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1920: A benchmark year in sports left behind notable collectibles

Whatever more 2020 might have produced in the world of sports had a pandemic not swept the globe, it's unlikely that it could have rivaled a time a century ago

Whatever more 2020 might have produced in the world of sports had a pandemic not swept the globe as it did, it's unlikely that it could have rivaled a time a century ago when 1920 truly became a benchmark year in sports. Among the numerous notable events: Babe Ruth signed his first contract with the New York Yankees and changed the face of baseball, the forerunner to the NFL began play, and baseball named its first commissioner. But the many benchmark sporting events during 1920 are of special interest here because they left collectors some of the most sought-after artifacts of any era. We present a few examples:

1 THE BABE TO THE YANKS

The year 1920 was less than a week old when the New York Yankees announced the signing of Babe Ruth after buying the legend-in-waiting from the Boston Red Sox. The sale agreement had been signed in late December 1919 by the owners of the two ballclubs, but it took a few days to get Ruth to agree. What the deal led to was home run records for Ruth (starting with 54 in 1920) and a dynasty for the Yankees (36 pennants and 26 World Series titles in the 20th Century) while Boston fell under a curse that brought 86 years of broken hearts without a World Series trophy.

Babe Ruth sale agreement. Photo: Lelands

Babe Ruth sale agreement. Photo: Lelands

In 1993, Lelands offered the six-page Ruth sale agreement at auction and it sold for $99,000. The most recent sale of the agreement brought a winning bid of $2.3 million in 2017.

2 AKRON PROS WIN FOOTBALL TITLE

The Akron Pros were crowned champions of the American Professional Football League, a forerunner to the NFL. A silver loving cup (donated by the tire division of Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co.) was the team's prize, and what happened to this pre-Super Bowl treasure remains a mystery. All that does remain is a grainy photo of it. 

Akron Pros photographic print: Photo: Love of the Game Auctions

Akron Pros photographic print: Photo: Love of the Game Auctions

A 1920 Akron Pros photographic print, which once hung in Helms Museum in Los Angeles, didn’t receive any bids in a 2018 auction at Love of the Game Auctions.

3 A SHOE FROM MAN O' WAR

Lots of memorabilia remains of the amazing racing career of Man O' War, winner of the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness, and widely considered one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time. Its owner didn’t enter the horse in the Kentucky Derby that year. Near the top of the collectibles list is the saddle the great horse wore in a match race against Triple Crown winner Sir Barton. However, that's on display in the Kentucky Derby Museum. 

Horseshoe from Man O’ War. Photo: Lelands

Horseshoe from Man O’ War. Photo: Lelands

One nice artifact from Man O' War's record of 20 wins in 21 races is a horseshoe worn in one of the races, mounted and framed with a description. That went for a winning bid of $14,298 at a 2017 Lelands auction. Originally, the item was sold to benefit a fund devoted to retired race horses.

4 BOXING'S BIG BOUT

On Oct. 12, 1920, Georges Carpentier defeated Battling Levinsky to win the world light-heavyweight title. The victory was important because it set up a heavyweight championship bout against Jack Dempsey in 1921, which would be boxing's first million-dollar gate. It also was the first heavyweight championship bout attended by large numbers of women. 

1948 Georges Carpentier Leaf card. Photo: PSA

1948 Georges Carpentier Leaf card. Photo: PSA

Dempsey scored a fourth-round KO. Both Dempsey and Carpentier are pictured on cards in the 1948 Leaf set, the former on card No. 1 and the latter on No. 67.

5 WINS & A LOSS FOR INDIANS

With a 98-56 record, Cleveland won its first American League pennant, then beat Brooklyn in the World Series. In Game 3, Indians second baseman Bill Wambaganss was credited with a rare unassisted triple play. But the upbeat season also had a downbeat when Ray Chapman, the Cleveland shortstop, died a day after he was beaned by pitcher Carl Mays. 

Unassisted triple-play glove of Bill Wambaganss. Photo: Lelands

Unassisted triple-play glove of Bill Wambaganss. Photo: Lelands

The glove Wambaganss wore during the triple play sold for $29,375 at a Lelands auction.

6 FOSTER & THE NEGRO LEAGUE

Founded by an historic agreement signed on Feb. 13, the Negro League opened play on May 2 with a game between Indianapolis and the Chicago Giants, not to be confused with the Chicago American Giants, who would win the league's first championship. One of the keys to the league's founding was the great Rube Foster, later enshrined at Cooperstown. 

Circa 1920 Andrew “Rube” Foster cabinet photograph. Photo: Heritage Auctions

Circa 1920 Andrew “Rube” Foster cabinet photograph. Photo: Heritage Auctions

A letter signed by Foster sold at auction by Christie's for $15,000 and a jersey worn by the pioneering player attracted a high bid of $58,152 at SCP Auctions despite some questions over authenticity. A circa 1920 Foster cabinet photograph sold for $2,390 at Heritage Auctions.

7 TENNIS TITLE TO TILDEN

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The first American to win the prestigious singles title at Wimbledon was Bill Tilden, who also won the U.S. Open in 1920. A signed photo of him holding the Wimbledon trophy sold for $71,504 (about $900,000 in today's money) at Christie's in 1992, and one of Tilden's 1933 Goudey Sport Kings cards (No. 116 in the multi-sport set) once changed hands for $10,900. Both sales were long before charges of sexual crimes ruined his reputation.

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8 BOUQUET OF CRIMSON ROSES

A century ago, college football surely had a different look. The nation's top team that year? Try Harvard. The Crimson decided the issue on the first day of 1920 with a 7-6 victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Harvard had been ranked No. 1 in 1919, and the California contest was a big deal, highlighted by a six-day coast-to-coast train ride. 

1920 Rose Bowl postcards. Photo: Robert Edward Auctions

1920 Rose Bowl postcards. Photo: Robert Edward Auctions

Few artifacts have made it to the hobby market, but we found postcards of the teams that sold for $300 at Robert Edward Auctions.

9 WIN ONE FOR THE GIPPER

In 1920, George Gipp became Notre Dame's first football All-American. Before his tragic death just days after his final game for the Fighting Irish, his “Win one for the Gipper” deathbed lament to his coach Knute Rockne has become the symbol of inspiration and has lived long after his passing. 

Notre Dame yearbook with George Gipp and Knute Rockne in football team photo. Photo: Heritage Auctions

Notre Dame yearbook with George Gipp and Knute Rockne in football team photo. Photo: Heritage Auctions

Photos and news clippings of that final game are among highlights in a wonderful scrapbook of Gipp's career that sold for $8,038 at auction. The 1920 Notre Dame “The Dome” Yearbook with Gipp and Rockne in the team photo sold for $388 at Heritage Auctions.

10 FIRST MLB COMMISSIONER

When Judge Kenesaw Landis was selected as Major League Baseball's first commissioner, he began a lengthy term of 24 years in office. A U.S. judge appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, he left the federal bench to restore public confidence in baseball, following the 1919 Black Sox scandal. He did that, and more. 

Signed photo of Judge Kenesaw Landis. Photo: Heritage Auctions

Signed photo of Judge Kenesaw Landis. Photo: Heritage Auctions

Collectors can choose from about 30 Landis cards, including No. 14 in the 1950 Callahan Hall of Fame set. The judge's signatures sell in the $250 to $350 range but much more (up to $3,500 in the price guides) on a baseball. A signed photo at Heritage Auctions sold for $388. 

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