and “Pepper,” (the gray one), but he was a little surprised that the young lady did not get the Beatles’ reference they were named after, as in the legendary musical group’s one particular album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In fact, she was not familiar with The Beatles, which surprised him even more.
The collector then decided to test one other aspect of the girl’s pop culture knowledge when he inquired, “Do you know the name Babe Ruth?” Thankfully, she knew the famous Yankee baseball player.
“I think that goes to show you how ‘The Babe’ has transcended time,” he said, of the slugger who last played major league baseball in 1935. “No matter how many decades go by, people still know of Babe Ruth. That’s how much he meant to the game, that’s how much he meant to Americana, that’s how much he meant to a country. Even today (many) people know who Babe Ruth was.”
Ruth’s name still resonates with scores of people, but a scant few are familiar with a card set from 1948 produced by the Philadelphia Gum Company known as “The Babe Ruth Story,” that came in packs with a slab of Swell bubble gum. The issue centers around “The Babe Ruth Story” movie, which debuted in 1948. Ruth died that August at 53.
The flick stars William Bendix as the slugger and the 28-card issue begins showing the sports hero and the actor on the movie set, one of a handful of pasteboards in the offering depicting the superstar hitter.
Setting the bar high
For a decade Rothenberg has owned the top-graded copy of the issue on the PSA Set Registry. Rothenberg pointed out that not only is he an avid collector, “but I am a dying breed, I am a set collector.” The hobbyist started collecting in 1964, the year he went to the first of over 500 and counting Yankees games.
The veteran collector described the 1948 set as “overlooked,” but “neat.” He mentioned the diminutive group of cardboard is both about Ruth’s life and the making of the movie.
“It’s not the best set when it comes to technology, the (card) cutting and the picture quality, but the backs are interesting to read and the old black-and-white photos and the smaller size of the cards (2” x 2 1/2”) are cool.”
Among his favorite’s in the issue? Rothenberg selected the set starter, but his top pick came 20 cards later.
“Card #21, “Babe in a Crowd of Autograph Collectors,” is my favorite,” he noted. “My father (who fostered Howard’s love of baseball and collecting cards) said Babe loved being around people, especially kids, this guy loved crowds.”
According to The Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards, “The Babe Ruth Story” set originally contained only 16 cards, but 12 extra cards were added when Ruth died before the film’s release. Ruth’s mid-August ’48 death is certain, but some online sites place the movie’s release as either late July or early September of that year, but whenever it’s official debut, the Philly Gum Co. apparently looked to pad the set with a dozen more images.
Good thing they did, since several of those later cards show the slugger with one or more of the actors, while others in the last 12 also highlight additional big leaguers of the general era: Ted Lyons (#22), Charlie Grimm (#23), and Lefty Gomez (who played on the Yankees with Ruth for a few seasons) and Bucky Harris, the Yankees manager in 1947-48 (#24).
Card backs normally included some fun tidbits about the film’s actors, such as Bendix spending time as an actual Yankee batboy. Ads on the back said collectors could send in “5 Swell Bubble Gum wrappers and 5 cents for a large autographed picture of William Bendix, starring as Babe Ruth.”
In search of…“The Bambino”
Philly Gum/Swell produced a second baseball set in ’48: Sport Thrills, and that is another issue on relatively few hobby “playlists.” Comparing the two from a PSA Population angle, the Ruth set has just over 400 total samples in PSA slabs, while its cardboard cousin has nearly triple that number encapsulated by the company. The 1948 Bowman baseball set, meanwhile, tips the scales at roughly 22,000 cards in PSA holders.
So looking for ’48 Ruth cards can be a true challenge.
Rothenberg said the issue never has and never will come close to the popularity of “Babe in a Crowd,” per se, even given the set’s age, subject matter and relative rarity, but he thinks it will retain its current level of popularity in the hobby as the years pile up, like RBIs and homers once did from Ruth’s bat. “I think it will stay the same as it is now, like the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set and the 1948 Swell Sport Thrills set.”
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at email@example.com.