By Larry Canale
A hand-cut 1923 Babe Ruth card from the set labeled W515, per Jefferson Burdick’s industry-standard catalog, enjoyed a near-impossible feat for an item made almost a century ago: a perfect 10 grade from PSA. Flawless condition helped the price soar to $69,500. Seller CardzRu (who wishes to use his eBay handle rather than his name), tells us it’s a record for what the hobby calls strip cards.
“Previously, this same card had set strip-card price records by selling for $40,000 in January 2016 and $57,600 in June 2016,” he said. Both of those sales, like this one, were on eBay.
The 1923 W515 set includes 60 individual cards. They’re called “strip cards” because of their original form: six strips, each containing 10 cards. The illustrations of some of baseball’s biggest stars were based on Underwood & Underwood photographs.
You’ll find these cards catalogued as either W515-1 and W515-2. The former measure in at 1 3/8 by 2 ¼ inches. The W515-2 cards are slightly larger at 1 ½ by 2 ½ inches. Both the -1 and -2 sets were blank-backed.
The top W515 draws include the Ruth card shown here; it’s #47 in the set. There’s a second Ruth card, #3, that features a different (smiling) illustration. Other keys to this rare set: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Grover “Pete” Alexander, Frankie Frisch, Frank “Home Run” Baker, John J. McGraw, Rabbit Maranville and Eddie Collins.
You don’t see these cards listed very often. But if you keep an eye on eBay, you’ll see they do turn up and sell fairly quickly, even in low-grade condition. In fact, a lesser-condition example (SGC 4.5) of the same Ruth card featured here sold for $1,258. It was hotly contested, drawing 87 bids in all.
Other recent sale prices for W515s:
• $1,195 for a W515-2 Ty Cobb (PSA 3)
• $899 for a W515-2 Ruth, #3 (SGC 3)
• $270 for a W515-1 Tris Speaker (SGC 8)
• $260 for a W515-1 Bob Shawkey (PSA 9)
• $255 for a W515-1 Rogers Hornsby (ungraded)
• $227 for a W515-1 Miller Huggins (PSA 7)
• $208 for a W515-1 Casey Stengel (PSA 6)
QB STUDS, THEN AND NOW
In the late 1950s, the king of all QBs was John Unitas, the strong-armed Colts passer known for his crewcut hair and high-top black cleats. Johnny U. first showed up on a trading card in 1957, when Topps included him as #138 in its annual gridiron set. That card is now a holy grail in the hobby, easily drawing five-figure prices. One such example—a beauty that drew an 8.5 grade from PSA—showed up on eBay in June, drawing 51 bids and selling for $16,177.
The front of that card gave collectors a close-up head shot of Unitas along with a jump-pass action shot. The reverse reflects his rookie-season stats (nine TD passes and a 56 percent completion percentage) and also made a big deal out of his scrambling. “John’s running passes are tough to stop,” the text reads. And next to one of those classic Topps cartoons, there’s a (redundant) caption: “He’s one of the best ‘on the run’ passers in the league.”
Fast-forward an even 60 years from that point and we get a rookie card of another QB known for his ability to throw on the run: Patrick Mahomes II. In another June sale, a 2017 Panini National Treasures card of Mahomes nearly doubled the price of the Unitas rookie, reeling in $30,000. Three big reasons for its eye-popping price: rarity (it’s from an edition of 10); an autograph; and a game-worn patch from Mahomes’ Pro Bowl game jersey. It was ungraded but likely wouldn’t command a 10 grade, due to a chip and a little bit of edge wear.
We looked at the Astros’ Yordan Alvarez last time out, reporting on his hot-selling 2018 Bowman Chrome cards, which were issued in various Refractor colors and now sell for prices between $5,000 and $8,000. Since then, the rookie slugger has continued to bomb baseballs out of ballparks, accounting for seven HRs in his first 12 games and 48 at-bats.
At the same time, fellow rookie Austin Riley has been making a splash in Atlanta. He piled up 12 homers and 34 RBI in his first 37 games and 147 at-bats. No wonder collectors are paying thousands for his hottest item: a signed 2015 Bowman Chrome. In June, a Gold Refractor example of the card (graded BGS 9.5 and one of only 50 made) sold for $3,050.
Of course, that figure almost seems like a bargain after a signed 2018 Bowman Chrome Orange Refractor card of Alvarez sold for $10,750. It is one of only 25 made, bears his distinctive autograph and was graded BGS 9.5.
We’ll continue to monitor these rookies along with several others making an impact, among them Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of Toronto, Eloy Jimenez of the White Sox, Peter Alonso of the Mets and Oscar Mercado of Cleveland.